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How to Build Brand Associations

2010 March 24

Why do we buy some things and not others?

Ultimately, it’s not about promoting brand awareness (a term which should be banned from all client briefs) but building the right types of associations.  Moreover, while building powerful brand images is an art, science can help guide our way.

What We Remember and Why

Our brains don’t work like a computer, with separate areas for memory and processing, but as a network of neurons.  It is the linkages between neurons – synapses – that govern what we’re able to think and do.

These pathways can be built either through repetition and long experience, emotional involvement, or an association with existing synapses.  From a business standpoint, emotional associations are far more efficient than repetition (although, practically, you really need both).

As I’ve written before, emotions are like a little yellow highlighter in our brains that says, “Remember this – it’s important.” Therefore, choosing what we associate our brands with is one of the most important decisions we make.


Some associations are ingrained in our genes and hardwired in our brains.  For instance, evolutionary biologist E.O Wilson points out that we have an innate fear of things like snakes, rats and spiders.  However, guns are knives, which are far more deadly, don’t provoke the same visceral reaction.

For a brand launch, or for a brand with low equity, an archetypal association is ideal because archetypes are primal and therefore carry little content.  They can emotionally charge a brand, without running a serious risk of overshadowing it.

This ad for Sony PlayStation by my friend James Sinclair, is a great example of tapping into archetypal emotions and remains one of the most award winning commercials ever (it’s in the Clio Hall of Fame).

Cultural Memes

The drawback to archetypes is that they carry no content, so there’s a limit to how far they will take your brand.  Richard Dawkins, who was influenced by Wilson, pointed out that cultures produce their own units of emotional information.  He called these memes.

Associating your brand with cultural content can be dangerous if you haven’t built up any brand equity.  However, if your brand is somewhat established, it’s a great way to take it to the next level.

We had great success with our news brand, Korrespondent, in Ukraine.  The ad campaign, which came a few months after the Orange Revolution, increased sales by 30% over and above the bump we got from the political crises (and we won an Effie as well!).

What’s interesting here is that the emotional content will be lost on most readers who did not experience the Orange Revolution.  Memes are culture specific.  Nevertheless, the image of an elderly woman wearing an orange scarf at a demonstration was extremely powerful to our target market, which is the only audience that concerned us.

Oliver Harwood Mathews and Mark Waugh of the Newcast division of ZenithOptimedia take the idea of cultural memes a step further.  They propose what they call a “Brand Value Exchange” in which brands facilitate cultural experiences for consumers.

In this highly successful program for O2, consumers get to go to concerts, see special shows and even can win the chance to see their favorite brand backstage.  It’s as innovative approach that creates powerful experiences for the brand to associate with.

Brand Experiences

Some brands are ingrained enough in consumer’s minds that they can actually refer back to consumers own experiences.  This is an approach reserved for the few brands that have built up wealth of synapses that can be built on, much like Proust’s madeleines.

Similar to cultural memes, these associations mean nothing to the uninitiated.  This Guinness commercial reminds brand loyalists that a perfect Guiness only comes to those who wait for a two stage pour.

Winning Share of Synapse

Promoting awareness means nothing unless it takes into account where the brand sits in consumers minds.  In essence, the strength of a brand is directly related to the synapses in consumer’s brains that are dedicated to it.

New brands don’t have any synapses built up and need to associate with basic needs and emotions. Well known brands already have brain pathways dedicated to them and can strengthen those memories by referring to previous brand experiences.

Most brands are somewhere in between and need to relate to cultural memes.  Or, as Harwood-Mathews and Waugh propose, create cultural experiences of their own.

In each case, building new synapses, as well as strengthening ones that already exist, is what building a brand is all about.

Rational Purchase

In the end, a purchase decision is rational (at least for the one who’s paying).

However, we only take into account information that we are aware of and that’s where associations and synapses come in.  They’re shortcuts that pull information into our working memory so that we can use it to make judgments.

It is by building associations that we build a greater share of synapse and through reinforcement that we keep them top of mind.

Rational acts depend on emotional memories

– Greg

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Dick Laurie permalink
    March 25, 2010

    Love the notion of permanently deleting brand awareness as a measurement of communication success, even for new brands and new categories. In my opinion, awareness is a cop-out, an easy-fix because its so easy to measure. However, it’s pretty meaningless, especially for established brands in established markets.

