Why brand identity matters more than ever in a recession

Nikki Moeschinger contends that brand identity is an under-utilised marketing tool, that can help to build brand equity during a recession.

As Australia heads into its first recession in nearly 30 years, the number of thought pieces and experts urging marketers to ‘spend’ on media during the recession is deafening. And of course, in an ideal world, most marketers could and would. But where is money most wisely invested to protect and grow brand?

When spending power is down, there is a natural tendency for consumers to focus on cost above all else. A marketers’ challenge is to invest and strengthen their brand equity, and brand identity is a critical tool to drive this.

The argument to invest in media during recessions is clear – that brands can drive greater share of voice by getting more bang for their buck as others go silent and stop advertising – there are other issues at play that shouldn’t be ignored. What is often lost in some of the bold calls-to-arms to spend on media are three critical things:

1) Retaining spend at pre-recession levels is simply not possible for all marketers
2) There are other more fundamental levers that are drivers of brand equity and strength such as a brand’s visual identity, and
3) If a strong visual identity is not in place, advertising spend is wasted and ineffective.

In short, brands’ visual identities are an under-utilised tool in a recession. They have the potential to create the differentiation and emotional connection that actually affect brand perceptions and brand value. Strengthening a visual identity as a driver of brand equity during a recession should be a marketer’s priority.

At BrandOpus, we have spent many years collaborating with Behavioural Economics and Cognitive
Neuroscience experts whose understanding of the brain and its workings help us to explain why a strong visual identity can be so impactful.

On a broad level, there are two key points to understand:

1) Our brain makes non-rational decisions all the time, whether we like it or not. And buying decisions are as non-rational as any other, and
2) Our brain is hard-wired to ignore the normal and to notice the unusual.

A brand identity has the power to make brands both distinctive enough to be noticed and remembered and emotionally engaging enough to be chosen. It means reaching more consumers and ensuring the ones you reach are more inclined to choose you again. If we think of brand value as a bucket, developing strong brand identities are a way to fill it and make it less leaky.

But not all brand identities are made equal. To achieve a strong identity, brands need to insert meaningful symbolism into their visual ecosystem.

Symbolism is ‘sticky’, it helps the brand’s visual identity become unexpected and therefore memorable.
Symbolism and quirk can elevate a brand’s visual identity above product characteristics and market norms that are both easily replicable, and easy for the mind to ignore, as they are generic to the category. Symbolism helps us to shortcut to emotionally engaging meaning. The right symbols act as metaphors that help brands transfer meaning by saying very little. Meaning and brand associations that might not sit at the conscious level, but affect consumer behaviour nonetheless. It’s why the inclusion of a simple sunshine helped McCain return to growth by associating it with warmth, naturalness and grown produce. Whether on a pack or at the end of a commercial, a unique piece of symbolism can help a brand be noticed and remembered as well as forming an emotional connection – and emotion is a much more powerful driver of consumer behaviour than rational product messages.

Brand identities are an opportunity for marketers to create brand value and to build brand equity. They are ignored, forgotten and under-utilised at your peril. As we head into what’s likely to be a long and deep recession, it’s high time that trend was reversed.

Nikki Moeschinger is the managing director (Australia) and associate partner of BrandOpus.

Photo by Kristian Egelund on Unsplash.