Brand building: Inquiring minds want to know

By Nancy Gray

Clinical Assistant Professor, Marketing

I have no special talents, I am just passionately curious.

— Albert Einstein

While this quote by a renowned genius may come across as self-effacing, it makes a point relevant to our three-part series on understanding your brand’s molecule. Here is what I mean: You don’t need to be a famous expert to understand the elements that make up your brand — what matters most is your inquisitiveness. It is your willingness to wonder and ask questions that enables you to gain understanding that you can use to build your brand’s value to your customers.

Crunch and munch.

Nancy Gray Chart

Brand elements fall roughly into two categories, tangible and intangible. This is analogous to the division of elements on the periodic table between metals and non-metals. The tangible elements are your brand’s physical and descriptive attributes. These elements are easiest to identify and many firms consider them the most important to their brand. Picture a handful of Doritos corn chips. Even without the bag (and maybe even blindfolded) you will likely recognize this famous snack food by its shape, texture, what is sounds like, tastes like.

Shape, texture, sound and taste are a few examples of the tangible elements on the brand table put together by ASU researchers in design and marketing. While this table is not exhaustive, it serves as a great starting place in your search to uncover your brand’s unique molecule.

Hooked on a feeling.

Intangible elements are more complicated, yet often carry considerably more weight in determining a brand’s value. The table published by the Los Alamos National Laboratory divides elements into categories based on common characteristics (i.e., metalloids, halogens and noble gases).

The brand table structures elements according to current and emerging findings by researchers. Intangible elements depend on the subjective perceptions your customers have of your brand and the meaning they ascribe to it.

Picture the Fiat 500L. How do you feel about this car? Aficionados often find it friendly, open and cheerful. What are your attitudes toward the brand? Many owners have a strong affinity toward Fiat, trust it, and prefer it to other makes.

In what context are you encountering the brand? Bloomberg Business reports that in the wake of Pope Francis’ first trip to the United States, that Chrysler Fiat has been inundated with calls and that Car’s Kelly Blue Book search on Fiat have risen 50 percent over the past few days — the “halo effect” in action!

The halo effect in marketing is the concept that your favorable impression of a brand (which can be a product or a person) spills over to an associated brand. Feelings, attitudes, context are three categories of intangible elements. Other categories are awareness, experiences, psychological benefits and image.

Curiosity unleashed.

Are you curious about how the brand table of elements works? If so, you are off to a great start. In part one, step one; you placed your customer in the center of a circle representing your brand. Now, in step two, you want to begin accessing what researchers call a customer’s cognitive and affective responses to your brand’s tangible and intangible elements. This means finding out what they know about your brand and believe about what your brand does for them in their hearts. Try hard to resist the temptation to begin this next step with what you think you know. It is far better to build your molecule on the basis of finding this out from the source.

There are many ways to discover which elements your customers associate with you brand and their relative strength. Here is one of the easiest. Invite customers (and prospects) to answer free association questions about your brand related to the element categories. To uncover a “feeling” elements, you might ask, “If (insert your brand) was to become a person, what would he or she be like?” To identify tangible elements that matter, good questions include, “What is good about (your brand),” “What do you like about it?” and “What is unique?”

One hint: It is best to ask about your brand in wide terms and follow up with more specific questions. You can do this in-person (recommended) or in an open-ended survey given online. Their answers will give you a wealth of understanding about your brand’s molecule.

In part three, we will take a deeper dive into the brand element categories and I’ll pass along ways to translate what you have discovered into actions that can build enduring relationships with your customers.

"Getting Started" is an entrepreneurship column by the faculty of the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. Nancy Gray is a clinical assistant professor of marketing and a featured speaker at the W. P. Carey School’s 26th Annual Compete Through Service Symposium, Nov. 4–6, 2015. First published in The Arizona Republic, Oct. 5, 2015.  

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