Brand Salience, Positioning, and Meaning: Key Concepts to Help Brands Stand Out from the Crowd
By Michael Box on February 26, 2018
To build your brand and stand out from the crowd, it's important to increase brand awareness. But it's also important to consider brand identity. Then there's brand reach and brand penetration. Don't forget brand differentiation and brand equity. There's a litany of interlocking and overlapping "brand" concepts out there: brand personality, brand extension, brand affinity . . .
Clearly, there is a problem with terminology in the study of brands. And if a brand is trying to stand out from the crowd, it can be difficult to know where to start. But why are there so many of these brand concepts? This answer lies in the nature of "brands."
What Is a Brand?
According to Forbes, a brand "is what your prospect thinks of when he or she hears your brand name . . . your brand exists only in someone's mind."
So a brand is a thought. Think about that for a moment.
When we talk about the "science" of brands, how to build your brand, and the associated terminology, we're dealing with imprecise concepts in the realm of perception and psychology rather than anything directly tangible. That doesn't mean we abandon the study. Just because a concept isn't precise or tangible doesn't mean it's not useful or powerful.
But if a brand is just a thought, how do you build your brand?
In cognitive psychology, "salience" refers to what is most prominent or noticeable. According to Oxford Reference, the term describes how "our attention is drawn to intense stimuli such as bright lights, loud noises, saturated colors, and rapid motion."
Salience is clearly an important concept for brands that want to stand out. Not to be confused with top-of-mind awareness-the brand that comes to mind (for good or bad reasons) when a consumer is asked to recall a brand within a category-brand salience is "the degree to which your brand is thought about or noticed when a customer is in a buying situation." That is, when it counts, do your customers know who you are?
Beyond simply getting noticed, brand salience is crucial for a more subtle reason. It turns out people are not the rational, utility-maximizing creatures in the way traditional economists and marketers once thought. According to a study by Kantar Millward Brown, "consumers rely on mental shortcuts or heuristics when they make their brand decisions. One such heuristic is to assign greater importance to things that have ready mental availability, the effect of which is to choose the most salient brand."
Because of this, Byron Sharp, author of How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don't Know, says that the pursuit of differentiation and segmentation is not as useful as "creating memorable and consistent brand assets that trigger an instinctive response when they're seen or heard at critical purchase moments-in other words, they should focus on brand salience."
While it's clear that brand salience is crucial in consumer purchasing psychology (Ketchup? I'll just go with Heinz), it's not clear that brand salience is the only factor in B2B buying situations, where more stakeholders are involved in a longer buying cycle. Nonetheless, if you can create memorable and consistent brand assets that trigger an instinctive response in a purchasing situation, you're well on your way to standing out from the crowd and beating the competition.
If salience is about who you are, positioning is about what you are.
Brand positioning is the "space that you confidently occupy in the market and the minds of consumers." Of course, it's not about finding any old space. According to an article in the Journal of Marketing Management, positioning is "all about creating the optimal location in the minds of existing and potential customers so that they think of the brand in the 'right way’" [emphasis mine].
Brand positioning is a metaphor that might not have been. In 1969, Al Ries and Jack Trout proposed that every ad should be based on an unshakeable idea called "the rock”- something that (unlike the exaggerated claims of traditional ads) audiences could not question. In time, Jack suggested that positioning was a stronger metaphor as it spoke of the position of the concept in the consumers' mind, but it's worth bearing in mind this foundational concept of "the rock." What is it about your brand that is indisputable?
In his book Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy gave a telling example:
"In Norway, the SAAB car had no measurable profile. We positioned it as a car for winter. Three years later it was voted the best car for Norwegian winters."
According to Josh Samuel, head of global innovations at Kantar Millward Brown, "Building salience and creating a brand positioning that drives affinity are both key to maximising marketing effectiveness." Clearly, both brand salience and brand positioning are necessary to stand out from the crowd. But is there more to the story than being noticed and being different?
According to Havas Group's 2017 Meaningful Brands report, if 74 percent of brands disappeared, their users would not care. In the same study, we learn that meaningful brands outperformed the stock market by 206 percent from 2006 to 2016. If you want to be a brand of choice, it's not enough to stand out and stake out a position (a difficult proposition in many increasingly commoditized markets). Your brand better be meaningful.
That's why, according to Kantar Millward Brown, "many marketers have embraced the idea that brands have to build relationships with consumers, so they have worked to make their brands meaningful, usually by improving product perceptions and strengthening emotional affinity."
Aside from product questions, buyers in B2B and B2C situations are are asking questions about what a brand stands for. Is this product or service ethical? What's the ecological footprint? Are the employees treated well? Who does the brand work with? Of course, brands that are perceived to behave unethically are vulnerable to boycotts and bad PR. But there's more: Not only must brands behave ethically, they are increasingly expected to take a stand on important political and social issues. This is part and parcel of authentic brand storytelling: If a brand story about, say, its commitment to the environment aligns with the story of its audience, then those authentic relationships will develop naturally.
Putting It Together
So how do brands put salience, positioning, and meaning together? By giving the audience what they want. Per Havas, 75 percent of respondants in the Meaningful Brands survey expect brands to make a contribution to their wellbeing and quality of life, but only 40 percent think brands are doing so. Moreover, 84 percent expect content from brands, but they report that 60 percent of that content "is poor, irrelevant or fails to deliver." The way to meet these expectations is to produce quality, relevant, engaging content. If brands can create regular content that genuinely uplifts the audience and addresses their needs, they can stand out (salience), stake out a position (positioning), and communicate their brand story (meaning). That's how to stand out from the crowd.
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Featured image attribution: Desertrose7