Why do some ads and campaigns succeed, and others fail to engage and persuade? That’s a question with no single, easy answer. However, there is one surefire way to increase the odds that your brand’s advertising will pack more power in the long run. The secret: create, build and nurture distinct memory cues, brand assets that are strongly associated with your brand in the mind of the consumer.

The authors will detail their work and provide extensive advice and guidance in their presentation at CRC, October 8-10 in Orlando.

Whether your brand is well established or brand new, there’s no time like the present to start building Distinctive Brand Assets.

Distinctive Brand Assets & Why You Should Care About Them

Distinctive Brand Assets, the term coined by Byron Sharp and the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, are the cues that a brand uses, beyond the name, package or product itself, to let the consumer know the identity of the brand. These ‘DBA’s’ communicate the brand’s identity in ads and at point of purchase, but they can do so much more. A strong character, visual cue, jingle or other audio or visual element can telegraph the brand’s story, values and benefits in a way that serves – over time – to become a part of the brand’s identity. As such, strong Distinctive Brand Assets can elevate the brand above the sameness of other brands within the category.

The General Mills portfolio contains many well-established brands such as Pillsbury, Betty Crocker, Cheerios, Lucky Charms and others that have been around for generations. The portfolio also includes newer brands, like Larabar, Epic and Annie’s, which are still in the process of solidifying positions in the mind of the consumer. There are also ‘middle-aged’ brands like Yoplait, Nature Valley, Haagen-Daz and Totinos. Across this wide range of brands, some have strong distinctive assets that can be used in advertising and other marketing communications, while others have not developed truly distinctive, ownable assets.

Recently, General Mills conducted an analysis of in-market performance of ads across a range of brands to help brand teams understand what types of DBA’s provide the strongest boost to brands’ ad campaigns, and how DBA placement within ads and storylines affect outcomes. Here are some of the headlines that emerged from the study.

DBA’s matter – a lot. An ad that incorporates strong distinctive brand assets within the storyline of the ad is more than twice as likely to be associated with the correct brand among consumers who notice the ad in-market than is an ad that doesn’t use DBA’s, or that saves them for the closing seconds. This finding is not particularly surprising, since telegraphing the brand is generally recognized as a key benefit of DBA’s.

However, the presence of strong DBA’s also boosts ad engagement, or the breakthrough power of ads – by, on average, 60%. In the book Hitmakers, Derek Thompson explains that humans are drawn to the familiar. The most alluring concepts are those that are comfortingly familiar, but just different enough to be interesting. In advertising, this translates into the use of DBA’s that not only telegraph the brand and its benefits, but that also draw the consumer in with familiar cues and provide a launch pad for what is unique and different about each individual ad.

The best DBA is a suite of DBA’s. The most successful use of DBAs generally involves a suite including both visual and audio cues that layer onto each other. For example, while characters can be strong DBA’s, a character who is associated with an audio signature is typically even more distinctive, recognizable and attention-getting. Powerful examples include the Jolly Green Giant (‘ho, ho, ho’), Lucky Charms leprechaun (‘They’re magically delicious’) and the Tony the Tiger (They’re GREAT!).

Even better than a single pair of DBA’s is a bundle of assets from which you can select and combine depending on the particular ad, media platform and message. McDonalds has arches, the color combination of red and yellow, ‘I’m lovin’ it’, and the musical notes that play with the tagline. Cheetos has Chester Cheetah, the distinctive shape and orange color and the mess the product makes. Allstate has the distinctive voice of Dennis Haysbert, the Good Hands line and symbol and the Mayhem man.

Your DBA is only a DBA if the consumer sees it as one. DBA’s take time, focus and commitment to develop. Consumers aren’t on the lookout for your DBA’s, or your ads – they see ads for a lot of products inside and outside of your product category. Strong DBA’s like the Pillsbury Doughboy or Lucky Charms’ leprechaun are readily associated by the brand by nearly everyone. However, for every strong DBA, there are many others that are well-linked to the brand only by the advertiser and their ad agency. If your DBA doesn’t yet have strong associations, you may need more overt or consistent focus. And if it’s not truly distinctive, it may never take strong hold.

The most challenging DBA to actually ‘own’ is a color. In some categories, there’s one color that is associated with a broad category benefit, and thus multiple brands are attempting to co-opt it. Brands that try to own a color such as this are destined to fail. If you’re going to go with a color, select one that’s highly distinctive (think T-Mobile’s magenta) or not particularly appealing (think UPS’s brown), weave it into other visual symbols, and use it prominently and consistently. With time and determination, if none of your competitors decide to also use that color, and there’s not a strong association with the same hue outside your category, you might eventually be able to claim ownership.

Through an internal and external study of what’s worked and what has not, General Mills has developed a set of guidelines and inspirational examples that are helping its brands assess, build and strengthen their DBA portfolios.

If you are a steward of a brand without strong DBA’s, don’t despair. You just need to get to work. Start with a vision for what DBA’s could do for your brand and develop a clear understanding of what you want them to say about the brand. Don’t neglect to conduct an external audit to see what other brands are doing – and thus what you should avoid. Next, enlist all the creativity you have available to solve for the ‘D’ – the distinctive in DBA while maintaining focus on being true to the brand story. And finally, commit to building, nurturing and reaping the rewards.

Learn more and chat with Jeri & Eliana at CRC, October 8-10 in Orlando.