Detractors of branding, the ones who keep repeating “the lipstick on the pig,” focus on the brand image as a metaphor for how branding is a useless accessory. So what is the fundamental role of Brand Image?
Brand Image: historical development
Since the early 60s, consumer research has stumbled upon the insight that consumers’ perception and associations about brands go far beyond their functional attributes and benefits by including emotional and symbolic qualities that are often referred to as Brand Image.
These attributes, the sum of all brand-related experiences, combine to form the so-called brand personality. This artifact is based on both the physical reality of the product (e.g., packaging, performance,…) and also on attitudes and feelings that emerge in consuming both the product and the brand.
These perceptions form brand-related consumer memories and are crucial for building brand salience.
Our most current understanding of how the brand image works with consumers leads professionals to believe that brand image has several components:
- Personality: the brand’s projection of consumers’ true or aspirational self. It is a process of humanizing brands to relate to them more easily. For example, Nike is perceived as a spirited, remarkable, and innovative brand that dares to push the boundaries of all athletes.
- Values: the perceived beliefs and moral compass guiding the brand’s decisions and choices. For example, Dove is perceived as a caring and inclusive brand and a leader advancing women’s causes.
- Culture: producers’ reputation, attitude towards environmental protection, inclusiveness, treatment of employees. Patagonia’s efforts towards the environment are a great example of brand culture.
- Associations/ Attributes. The latter has three parts, mirroring the brand benefits ladder
- Functional associations relate to the brand’s functional benefits. How well does Persil clean vs. Ariel? What is the best tasting vodka? This is the performance-related part of the brand, as perceived by the consumers.
- Emotional associations are the sensed emotional benefits of the brand. For example, the rituals related to the first drink at the end of the workday or the first cocktail at the beginning of a holiday.
- Experiential associations connect with consuming the brand and the product. For example, the experience of receiving a bottle at a table in a VIP room.
Why is Brand Image important?
In a nutshell, BI is the essential currency of branding. First and foremost, BI is the set of perceptions responsible for forming consumers’ memory and, therefore, are ultimately accountable for the saliency of a brand.
Consumers use “google” instead of “search on the web” because of Google saliency, a derivative of the memories built through time with the brand. These memories are based on the performance of the brand (e.g., speed, results, the relevance of the results), on the resulting emotions (e.g., finding a cheaper flight, learning a new notion), and on the overall experience (e.g., being able to find something online while commuting under stress).
Moreover, BI defines whether consumers believe the brand is unique and different from the competition. That ability to stand out is a crucial driver of brand loyalty and a determinant of profitability in commoditizing categories. Your brand image determines in consumers’ minds whether your vodka is just another vodka or it’s unique. In the spirits world, 200 new gin brands are emerging every year. The ability to stand out in such a crowded space is equivalent to the gift of survival.
And finally, BI defines how authentic your brand is. Any brand can find a unique niche, but its performance in that space will depend on how authentic it feels in consumers’ hearts and souls. In the era of social media and information abundance, the old mantra of “fake it, until you make it” might be equivalent to suicide for a brand. Too many brands seek roots or establish credentials they do not own, and their brand image tells precisely that story. But Dove’s brand image emerges as an authentic brand involved in the causes closest to their heart.
While unique brands are not necessarily authentic, authentic brands are always unique.
Managing Brand Image is a binding domain of building solid and successful brands. Salience, Uniqueness, and Authenticity all stem from proper Brand Image management, which makes BI’s measuring and proactive management one of the most essential elements of marketing execution.