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 customers' positive perception of your brand — without tracking brand association, that is.
To discover what comes to mind when consumers think of specific brands, brand association goes beyond the traditional KPIs of awareness, consideration, and preference. It’s all about the specific characteristics and qualities people link to your brand. Insights into brand association are key to informing future marketing activities — but where 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 associations then become rooted in the minds of consumers and are what differentiate one brand from another — providing reasons to remain loyal to certain brands.
Let’s give it a go. What comes to mind when you think about Coca-Cola? Do you think of fun, excitement, and happiness?
And another: What about when you think of Audi? Do you think of words like expensive, fast, high-quality, or cool? How does that differ from the way you think of the brand BMW? Or Volkswagen?
These are all examples of brand associations.
Yet, brand associations are not inherently positive. Negative brand associations can also exist and do a great deal of damage to 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 brand campaigns, you encourage consumers to draw conclusions about the qualities and traits of your brand. In time and with prolonged exposure to brand touchpoints and products, these qualities should become cemented in consumers’ perception of your brand.
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.
Among other marketing activities, marketing and brand campaigns, products, advertizing, press releases, and launch events 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, receives unfavorable reviews or criticism, or makes a cultural blunder, negative brand associations are often formed.
If these situations aren’t effectively managed and mitigated — say they’re given extra mileage through press coverage or viral social media posts — the damage can be particularly harmful.
Several luxury brands have 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 extremely negative brand associations that are nearly impossible to fully recover from.
You can work to prevent negative brand association by being aware of current events, social, and cultural issues, as well as by working hard to create and maintain positive brand associations.
The Foundations of Brand Association
In order to build and maintain positive brand associations for your brand, the following elements are key.
1. Visuals and Design
The visual components of your brand — such as your 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, allowing them to be present at every brand touchpoint.
However, using visual design to reinforce certain brand qualities requires a nuanced understanding of how these visual cues will be understood by your target audience. Various colors, symbols, and shapes can have different meanings.
Finally, visual branding is not limited to graphic design alone. Consider the confectionery brand Toblerone. Its 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 large role in building brand association, with the shape and design coming to mind when consumers think of the brand.
When it comes to language, your choice of words and tone of voice provide further tools for building brand association.
Consider the associations you want for your brand and then figure out how you can use language to achieve them.
If you want your brand to appeal to parents, use 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 such language, which increases the strong connection consumers’ have between such language and the Disney brand.
Personification — the use of figurative language to give inanimate objects human-like characteristics — is another example of how brands can foster certain brand associations.
Do you remember the iconic “I’m a Mac” campaign by Apple?
This clever and memorable campaign showed actors depicting 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. This way, when consumers think of a Mac, they associate it with a younger, cooler man.
What Are The Benefits of Brand Association in 2022?
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:
1. Make It Memorable
Brand association helps people remember your brand and its unique qualities, including those that differentiate you 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 that want to create a memorable association. When people think of Coca-Cola, a mental image of the iconic red and white logo is likely to come to mind — who could forget that?
2. Give 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. Its brand association evokes concepts such as “athletics”, “yoga”, “health”, “purpose”, and even “community”. These associations may resonate strongly with certain consumers, and give them an edge over other brands that haven’t built such strong brand associations.
3. 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 help form the brand’s identity in our minds. Therefore, Red Bull goes from being a unique-tasting soft drink with a hit of caffeine to something that provides a great deal more emotive feeling.
Through brand association, Red Bull becomes an incredibly powerful and meaningful personality. Building brand association keeps a brand alive and even enables it to engage in activities, brand partnerships, and projects that go entirely beyond the product category.
4. Create positive feelings and attitudes about your brand
Have you ever heard someone say “I just love (insert brand name here)”?
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.
5. Create opportunities to leverage your brand to new products and services
When the 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 and empowerment. By championing women, Bumble was able to link its brand to progressive ideals.
This allowed the brand to seamlessly launch additional products, including Bumble BFF and Bumble Biz — respectively for female friendship and for business networking that keeps women in the driver’s seat.
Had the app centered its identity around traditional dating, these new products may not have made as much sense to consumers. Instead, they may have questioned why a dating app would attempt to go in the direction of platonic, female friendships.
6. Foster loyalty and long-term brand legacy
Apple has worked hard to create powerful brand associations, which have enabled the brand to develop an iconic identity and extremely loyal customers all over the world.
People associate Apple with ideas and attributes such as “smart”, “user-friendly”, “creative”, “cool”. The connection with these terms is so strong that it’s allowed Apple to charge a premium price compared to competitors.
When people are willing to pay more for a product simply because it’s part of your brand, you know you’ve built some powerful brand associations.
How To Track Brand Association
How do you find out whether or not your target audience associates your brand with the positive attributes and ideals you’ve worked hard to foster?
Below you’ll find the best methods for tracking and measuring brand association.
1. Surveys and Focus Groups
Discover the words, concepts, and feelings people associate with your brand by conducting surveys and focus groups with the general population and those that represent your target audience.
By speaking directly to consumers and capturing their thoughts and ideas, you can gain valuable insights into how your brand is perceived and the traits associated with your brand.
However, be mindful of response bias — people may give inaccurate answers when they are asked questions directly. Furthermore, while focus groups can be costly to run, there are plenty of affordable online tools you can use to run surveys.
2. Search Engine Insights
When searching for brands on Google, people usually use a combination of terms.
By analyzing these combinations, you can gain insight into the mental connections that consumers are frequently making between brands and various topics or ideas. You can also identify how and even when consumers think about a brand.
To access this data, type your brand name into Google Trends to see related queries and topics and whether consumers are making the connections that you want 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.
3. Brand Tracking Tools
Brand tracking is one of the most comprehensive ways to monitor brand association. It allows you to determine if your target audience is linking your brand to the positive brand associations you’re building with marketing activities.
By asking your target audience “Which of the following do you associate with (BRAND NAME)?”, you can track the associations and imagery they most link to your brand. This allows marketing teams to understand brand perception and primary associated attributes. Whether positive or negative, you’ll be able to see what consumers strongly and frequently associate with your brand and its products.
It’s also possible to track the same brand associations for competitors to see where your brand is winning or losing. You can also use brand tracking software to identify key areas where your brand can grow and overtake the competition.
Check out Rebuy to learn more about a brand that benefitted from tracking brand associations.
Uncovering brand associations allows you to reinforce and nurture the positive associations you want for your brand.
Over time, the insights gleaned from tracking brand association will prove key to improving and strengthening consumers’ perceptions of your brand. They can help you design strategies and craft tactics to address negative associations.
The next step? Use the advice outlined in this article to identify your brand’s current associations and work on molding them into what you want. For a deeper look into tracking brand associations, check out The Ultimate Guide to Brand Associations.