Branding in the Virtual Consumption World
Brand equity as key success indicator
For any marketer, one - if not the - key success indicator in marketing is to build customer-based brand equity. This basically means that the brand can be bought as easily as possible, which requires physical availability (e.g., where to buy a brand), but also mental availability (e.g., what to remember about a brand) to establish the easiest possible buying environment. Mental availability is related to the consumer’s brand memory and reflects the consumer’s associative network structure about a given brand.
Essential elements to create and stabilize the associative network are the establishment of favorable and unique associations. Any brandrelated experience is stored in, and retrieved from, that network as a remembered value and determines what a customer thinks and feels about a certain brand. In fact, each contact with a brand activates an associative learning process that happens largely automatically on an unconscious level, meaning with no or only little conscious awareness. That is the reason why traditional marketing research approaches, e.g., common Likert scale questions or focus groups, are not or are not sufficiently capable of accurately capturing this stored information. However, with neuromarketing methods, preferably automated and at affordable prices for daily business nowadays (e.g., optimizing a claim or visual design), literally every marketing management is finally able to uncover this hidden information about consumer psychology that would otherwise remain largely undiscovered.
While physical availability is a less critical challenge for most brands in eCommerce than in a stationary store (e.g., no sales barriers due to limited shelf space), the opposite applies for mental availability. Not only can other competitor brands also reach out and communicate with their potential buyers 24/7 on an infinite number of digital touchpoints, but also the number of competitor brands is higher and not limited to the number of brands stocked in a stationary store. A potential buyer has no need to cross the street to look for further brands in the next local store that better fit their needs than in the previous store. In eCommerce every brand is only one search request and click away, highlighting the relevance of mental availability in a digital context.
Enrich brand equity in quantitative and qualitative terms
Past research has shown, (e.g., the well-known CokePepsi blind tasting study by McClure et al. 2004), that brand associations not only trigger brand preferences but can also override functional preferences (e.g., taste or smell) easily, and thus affect a consumer’s purchase decision. Indeed, brand associations frame the subjective consumption reality and influence not only a consumer’s perception but consequently the buying behavior. In the light of such findings, any marketer should aim to improve the level of brand salience by developing and strengthening different brand-related association links – the so-called brand’s share of mind.
Briefly stated, a brand’s share of mind refers to the quantity and quality of association links to and from a brand in the consumer’s memory. Quantity covers the overall number of associations, whereby quality reflects the strength and relevance of an association. Strong brands will have established more relevant associations with stronger ties between those associations compared to weaker brands. This increases the likelihood that one single association, but also the entire network, will be activated and consequently influence the consumer's behavior in a specific consumption situation. Regarding online shopping, this process begins when searching for a brand via the favorite search engine, here mostly on a category level, and ends in an online shop when directly searching for and recognizing a specific brand within a given category.
Strengthen brand equity by creating and refreshing brand memory
Consider McDonald’s. What is the share of mind of that brand? Most probably fast food and hamburger. In addition, well-known brand assets such as the Golden Arches of their brand logo and Ronald McDonald as their primary mascot are also likely substantial links in the associative network about the brand. On top, but supposedly less pronounced on an individual level on average, are socialrelated experiences as a significant part of the brand memory such as children’s birthdays or having a quick burger with friends in the morning after a long night spent partying. All those association links are established by personal and non-personal brand experiences. In fact, any information-bearing experience a consumer has with a brand builds an associative touchpoint.
Brand communication activities such as advertising campaigning or product packaging are especially powerful touchpoints to create and refresh brand memory. Specifically, the purpose of brand communication is to enhance the number of consumers who think of a certain brand (quantity) and the number of times each potential buyer thinks of that brand as the only purchase option (quality). In a given buying situation, e.g., shopping on Amazon for a new television, the larger and more fostered the brand association network in a consumer’s memory is, the greater the probability that the brand will be the chosen as brand number one for the purchase in that category without further deliberate considerations. That is the magic of neuromarketing: To increase the marketbased power of a brand just by establishing and triggering the salient (implicit) brand associations in the consumers’ memories that determine their consumption world.
Figure 1: Measuring the basal association network (top) and diagnosing the salient associations (bottom).
Increase brand equity in three steps: the case of shampoo brands in ecommerce
To help brands to enhance their brand equity, a three-step approach is applied combining various insight platforms: (1) measuring implicit associations with reaction time measurement (to assess the basal brand association network); (2) diagnosing the salient associations with causal artificial intelligence (AI) (to identify the salient brand associations that drive the behavior); and (3) treating the association network with neuropsychology-related explorer techniques (to better foster the identified salient associations). The following case study conducted in Germany demonstrates the effectiveness of that approach.
Figure 2: Positive relation between salient association score and market share.
Subjects (all female, n=220) were invited to participate in an eCommerce study. At the beginning of the survey, subjects evaluated the implicit associations of four shampoo brands as well as some explicit key performance indicators for the overall brand performance (insight platform: Single Association Test by quantilope). They were then asked to visit the online store of the German retailer Rewe, and to surf the shampoo category and add their favorite shampoo brand to their shopping cart. The real surfing behavior of the subjects in the online store was tracked and recorded for subsequent investigations (insights platform: InContext Testing by eye square).
Figure 3: Revealing further association cluster to strengthen the identified salient associations.
As illustrated in Figure 1, the four shampoo brands performed with a comparable similar association expression (step 1: measure), which could indicate the fact of an interchangeable brand positioning in consumers’ perceptions. However, each brand is driven by different associations that determine the respective salient association score according to the causal AI using the success driver analysis software Neusrel (step 2: diagnose). In the present case study, the top brand is Head & Shoulders receiving a salient association score (SAS) of 183.2 and a market share (here defined as the number of people who added that brand to their shopping cart) of 25.5%. The shampoo brand at the bottom is Pantene indicating an SAS of 171.7 and a market share of 3.2%. Furthermore, an exponential brand growth is recognizable as shown in Figure 2. Therefore, the greater the SAS, the higher the market share, confirming the business relevance of an enriched brand association network. In order to enhance the market share for example, Pantene should focus on the identified salient associations, but primarily on treat, safety and excellence. Next, as shown in Figure 3, by using a neuropsychologyrelated explorer technique (insight platform: Association Explorer Test by Neuro Flash), the AI-generated flower graph reveals that professional beauty, aesthetic cosmetics and silky shampoo are positive association perception frames that could be used in brand communication to strengthen the identified salient associations (treat, safety and excellence), and therefore to gain market share.
Pushing the brand equity to the next consumption level
Memory activation is purchasing – purchasing is memory activation. As shown, the better the activated brand association network, the greater the chance of buying the brand. Almost nobody buys a brand with no or only little knowledge about the brand, at least not intentionally or voluntarily. As a rule of thumb, a buyer of a brand has on average three to four times more associations stored and activated than a non-buyer. Besides physical availability, mental availability is the key for a competitive brand positioning in the consumer’s mind, both in the offline and online consumption world. The multi-level insights approach outlined above is a powerful solution for evidence-based brand management in a digitalized consumer world full of competing brands that are just a click away.
References available on request via firstname.lastname@example.org
This was originally published in Insights Magazine, NMSBA members have access to the full archive of this quarterly magazine on neuromarketing. Interested in joining? Check the options