Strategic Brand Building - What Does The Science Say?

What does it take to build a successful brand?

People have been taking about this decades, but now neuroscience, marketing science and behavioural economics have added another level of understanding.

But what does it all say...simply??

I have you covered.

Read on for all the latest on how to build a strategic brand.

Written for people who are not neuroscientists.

Strategic Brand Building - The Scientific Approach

Decades ago, Walter Landor, the founder of one of the world’s largest and oldest brand consulting firms (where I cut my teeth on brand strategy) said:

“Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind.”

Neuroscience now proves this out: brands exist in our minds as a complex network of nodes that hold pieces of information.  

Michael Platt at Wharton calls this the 'Brand Connectome'.

He calls it this to reflect the efforts to build the ‘Human Connectome’ - a “complete map of the neural connections in a brain.”

Brand connectomes are just a small part of this whole map.

Want to illustrate this for someone?

The easiest way to bring this to life is through a simple 90 second exercise.

Ask people to draw a circle and write Coca-Cola in the middle.

Then give them 90 seconds to write down anything that comes to mind when they think of Coca-Cola, and capture their answers in circles connected to the one in the middle.

Just like this:

Is this really going to capture everything in their 'Coke brand connectome?'  Of course not. 

But it immediately gives you a picture of a network of associations and assets that can help you illustrate what a brand is.

Why is this important?

Well, the brands that have the most extensive, positive set of connected associations in our brains (the best ‘brand connectomes’) are the ones that we grab instinctively.

How do we know this? 

The human mind has shortcuts (called heuristics) that overtake our rational decision-making process.  This is called System 1 thinking, and it comes from the nobel-prize-winning work of Daniel Kahneman

Our brains don’t slowly analyse the 30,000 brands within a supermarket, assess the rational pros and cons of each, and then make a choice.  
We’d never get out of there!  

The harsh reality is that we screen out most of the options and have ‘go-to’ brands that we grab (if we’re in the supermarket), or that become our shortlist of options if we’re making a bigger purchase.

Here’s a question I ask people to help them understand this: 

Imagine I sent you a bank transfer for $50,000, and you had to use it to buy a new car.   Which brand of car would you buy?   

Bet you came up with an answer, or at least a shortlist, almost immediately.

And I bet there were at least 10 well known car brands that weren’t on the list, despite them having high-performing models of cars in the same price bracket.

Your automatic, ‘System 1’ thinking generated this immediate shortlist without you having to think about it. 

But what you were doing, without thinking deeply about it, was tapping into those stronger brand connectomes in your mind.

Strong brand connectomes make it onto our shortlists and into our baskets. 

‘Brands with richer and more positive mental networks provide more mental cues at the moment of choice and, as a result, have larger market shares.' (IPSOS)  

Here’s an illustration of that from the IPSOS study:

Their R&D shows that Apple has the strongest and most diverse network of associations – and the density of this network of associations is closely linked to market share. 

What does this mean for strategic brand-building?

For a brand to get new customers and grow, you have to work on getting noticed and thought of in people’s minds in their buying situations.

You’ve got to at least get on the shortlist.

Byron Sharp, in How Brands Grow, calls this ‘mental availability’/’brand salience’: the propensity for a brand to be noticed and thought of in buying situations.

“Brand salience depends on a brand’s share of people’s minds... the quantity and quality of memory links to and from a brand.”
Byron Sharp, How Brands Grow

It all comes back to that 'brand connectome'.

So what do you want to build in any 'brand connectome'? 

Well, there are two big things you’ll see from doing that exercise on Coca-Cola. 

You’ll see associations and assets.

And this is really all a brand is.  A set of associations and assets in people’s minds.

Here’s an illustration of my Coca-Cola connectome.


Coke has associations with happiness and refreshment in my mind. And that’s no accident. They’ve spent years and millions of dollars consistently marketing these concepts.

This hasn’t just been through global campaigns like 'Open Happiness’ that ran for 6 years.

It’s also through things like visual assets - like constantly showing Coke with ice and drips down the can, indicating refreshment.

And don’t forget all of the distribution deals they’ve done: it’s not by accident either that they’re the brand of soft drink available at Disney World.  They'e been a partner there since 1955.

They’ve also done a very consistent and comprehensive job of creating distinctive brand assets that help to trigger these associations.

What are distinctive brand assets?

For Coca-Cola they’re things like:

  1. The Coca-Cola wordmark.
  2. The bottle shape (the brief for which was to design a 'bottle so distinct that you would recognise it by feel or lying broken on the ground.’)
  3. The red colour.
  4. Advertising characters (polar bears, Father Christmas).
  5. The use of music (the holidays are coming, I’d like to teach the world to sing..)

They are incredibly careful with the use of these assets – as you can see in their recent development of their wordmark into a ‘hug’ shape. (For a behind the scenes deep dive into how they refreshed the brand watch this from KnownUnnown).

Why are these assets important? 

For two main reasons.

  1. They help the brand be easily found in a shopping environment - if they’re done right (i.e. if they’re actually distinctive and familiar to people). 
  2. They are how new brand associations get put into the brand connectome bit of your memory.

