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Why you should own distinctive assets such as colours, shapes and even smells

Every great company evokes something to mind. Maybe it’s a slogan, a logo, a classic advertising character, or a signature product feature. In his classic book, How Brands Grow, Byron Sharp of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute calls them distinctive assets.
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A brand’s distinctive assets are anything that brings that brand immediately to mind. A great example would be if you saw John Terry and immediately thought of Chelsea Football Club.

At System1 Research we believe distinctive assets are the most vital things a brand can own. They’re far more important than a brand’s “personality” or even its “unique selling point”. It’s crucial for a brand to identify them, protect them and use them well.

But why are they so important?

The answer lies in the human mind and how it makes choices. Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has shown how we make decisions using two modes of thinking.

System 1 is fast, instinctive and driven by simple rules of thumb. System 2 is much slower and more considered. What Kahneman realised is that System 1 is vastly more powerful and influential – all our decisions are based on instinctive System 1 judgements, and System 2 only rarely intervenes.

What has that got to do with distinctive brand assets?

One of the rules of thumb System 1 uses is pattern recognition. The faster you recognise something, the safer and better a choice it is, according to your System 1 brain. After all, in evolutionary terms, if you recognise something, it hasn’t killed you yet! So things that can be quickly recognised and processed by the brain – the psychological name for this is processing fluency – have a definite advantage when it comes to being chosen. And distinctive assets perform this job for brands. If you recognise a brand quickly, it’s a good choice.

That’s the behavioural science explanation for something marketers instinctively know. Strong visual branding gives you a huge advantage. But at System1, we like to take the idea of distinctive assets a bit further. It’s not just about logos and slogans – great brand assets can be considerably more abstract.

In our recent book, System1: Unlocking Profitable Growth, we explore some of the ways brands have created distinctive assets. Take Coca-Cola, for instance. Every time you watch an ad for Coke, you’ll notice its iconic “Coke Red” colour used prominently, alongside other brand assets like the “Christmas trucks” that show up in its seasonal ads and have become a prominent feature of the holiday season on TV.

It’s not just colour that can do the job. Abstract sound can too – back when carbonated drinks were a relative novelty, iconic British Lemonade brand Schweppes used the Schhhh… of its bottles opening as a sonic trigger. These days, tech companies work to brand tiny snippets of sound – the specific ping of a particular social media notification, or the “Intel chime”, used on millions of PCs.

And distinctive assets can work so well they take the place of the brand itself. Could you name the world’s biggest selling soy sauce brand, Kikkoman? Maybe not, but everyone who’s visited a Chinese or Japanese restaurant could probably spot its distinctive flash-shaped bottle and red cap. That’s an example of a brand that’s made shape into a distinctive asset.

Even smell can work: if you’re lucky enough to fly Singapore Airlines, you’ll be treated to their unique scent, as they’re one of many airlines looking to “brand” the space on board their planes via smell.

As a small business, you don’t have the resources of a Coke or Singapore Airlines. But you do have distinctive assets – things your customers can instantly associate with you. It’s well worth thinking about what they are and how you might align your marketing to feature them more prominently.

It might be a quirky name, or a charismatic founder. But it might equally be a colour, shape, sound or even smell. If you own the association, you make yourself easier to recognise – and easier to buy.

Tom Ewing is a senior director at System1 Group, and co-author of new book System1: Unlocking Profitable Growth. It is out now, priced £12.99. For more information see www.System1Group.com

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