While brand awareness refers to a person’s ability to recall a brand when prompted by a specific category or cue, brand association goes beyond that. Everything from a marketing campaign to a product itself is designed to reinforce a brand’s identity. Yet it’s difficult to know whether this translates to the customers' positive perception of the brand — without tracking brand association, that is.
Brand association goes beyond awareness, consideration, and even usage to discover what consumers think of when they consider a specific brand. It is all about the specific characteristics and qualities people link to your brand. Insights into brand association are key to informing future marketing activities — but how do you get the information you need? This article explores how you can track brand association and use it to the benefit of your own brand.
What is Brand Association?
When people think of a specific brand, certain qualities or characteristics come to mind. These brand associations become rooted in the minds of consumers and are what differentiate one brand from another, providing reasons to purchase from the preferred brand and not the other.
Try it now. What do you think of when you think about Coca-Cola? Do you think of fun, excitement, and happiness? What comes to mind when you think of Audi? Do you think of words like expensive, fast, quality, or cool? How does that differ from when you think of the brand BMW? Or Volkswagen? These are all examples of brand associations.
Yet, brand association is not inherently positive. Negative brand association can also exist and damage a brand’s reputation. It’s important to be aware of the brand associations connected to your brand and ensure they align with your brand’s core identity, message, and values.
As a brand/marketing manager, brand association helps to communicate information about your brand and demonstrate how your brand is different from competitor brands. Based on the set of unique visual, auditory, or even tactile cues you present in your campaigns, you encourage consumers to draw conclusions about the qualities and traits of your brand. In time, with prolonged exposure to brand touchpoints or with multiple interactions with your brand and its products, these qualities would become cemented in consumer’s perception of your brand itself. Let’s explore how you can build brand association in a positive way.
How is Brand Association Built?
Brand association is formed both intentionally, through the efforts of brand managers and marketers, and, unintentionally, through events and attitudes outside of a company’s control.
Marketing and brand campaigns, products, advertising, press releases and launch events, among other marketing activities, are all designed to establish and foster a brand’s identity and related brand associations.
Procter & Gamble made clever use of strategic branding activities when they reinvented men’s grooming brand Old Spice, using celebrity endorsement, humor, and playfulness to successfully establish new brand associations in the minds of consumers as humorous and edgy. In this case, deliberate efforts were made to move away from the existing brand association and image.
When a brand is involved in a negative event or disaster, receives unfavorable reviews or criticism, or makes a cultural blunder, negative brand association can be formed. If these situations aren’t effectively managed and mitigated, or if they’re given extra mileage through press coverage or viral social media posts, the damage can be particularly harmful. Several luxury brands have been made incredibly ill-informed choices over recent years when it comes to topics of race, using offensive imagery and blackface. These missteps can cause irreversible damage and create negative brand association that’s difficult to recover from.
You can work to prevent negative brand association by being aware of current events and social and cultural issues and by working hard to create and maintain positive brand association.
The Foundations of Brand Association
The following elements are key to building brand association for your brand.
Visuals and Design
The visual components of a brand, such as the logo, colors, design elements, images, and typeface, are crucial to your brand identity and are powerful tools for building brand association. Unlike sound or tactile cues, visual elements can be applied across a multitude of platforms and formats, so that they’re present at every brand touchpoint.
Using visual design to reinforce certain brand qualities requires an understanding of how these visual cues will be understood by your target audience. Different colors, symbols, and shapes can have very different meanings.
Visual branding is not limited to graphic design. Consider the confectionery brand Toblerone. The iconic triangular oblong shape is unique to this brand, and it’s cleverly incorporated into the design of the packaging and the product itself. This strong visual characteristic plays a big role in building brand association, with the shape and design coming to mind when consumers think of the brand.
Your choice of words and brand tone of voice provide further tools for building brand association. Consider the associations you want to link your brand to and seek to make links to language. If your brand should appeal to parents, link your brand to language that’s already associated with this role. Care, playfulness, love, learning, home, relationships, and so on.
Consider how Disney utilizes terms such as magical, dreams, and fantasy. The brand never misses an opportunity to use these words that are so strongly connected to the brand. This drives home the strong brand association of the Disney brand and what it stands for.
Personification — the use of figurative language to give inanimate objects human-like characteristics — is another example of how brands can form brand association. Can you remember the iconic “I’m a Mac” campaign by Apple?
The clever and memorable campaign showed actors playing two different characters that embodied the personification of a Mac computer and a PC. The Mac was young, laid back, stress-free, and cool, while the PC was neurotic, older, and a tad on the stiff side. While there’s no evidence to suggest that Mac-users or PC-users embody these personas, the point of the campaign was to demonstrate the personality of the brand itself, so that when consumers think of a Mac, they literally think of the younger, cooler man.
What Are The Benefits of Brand Association?
At the crux of it, positive brand association can help you drive sales and get an edge over your competitors. By assisting customers to remember your brand and recall its characteristics, brand association makes the buying process much easier.