As Jenni Romaniuk highlights, in her book, Building Distinctive Brand Assets,

“When the stimuli combination changes from all familiar to something familiar and something new, the familiar part of the stimuli anchors the experience, and the novel component will become attached at this node in memory.”   

Like this McDonald’s ad, created by Leo Burnett London.

They use one of McDonald’s distinctive brand assets (the arches) that we’re immediately familiar with to ‘anchor us’ – we know immediately what the brand is without even needing the name – this is the familiar bit.

And they want you to know that they deliver, which is the new thing they want you to associate with McDonald’s.

This example highlights one of the things you’re trying to embed in the brand connectome – 'category entry points.’ 

What are category entry points?

This might all sound like a load of jargon, but all it means is that it’s not enough to build a brand around something you want to say about it.

Like, “Big Macs are tasty”.

You also need to embed some associations that represent what the buyer is thinking about that your brand can be an answer to.   

In this case, the typical buyer’s 'entry point' to getting a McDonald’s delivery isn’t a sudden thought of, “I fancy a Big Mac”.  It’s, “I don’t fancy cooking tonight – shall we get a take-out?”

And the next thought McDonald’s want you to have is, “Ooo – we could get a McDonald’s – they deliver now.”

Or you’re at a café, it’s hot and you want a refreshing drink.  Coke want you to think of them as the answer to that need, hence them talking about, and showing, refreshment.

(For more on category entry points jump into Byron Sharp's book, How Brands Grow).

Distinctive brand assets also help to refresh the other associations you want the brand to stand for in people’s minds.  Those bigger brand ideas like happiness, safety, love – whatever it is that you’ve identified as the answer to the questions in your brand strategy.

What about emotional brand building stuff?

Up to this point you might think that brand-building is a very rational exercise.

  1. You identify what associations you want to build in people’s minds.
  2. You create some distinctive brand assets - to help to get you noticed, refresh those associations and anchor new ones.
  3. Using both well in communications strengthens and grows the brand connectome in your customer’s minds.
  4. Which will ensure your brand leaps to mind in a buying situation, gets chosen, and increases revenue.

But the final part you need to understand is the critical role of emotion in the mix.

In the super book ‘Look Out’, Orlando Wood identifies that increasing ‘mental availability’ – actually getting noticed and remembered – requires ‘broad-reach’, long-term, brand-building advertising.

Drawing on the ground-breaking work of Iain McGilchrist on brain lateralisation (the way the right brand and left brain do things differently) he shows that this sort of advertising is effective if it gets the attention of our right brain hemisphere.

“In almost every case, what is new must first be presented in the right hemisphere, before it can come into focus for the left.”
Iain McGilchrist

And getting the attention of the right brain requires tapping into a more emotional strategy.

Brand-building campaigns work best when they adopt an emotional strategy. Emotional response plays an important role in orientating and sustaining attention. It also helps to place experiences firmly in long-term memory - to imprint them in the flesh. Moreover, it helps us to decide for or against something in the future when the time comes — to conjure up a feeling for or against a certain course of action, to create a somatic marker, as neuroscientist Antonio Damasio puts it.
Orlando Wood, Look Out

The importance of emotion in brand-building is the reason that McDonald’s also runs ads like this one. 

It uses characters, with a scene unfolding, melodic music, implicit and unspoken communication, spontaneous changes in facial expression: all hallmarks of things Wood, TVision and System 1 have identified help to keep our attention.

McDonald’s invest in this not to anchor rational associations of ‘McDonalds and carrots’ in our brains, but to embed a positive feeling about McDonald’s, 

These positive feelings are important because they tap right back into that System 1 automatic thinking again. 

“If a brand comes easy to mind, feels good, is easy to recognise, it is to our fast and frugal minds a good choice.”
‘Look out’,  Orlando Wood 

Michael Platt’s brain imaging research also shows that:

“Brands that create strong, positive emotional connections with their customers generate feelings of empathy and personal identity in the brain. This difference predicts stronger loyalty and less churn.”

So the latest books and studies in neuroscience, marketing science, psychiatry and behavioural economics tell us a few things about brand building.

  1.  Brands exist in our minds as a complex network of nodes that hold pieces of information – sometimes called a brand connectome.
  2.  Your job as a brand-builder is to create dense, positive brand connectomes in your current and potential buyers’ minds so your brand becomes the automatic choice – or at least becomes one of a shortlist a buyer would choose between.
  3.  Distinctive brand assets help to build these connectomes, as does the use of emotion in advertising.

And where does all this start?

By making a decision on what you want the associations in people's minds to be.

It all starts with brand strategy.

(And you can get started on that right here).

Want to read more on the topics covered above?

Check out:

Bryon Sharp’s: How Brands Grow

Jenni Romaniuk's: Building Distinctive Brand Assets

Orlando Wood’s: Look Out

Daniel Kahnemann: Thinking Fast and Slow

Iain McGilchrist: The Master and His Emissary

Michael Platt: Cracking the Code on Brand Growth

IPSOS: Innovation and Knowledge Publications

And if you want to learn how to create brand strategies with clarity and confidence: jump into Brand Strategy Academy.


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