What is a Brand Association?

Published by Colin Finkle on

Brand Association definition

noun.
A concept, emotion, object or image, linked to the brand via memory.
“There is a brand association between Quiksilver and surfing in customers minds.”

Brand Association definition. noun. A concept, emotion, object or image, linked to the brand via memory. "There is a brand association between Quiksilver and surfing in customers minds."

Abstract | Executive Summary | TL;DR

Brand associations are the mental connections between a brand and people, places, things, and emotions. When a brand and another thought occur together in anyone’s mind, they neurologically connect and are more likely to be thought of together in the future. These associations may turn people to or away from your brand. Being mindful and strategic about them will build brand equity efficiently.

5 minute read | 1300 words

Effective brands build associate with people, places, things and emotions to inspire desirables behavior.

Brands live in the minds of people. The mind is not a set of binary data; it’s a network. Concepts are linked together so that when you think of one thing, you end up thinking about other things, if only subconsciously. 



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For example, if you think of your aunt, you might also think of her name, her house, how her presence makes you feel, the hobby she is known for, and other people related to her, maybe your uncle and cousins. The brain treats brands in the same way.

When a stakeholder thinks about a brand, they also recall the:
– logo
– product
– memories of past interactions
– how those memories made them feel
– location you would find their products and services
– brand colors
– influencers who have endorsed them, etc.

For example, if I think of Nike, I also think of:
– activewear
– the Nike swoosh
– the Nike outlet store near my house
– Sport Chek (the retailer I would go to buy Nike)
– black and white
– sweat
– athletics
– the feeling of energy, excitement, anticipation
– the controversy around their latest advertisements
– my favorite pair of workout shorts

A mindful and strategic brand manager or entrepreneur can build the brand associations that are beneficial to their goal. Want to sell makeup? Then associating your brand to the most beautiful women in the world would help. Sephora is doing that. Want to raise money to clean up the oceans? Associating your brand with the problem of polluted beaches, the solution and a sense of trust would be crucial, as 4Ocean is doing.

Logos, graphics, brand deals are all tools to build brand associations. 

Brand associations are not just part of a brand; they are the brand. It is one only three components of David Aaker‘s brand equity model in his book Building Strong Brands

All the effort we put into design, communication, and promotion is only to build brand associations. Exceptional brand managers market so the logo or mention of a brand triggers memories of people, places, things and emotions that are desirable. 

Daryl Weber, who we interviewed, wrote about how Budweiser made the “American Can” as with the aspiration to associate drinking Bud with being a patriotic American. 

Budweiser America can design
Photo courtesy of Budweiser America

Being intentional about brand associations will make every other decision easy. If a brand builder is clear on the associations they are seeking, then they will make appropriate choices on the words they use, the images they present, and the people and groups they associate with. 

For example, Nordeau, the example brand in our lifestyle brand series, seeks to build an association between personal care products and winter mountain sports. Therefore, it is clear that we need to a) use the language and vocabulary of snowboarders and skiers, b) pair images of our products with visuals of people enjoying skiing and snowboarding, and c) sign brand deals with winter sports athletes and influencers.

Neurons That Fire Together, Wire Together.

Donald Hebb illustration
Illustration of Donald Hebb

The science behind brand association originates with Donald Hebb and his 1949 book: The Organization of Behavior.

Hebb theorized that one thought would be more likely to cause another thought if those two thoughts were recalled together multiple times in the past. This is called the Hebb Effect.

Basic neurology lesson: the cells in our nervous system, most of which are in our brain, are physically connected. The axon is a microscopic tube that serves as a wire between neurons, the cells. When one neuron is stimulated, then it fired an electrical charge to another neuron.  

The network effect of all of these connections gives us thought and consciousness. 

“When an axon of cell A is near enough to excite cell B and repeatedly or persistently takes part in firing it,” wrote Hebb, “some growth process or metabolic change takes place in one or both cells such that A’s efficiency, as one of the cells firing B, is increased.” 

In simple terms: neurons that fire together, wire together. It’s one of the fundamental mechanisms that allow us to learn. It is fantastic that such a simple concept can give us such complicated and wondrous things! (I’ll stop geeking out now.) 

Hebb theorized that the more times the axon between two neurons was fired, the easier it would transmit in the future. This theory has held, and our modern understand the brain supports Hebb’s theory. We now know that axons can grow thicker with use and grow to be more efficient through insulation wrapped around them called myelin. 

What is fascinating from a marketer’s or entrepreneur’s perspective is that the most times they can stimulate two thoughts together, the more likely they are to be thought together in the future. Yup, mind control; this is mad science stuff. 

For example, if we show the Nordeau logo alongside pictures of skiing, then I am bringing the thought of both my brand and the idea of skiing into the minds of the viewers. Those two thoughts are more likely to be thought together in the future, thus a brand association before. 

Not to say that everything that is paired together will be wired together in peoples minds for the rest of time; critical thinking will intervene. If I put a swastika beside a picture of President Obama you aren’t going to forever associate him with Nazi’s. Your brain dismisses and neurologically suppresses bad data based on your beliefs all the time.

Two Way Street

Another interesting implication of the science for marketers is that this connection between neurons is a two-way street. If we associate our brand with a person, place, thing or feeling, then they are more likely to think of the brand when they think of that thing. 

The best selling phone of 2017, the iPhone 6S
iPhone was the best selling phone of 2017, it’s 10 year anniversary.
  • -Think of Sydney Crosby? You probably think of the Pittsburg Penguins too.
  • Think of a smartphone? You probably think of Apple too.
  • Think of a killer whale? You probably think of Sea World too. 

The cell assembly theory is why brand ambassadors are such a powerful marketing tool. It’s a mystery no longer.

Brand Associations are Not Always Positive 

You know the phrase: “all publicity is good publicity?” Not true.

It is not true because media can create brand associations in customers minds that may influence their behavior away from the brand. The brand damage that comes from negative press comes from introducing a brand association that is counter to the associations the brand builder is trying to build. 

It is okay for the NRA to be in controversial media because the association between guns and fiercely defending them is a helps further their mission. But when Chic-Fil-A is in the news because their president opposes same-sex marriage, then the mental association with bigotry may turn people away, as it did Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter. 

It doesn’t take a strong brand association to influence someone’s behavior subtly. When there is a lot of competition, then the slightest negative feeling may push a customer away from a brand and towards one with only positive feelings associated with it.

Conclusion. Brand associations are the tool that makes branding work. 

Being clear and directive about the brand associations you, your team and your partners are trying to create can be a huge advantage in building a meaningful brand.

Most businesses create brand associations by operating for years and then have to deduce what people associate with their brand and slowly change them. Operating, communicating and promoting in a way that builds the associations that are desirable can build brand equity efficiently.

Now it’s your turn. Take action and build your brand. 

You need to get a handle on what is currently associated with your brand, and what you want to be associated with your brand. 

Make two lists. The first is a list of current associations; talk to your customers and team for help. The second is a list of what brand associations that would be desirable to inspire the behavior you are looking for in people, whether that be purchasing, donating, attending or volunteering. 

Thought starters for your lists:

  • Product categories
  • Emotions
  • Locations
  • Activities
  • Influencers
  • Colors
  • Visual Language

Colin Finkle

Colin Finkle is a brand marketer and designer with ten years of experience helping Fortune 500 companies tell their story at retail. You can see his work at finkle.ca

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