Building Distinctive Brand Assets

By Becarren Schultz

If you work in marketing, you’re more than familiar with the need to emphasize your brand’s unique selling proposition. You have to know what sets your company apart from the competition and then play to those strengths.

But it’s a balancing act. You can’t be so different from the rest of your industry that nobody knows what you do. The key is to stand out without being too far out. You want to distance yourself from your competitors, but not the entire industry.

What’s the difference between different and distinct?

Think of the last time you were in an art museum. You don’t need to know much about Impressionist painters to be able to tell a Monet from a Renoir—they’re distinct from each other, but not so very different. The last time you went to an art museum, you probably noticed all the Impressionists were grouped together, while Cubist paintings were displayed alongside other Cubist paintings, and so on. Impressionism and Cubism are different styles of painting, but with distinct artists within each group.

This is what we mean when we say marketers should look for ways to make their brands distinct, without being different. You want people to know immediately that your brand is a bank, but you also want to link your brand to specific products/services.

Building recognition.

It’s common knowledge that:

  • Ace is the place with the helpful hardware man.
  • Burger King is home of the Whopper.
  • A box with a smile-shaped arrow on it means that your Amazon order has arrived, as expected.

This can only be done through strong branding and repetition.

Branding includes assets like your company’s logo, the color (or colors) of that logo, taglines, advertising styles, and even personalities or characters. For example, can you think of Progressive Insurance without thinking of Flo? The company has worked hard to include that character in all their advertising efforts and to present her to the public again and again.

The result? Everyone recognizes Flo and thinks of Progressive Insurance when they see her. That’s branding that sets the company apart as distinct from its competitors. Just like McDonald’s has Ronald McDonald and Disney has Mickey Mouse. These are just a couple examples of companies that have created characters and then worked hard to associate them with their brands.

It’s worth noting here that advertising has to do more than just convince people to buy—it has to take up mental space so that the brand becomes readily available to them. It needs to solidify itself in the minds of consumers so that, when they see something that relates to the brand (whether it’s the logo, the tagline, or a character) they immediately think of the brand, even without naming the brand itself. Think of McDonald’s golden arches or Mickey Mouse’s ears. They’re simple symbols that immediately bring to mind a specific brand. This is what Professor Byron Sharp has famously coined, mental availability. (For more on this, read Byron Sharp’s book, How Brands Grow).

Understanding buying behavior.

Having distinctive brand assets doesn’t guarantee that consumers will buy from that brand, but it does make it more likely. Here’s why. Humans are primed to prefer that which is familiar, which means if they recognize your brand, they’re more likely to buy from you—or at least consider you.

That said, it takes more than recognition to acquire new customers. You also have to make connections between your brand and what it is you’re selling. When you think of chicken nuggets, you probably think of McDonald’s. When you’re craving a Frosty, you might think of Wendy’s.

This is another element of distinction. Chicken McNuggets are just chicken tenders, which are sold in fast food restaurants all over the country. But by linking them with the McDonald’s name (and brand), McDonald’s makes you think of their restaurants when you want chicken nuggets. The same goes for Wendy’s Frosty, which is just a milkshake (another product that’s available at various restaurants all over the country), but by giving their own name for it, they have effectively claimed that particular product as their own.

TD Bank has entered this territory with its “Green Room” campaign. Featuring a series of commercials that portray a funny, relatable financial advisor chatting with customers on a comfy tufted couch, the campaign portrays financial planning at TD Bank as easy and accessible—just as bank customers want it to be. And it turns the distinctive green couch into a potential symbol for the bank’s value proposition.

The importance of consistency.

Finally, you have to consistently deliver on the promises your brand makes. Chicken McNuggets, for example, taste the same in McDonald’s locations all over the country. No matter where you are, you know what you’re getting. The same goes for everything else on their menu. We all have our adventurous sides, but sometimes we want to know exactly what to expect. That’s when we tend to turn to the brands we already know and love. And if reliability in fast food is important to consumers, you can imagine how they feel about financial services.

Think outside the box.

Once you have a strong brand, you can start relating it to things well outside your normal products/services, as long as you make sure to link it back to the brand. A good example of this is the Ronald McDonald House, which helps raise money for children in need. Because McDonald’s has always promoted itself as a family-friendly establishment with things like kid’s meals that make it easy for parents to feed (and entertain) their kids while on the go, it makes sense for the company to support efforts to help children. They strengthened this association by naming the organization after their brand’s character. Now, despite the controversies regarding the quality and nutritional value of McDonald’s food, the Ronald McDonald House has created a halo effect, which casts a more positive light on the restaurant. We could go on about how philanthropy is also good for brands, but that’s a story for another day.

Becarren Schultz is director of client development at Ameritest, a provider of branded content research and communications consulting services. Email: becarren@ameritest.com.

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