Brand association can benefit your brand in the following ways:
Make It Memorable
Brand association helps people to remember your brand and its unique qualities, including those that differentiate it from your competitors. By fostering familiarity and reinforcing recognizable attributes, brand association provides customers with concepts, visuals, and attitudes that can help facilitate brand recall. The use of color can be an important tool for brands wanting to create memorable association. When people think of Coca-Cola, they’re likely to have a mental image of the iconic red and white logo — who could forget that?
A Reason To Buy
By giving your brand meaningful and memorable attributes, brand association provides consumers with reasons to purchase your products and services. Consider a brand like Lululemon. Brand association evokes ideas such as “athletics”, “yoga”, “health”, “purpose”, and even “community”. These associations may resonate strongly with a certain consumer, and, particularly, more than a brand that hasn’t built strong brand association.
Reinforce Your Brand Identity
Much of a brand’s identity lives in the minds of consumers. When we think of a brand like Red Bull, we think of ideas like “gives you wings”, “adventure”, “daring”, and “thrilling”. These associations form the brand’s identity in our minds and it goes from being a unique-tasting soft drink that gives you a hit of caffeine to having a whole lot more emotive feeling. The brand becomes an incredibly powerful and meaningful personality. Building brand association keeps the brand alive and even enables it to engage in activities, brand partnerships, and projects that go entirely beyond the product category.
Create positive feelings and attitudes about your brand
Have you ever heard someone say “I just love this brand”? Connecting your brand with a concept that gives people something to aspire to, be inspired by, or identify with can contribute to how positively your brand is viewed. Consider Patagonia, a brand that has worked hard and made bold moves to demonstrate that it lives by its own values as a purpose-driven company. Patagonia’s customers know they can trust the brand and its products to deliver solutions to their needs as well as giving them a sense of social responsibility.
Create opportunities to leverage your brand to new products and services
When popular dating app Bumble launched, it generated a lot of buzz (pun intended) because, unlike Tinder, it gave control to women. Leaving it up to the gals to make the first move on a dating app created a sense of agency, empowerment, and championing women — ideas that have become linked to the brand via brand association. This allowed the brand to seamlessly launch additional products, including Bumble BFF and Bumble Biz, for female friendship and for business networking that keeps women in the driver’s seat. Had the app centered its identity around the idea of dating, this step may not have made as much sense to consumers, who may have questioned why a dating app would attempt to go in the direction of platonic relationships?
Foster loyalty and long-term brand legacy
Apple has worked hard to create powerful brand association that has enabled it to develop an iconic legacy with extremely loyal customers all over the world. People associate Apple with ideas and attributes like “smart”, “user-friendly”, “creative”, “cool”, and the connection is so strong that it’s allowed Apple to charge a premium price over competitors. When people are willing to pay more for your product simply for the brand, you know you’ve built strong brand association.
How To Track Brand Association
How do you find out whether your target audience has the positive brand association you have worked hard to build? Below are the best methods for tracking brand association.
Surveys and Focus Groups
Discover the words, concepts, and feelings people associate with your brand by conducting surveys and focus groups with general consumers and those that represent your target audience.
By speaking directly to people and capturing their thoughts and ideas, you can gain valuable insights into how your brand is perceived and the nature of the traits associated with your brand. Be mindful of response bias — people may give inaccurate answers when they are asked questions directly. Focus groups can be costly to run, but there are plenty of affordable tools to run online surveys.
Search Engine Insights
When searching for brands in Google, people usually use a combination of terms. By looking at these combinations, we can gain insights into the mental connections that are most frequently made between brands and various topics and ideas and get a reflection of how and even when consumers think about a brand.
Type your brand into Google Trends to see related queries and topics and see whether consumers are making the connections that you intend them to make. Using this tool, you can also run searches on your brand’s competitors, to assess how their brand associations compare to your own.
Brand Tracking Services
Brand tracking is one of the most comprehensive ways to monitor brand association. A tool like Latana allows you to determine if your target audience has actually linked your brand with the positive brand associations you are building in your marketing activities.
By asking your target audience “Which of the following do you associate with ?”, you can track the associations and imagery they most associate with your brand. This allows marketing teams to understand brand perception and the primary attributes, whether positive or negative, that people most strongly and frequently associate with a brand and its products.
It is also possible to track the same brand associations for competitors to see where you brand is winning/losing, but also to identify key areas where your brand can grow and overtake the competition.
Uncovering brand associations allows you both to reinforce and nurture the positive associations you want for your brand. In the long term, the insights provided from tracking brand association will be key to improving and strengthening consumers’ perceptions. It can help you to design strategies and tactics to address negative associations.
Use the advice provided in this article to figure out your brand’s current association and work on molding it into what you want. To take the next step in your journey toward tracking brand associations, check out The Ultimate Guide to Brand Tracking.