    The biggest channlenge we all face is kicking the habit, where brand awareness is the default selection for measuring a campaigns success.

    There are changes afoot though. The business analysts/econometricians will tell you that many clients are pushing for models directly linking sales to marketing investment efforts. In my opinion, this is a good thing, but only really covers the rationale component (your purchase point at the end) of the total communication equation. The idea of generating brand salience, share of mind, a voluntary engagement are much stronger, more fertile and emotional connections that, if done really well (and you share some great examples) leave (longer) lasting impressions because people are actively connecting with brands as it’s part of who they are and what they do.

    Another great post Greg


  2. March 25, 2010


    Thanks. I agree that brand awareness is overused. However, just to be clear, I think it’s fine as a unit of measure. It’s just worthless in a brief. It’s kind of like saying that a business wants to make money. – true but obviously useless.

    The one exception I would have for putting awareness in a brief is if an econometric model has been built and specific awareness goals are given to help determine media weights.

    – Greg

  3. Dick Laurie permalink
    March 25, 2010

    I’m actually not that convinced about awareness as a unit of measurement. If you’ve achieved 90% brand awareness over time, moving that on in increments is an expensive proposition and to what end? Surely at this stage it’s time to look to other more salient measures of brand success. Just my thoughts, as I’ve seen many multi-market/global brands already maxed out in awareness terms still striving for more.


  4. March 25, 2010


    That’s undeniably true, but you still have brand internals to look at.

    The main point is that people get lazy and take objectives as given. Setting objectives is a crucial strategic activity. For a brand that has a problem with awareness, general brand awareness is a perfectly sensible goal. For a famous brand, then it’s a copout.

    The pertinent question is: Awareness of what and for what purpose?

    I did some work with a fast food brand that did tracking and overall awareness wasn’t as important as internals: i.e. taste, quality, value, cleanliness, etc.

    When brand internals fell, sales would follow. So awareness only makes sense if it addresses a specific problem and an open ended goal such as “we want to raise brand awareness” is completely useless (any campaign would fit that brief).

    – Greg

  5. james morran permalink
    March 29, 2010

    I agree with you. Have you studied Edward Barneys?

  6. james morran permalink
    March 29, 2010

    Edward Barnays?

  7. March 30, 2010


    Nope. Not either:-)

    – Greg

  8. Stuart Nicholson permalink
    March 30, 2010

    I dont think its a case of whether we should have awareness, engagement or whatever else.There is a role for a number of different things in communication, the trick is in identifying what it is that needs to be stimulated in order to produce the consumer action that the client needs at the particular time.

    If a brand is new and there is information that a consumer needs to understand and learn about it to establish whether it is relevant to them, then awareness may well be the priority at that point in time.For mature brands where consumers are familiar with them and know what they do and what they stand for, the job of communication is simply to remind at point of replenishment (as, certainly in FMCG most categories are dominated by reportoire buyers , it is important to ensure that messages are exposed when the buyer is most vulnerable to switching.

    Of course, we are all keen on talking about engagement because effectiveness of mere exposure cannot be assumed any more and there is a need, as described above, which possibly wasnt so neccessary before, to offer a consumer value in return for his willingness to engage with a brand.This is all true.However that engagement and the value exchange doesnt end with purchase.Most companies dont want a consumer to buy just once.In order to ensure re-purchase, the brand needs to overdeliver to its purchaser so that it doesnt merely do what it said on the tin but give more (e.g. offer advice on how to get the most out of a brand/alternative ways to use it, etc.The most enthusiastic and engaged brand consumers can also eventually act as your brand advocates and almost act as unpaid salesmen for the brand.The job here is to feed, in a subtle way, the information to these people that you would like them to say and give them materials and stuff that makes it easier for them to say how good the brand is to a larger number of people than possible previously.

  9. March 30, 2010


    Good to see you back. Thanks for your comments.

    – Greg

  10. Rick Schrynemeeckers permalink
    April 1, 2010

    So how does awareness and association work in highly technical niche markets like special tools for steel mills or environemntal testing services where you are not selling to the masses, but very technical logical audiences?

  11. April 1, 2010


    It would work exactly the same way. Except those types of purchases are usually (but not always) more rational. Those are the kinds of decisions that it’s worth to take a great deal of time to study and people are less likely to take shortcuts.

    Brands are still important, reputation for quality, service, etc. However, a lot more effort goes into verification than it does for a consumer product.

    – Greg

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