Brands need to build more than just salience to grow

New analysis from Kantar proves that the road to brand growth is nuanced, and brands need to do more than just focus on salience.
03 August 2020
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Nigel Hollis

Chief Global Analyst, Kantar

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Irrespective of whether brand associations precede or follow usage, new analysis confirms that many brands need to do more than build salience if they are to grow. They also need to make good on any attitudinal weaknesses they might have.

The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute asserts that the recipe for growth is to build a brand’s penetration by increasing its mental and physical availability. Mental availability refers to the need for a brand to come to quickly to mind in relation to a specific need or occasion. Physical availability refers to the need for the brand to be easy to buy. In this age of ecommerce it might seem strange to talk about physical availability when many brands can be shipped to your doorstep, but as many brands hit hard by the pandemic will attest, there are many categories where the customer still needs to physically access a product or service. Think airlines, hotels and retail stores.

Salience is not the whole story

The BrandZ analysis confirms the relationship between growing usage and salience. Of the 5334 brands measured across a three-year time frame where claimed bought increased by more than 5% points, most also increased their salience. Most brands that declined lost salience. This is why Kantar’s Mastering Momentum analysis found building exposure to be the most important driver of long-term growth. But the story does not end there, because in most product categories salience alone is not enough to make a sale. If it were, we would not see so many big, salient brands lose market share over time. Similarly, the majority of brands that grew did more than just build their association with a specific need or occasion.

Different starting points, different recipes for growth

This said, there is one set of brands that grew and the only thing that changed was that they improved their salience relative to their competitors. Comprising 25% of the growth brands, these are notable because at the start of the analysis they possessed two other qualities. More people than expected (given the brand’s size) perceived them as meaningful – both functionally relevant and emotionally attractive – and also saw them as different – unique or setting the trends for their category. Included in this group were brands like Amazon, WeChat, Wardah, Aldi and Uniqlo. Brands like these grew by amplifying what they already stood for and making it as easy for people to choose them as possible. Over the three years, their salience increased relative to their competition but their profile on the other two qualities remained unchanged (even though absolute scores improved in line with usage).

But what about the other growth brands? In their case, growth depended on building more than just salience. In short, to grow these brands made good on any weakness with which they started:

  • Brands that were strong on salience or difference but lacked meaning – either functional or emotional – grew their relevance and salience compared to their competition.
    • Brands already salient but which grew their meaning accounted for 20% of growth brands and included Holiday Inn, Zara and Yili dairy products.
    • Brands already perceived as different and which grew their meaning made up 17% of growth brands and included the iPhone, Yunnan Baiyao toothpaste and Airbnb.
  • Brands that were meaningful but lacked differentiation built perceptions of difference and increased salience. These made up 18% of growth brands and included Samsung, Adidas and Estrella Galicia beer.
  • Finally, the remaining 1 in 5 growth brands that lacked any particular strength in their first year, built meaning, difference and salience compared to their competition.

The finding that brands build different sets of associations over time in order to grow confirms that the associations that come to mind when people think about a brand matter just as much as whether people can think of a brand in the first place. The perceptions that people have of a brand helps dictate the sort of associations it needs to build if it is to grow.

Let me be clear that the analysis does not prove that increasing salience and brand associations causes a brand to grow (although it is a reasonable assumption). Improved salience could easily come as a result of more people buying a previously unknown brand, and then the use of that brand could build positive associations (provided the experience is a good one). However, it is clear from the BrandZ data that when positive attitudes and behaviour are aligned brands are more likely to grow, and where there is a gap between behaviour and attitudes brands tend to decline.

What about the brands that declined?

Before I close, it is worth looking at the flip side of the growth coin, the brands for which claimed bought last dropped by 5% points or more across the three years. 34% of the declining brands had no major weakness in the first year of the analysis but lost ground on meaning, difference and salience, often because of the advent of a strong, well-differentiated competitor. However, another 28% were weak on perceived differentiation and declined on meaning and salience versus the competition (difference already being low). The third largest group at 13% were weak on meaning and difference and salience subsequently fell. Once again, this points to the fact that perceived differentiation and relevance are important qualities for a brand to possess. Whether through lack of innovation, being out of step with people’s values or side-lined by a competitor, brands need to be more than just salient.

There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for growth

This analysis once again confirms that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy when it comes to growth. Brands are built over time and to understand what is driving growth you must examine the data over time. Our analysis does that and reveals a more nuanced picture than the current mantra of “to grow build salience.” When people do think of a brand in relation to a need or occasion the associations that come to mind matter. The BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands Ranking finds that the strongest brands in the world are meaningful, different and salient. This analysis confirms that if a brand is weak on one of them, rather than playing to its strengths, it should seek to make good on its weakness.

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