Branding is an inseparable aspect of any product or service on the market and a critical vehicle to establish consumer preference and competitive advantage. As a result a lot has been written about the topic and the many functions of branding attempting to acclaim one as the main purpose of branding in its entirety. Usually, these articles don’t dig deep enough, however, and end up arguing for something that only applies to certain contexts.
In this article, I’ve attempted to remedy that by focusing on the fundamental level which applies to all brands. There I strongly believe that the main purpose of branding is to create salient memory structures.
We will dive into this primary purpose of branding and cover how to build salient memory structures that influence consumer behavior and drive sales and profits.
The primary purpose of branding
By now you’ve probably the adage “branding is not just your logo”. While true, articles and social media posts headlining this statement then go on to list many things like creating relationships, building loyalty, or ironically having a brand purpose (the purpose is having a purpose? I don’t think so).
While all of these can be true for some brands in certain contexts, we can not say that these constitute a main purpose of branding as we can’t apply them to all brands. The main purpose of branding is to build and maintain salient memory structures that are linked to your brand and get activated in purchase situations so that your brand comes to mind and the right time, is more likely to be bought, and increases profit for your company. Make no mistake, the ultimate goal of branding is to earn money for the business.
“Bring the brand to mind – among as many people as often, and as positively as possible – and you will win growth.”Mark Ritson in MarketingWeek
It’s important to emphasize salient memory structures. To obtain that, your brand needs many memory links that are strongly related to your brand so that it effectively sits at the center of its own branch of an associative memory network in consumers’ minds.
How to build salient memory structures
There are three essential aspects when it comes to building memory structures: attention, distinctiveness, and reach (i.e., widespread distribution).
You can not build memory structures if people don’t notice you. You need to grab attention so that consumers can process your message and form memories and their own associations. Don’t get too wrapped up in the exact associations people form. It’s very hard to control as we all interpret things through our own contextual filters. For example, a study of over 3,000 consumers of product and service brands found that the brand associations consumers form rarely sync up to those intended by marketers. But the authors note that this does not have to be a negative thing.1Koll, O., & von Wallpach, S. (2014). Intended brand associations: Do they really drive consumer response? Journal of Business Research, 67(7), 1501–1507. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2013.06.010
Next, your brand assets must also be distinctive. Distinctive assets have a much better chance of triggering the memory structures marketers strive to build. It allows people to quickly identify the source of the message they are exposed to. Essentially, your distinctive assets are the non-name elements that trigger the brand name in people’s minds.
Distinctive assets can be:
- Color palettes
- Packaging designs
- Advertising styles
I talk about this on a micro basis because it is simpler that way but in reality distinctiveness and most branding work operates in the macro. Which brings us to reach.
You need reach so that your memory building efforts have a real impact on your bottom line, also to build distinctive assets. For an asset to become distinctive consumers must see it consistently over time across various type of media.2Sharp, B., & Romaniuk, J. (2015). How Brands Grow. Oxford University Press Australia & New Zealand.
In conclusion, branding is about creating memory structures that lead to sales which increase profitability. To create memory structures, you need to grab attention, have distinctive brand assets and have enough reach so that the common ideas you are trying to establish penetrate a decent portion of the market. This is the main purpose of branding that applies to all brands regardless of their size, industry or location. However, there is a lot of space for variability inside each of these aspects. For example, brands have many roles for the consumer which can all be used to build associations in unique ways.
- 1Koll, O., & von Wallpach, S. (2014). Intended brand associations: Do they really drive consumer response? Journal of Business Research, 67(7), 1501–1507. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2013.06.010
- 2Sharp, B., & Romaniuk, J. (2015). How Brands Grow. Oxford University Press Australia & New Zealand.