From those who claim to have the ‘selling solution’ that magically unlocks ‘unlimited growth’ for your brand, right through to the brand consultants promising a complex ‘brand pyramid’ as the golden egg, there are a lot of competing voices muddying the marketing waters.

The following fundamentals will introduce some useful marketing theories to you, allowing you to confidently handle any conversation with your agency.

1. What are brands?

For all intents and purposes, brands are everything that customers think and feel about your company.

Thoughts and feelings exist within the brains of customers, so brands exist entirely within the minds of your customers.

They are influenced by every interaction your customers have with your company. This includes the advertising messages you push, their experience with your products or service, right down to the tiniest details like how your staff answer the phone. All of these ‘micro-interactions’ add up to the sum of your brand.

2. Why are brands important?

Brands influence behaviour by acting as a decision-making shortcut for customers.

In simple purchase situations (such as buying toothpaste), customers are faced with an overwhelming number of choices. Brands help them quickly identify the products worth considering and justify the lack of mental energy spent on selecting an option.

In more complex scenarios (such as buying a car), customers are faced with an overwhelming amount of information. Brands help them shortlist the alternatives worth spending the time and energy evaluating and also help interpret the information (e.g. If I trust Volvo to be safe cars, I don’t need to spend much time critiquing their safety features).

In both of these situations, brands help consumers think less. The stronger the brand, the more of a ‘no-brainer’ the decision is.

That’s important because our brains aren’t built to process lots of information.

3. How do humans make ‘decisions’?

Understanding how people think is vital to understanding what your marketing needs to achieve.

Our brains are ancient technology, poorly equipped to manage the information overload of the modern world. They were designed to help us find food and avoid danger in a primitive world, not select from hundreds of different alternatives, hundreds of times a day.

Modern humans have, of course, evolved the ability for rational thinking. However, we are far less rational than we would like to believe. We have different modes of thinking, each which influences the brands we buy.

David Kahneman refers to these as ‘Thinking Fast’ (Type 1) and ‘Thinking Slow’ (Type 2).

Thinking fast

  • Over 65% of brain activity.
  • Automatic and scans all sensory input.
  • Experienced as feelings and intuition (e.g. ‘gut feel’).
  • Primary decision-making mechanism.

Thinking slow

  • Less than 5% of brain activity.
  • Energy draining and only performed selectively (i.e. what you pay attention to).
  • Experienced as logic, reasoning.
  • Secondary decision-making mechanism, mainly used to rationalise a decision.

This research suggests that most of our brand choices are led by our feelings, not reasoned thought. Buying behaviour is initiated by ‘Thinking Fast’.

‘Thinking Slow’ only tends to come into play late in the decision-making process, when evaluating a small number of alternatives. And often this is simply to confirm what our emotions are already telling us about which brand we are going to buy.

So as marketers, evoking emotion is the qualifying condition. Without it, your brand isn’t even in the race. Once we’re in the race, we can use rational messages to get the sale across the line!

4. What makes a strong brand?

Byron Sharp of the Ehrenberg Bass Institute defines two distinct battlegrounds of brand marketing, rooted in scientific research:

  • Mental Availability.
  • Physical Availability.

Mental availability is concerned with how the brand exists within the minds of consumers. Here we are talking about the memory structures within our brains. What memories do we have that trigger the brand recall? How strong are these memories?

The more triggers we have, and the stronger these are, the more likely it is that we will remember a brand when we’re making a purchase decision.

Physical availability is concerned with how easy the brand is to physically buy, once the decision has been made to purchase. How far and wide is our brand distributed? How easy is the checkout process on our website? How much shelf space does our brand occupy in store?

The easier we make it for our customers to buy our products, the more likely we are to make a sale. In plain language, mental and physical availability translates into a pretty simple adage. Strong brands are easily remembered and easily bought.

To demonstrate mental and physical availability at work, let’s assume you’re thirsty on a hot summer’s day. You feel like purchasing a can of soft drink to quench your thirst. Of all the soft drinks available, you have the most and strongest memories of Coca-Cola, and are therefore likely to remember it at this moment.

Even if you remembered a different soft drink, when you go into the tiny store you find there are very limited options. Coca-Cola dominates the shelf space and you find yourself drawn to that familiar red can …

This is physical availability at work. Coca-Cola has enormous physical availability, with a presence in just about every service station, supermarket and takeaway store. Couple this with consistent brand marketing that has built mental availability over decades and you’ve got one of the strongest brands in the world.

5. Do I need to be unique?

Being unique certainly helps, but it’s not necessary.

Yes, it is fantastic to have something that no other competitor does. And yes, often this translates into sales and market share. So if you have something genuinely unique, then you should make sure everybody knows about it.

But in reality, being unique is very hard to do, and leading brands are far less unique than they are made out to be.

Take Nike and Adidas for example:

  • Both are sports brands.
  • Both sell functionally the same products.
  • Both have predominantly black/white brand assets.
  • Both are found in most of the same stores, often side by side.
  • Both are ‘hero’ brands that challenge people to be a better version of themselves.

If being unique was necessary to brand growth, one of these brands shouldn’t exist.

The aim of marketing is to be remembered when making a purchase decision and be easily bought.

Distinctiveness is what allows a brand to be remembered, and while being unique can help make the brand distinctive, it’s not the only way to achieve this. While the message Nike and Adidas both deliver is similar, the two brands differ in how they say it. Adidas grew their brand on the back of a lucrative sponsorship of the FIFA World Cup. Nike through athlete ambassadors. Adidas – ‘Impossible Is Nothing’. Nike – ‘Just Do It’.

What they are saying is similar. How they are saying it is the cause for distinction. And both, although competing brands, are incredibly successful, global brands.

In many cases being unique is impossible to achieve. Instead, concentrate on being distinctive and your brand is more likely to be remembered and bought.

6. What is the role of advertising?

Advertising achieves two important objectives for brands:

  • Consolidates existing memories of the brand, making the brand more likely to be retrieved at the next purchase decision.
  • Introduces the brand to more people, increasing the pool of potential new customers.

Think of each individual ad as ‘nudging’ customers towards purchase. By itself, an individual ad has less impact. But as part of a coordinated and consistent advertising strategy, a lot of ‘nudges’ can result in a big influence.

Without advertising, most brands simply aren’t visible enough and because of this, memories of the brand fade in the minds of customers. When memories of the brand fades, it’s less likely that the brand is recalled when those customers make a purchase decision.

These fundamentals are not an exhaustive list of marketing theories. But remembering them provides you with a practical foundation of knowledge that will let you recognise effective marketing from pointless digital metrics and exaggerated outcomes.

If you need marketing advice or would like to grow your business, contact the team at IvyStreet here.