Brands are an evolving accumulation of ideas, feelings and experiences

by Nigel Hollis | August 19, 2019

It is very easy to think of brands as a fixed entity defined by a logo and a set of specific characteristics; however, because the real power of brands originates in people’s minds maybe we need to think about a brand as an evolving entity that morphs and changes over time. Our job as marketers is to shape that evolution to best grow sales.

A brand is what people infer from everything related to it. I use the word “infer” quite deliberately because most of the time people do not actively think about brands, they do not deliberate about every encounter they have with one. They will, however, build up a sense of the brand over time from all of their encounters and, occasionally a really good or really bad experience may get them to consider what role the brand plays in their lives.

The challenge for the marketer is that, particularly for a long-established brand, most people will already have a set of ideas, feelings and associations which shape their predisposition toward the brand. Louis Vuitton, for instance, was founded in 1854. There will be few people in the position to be able to afford a Louis Vuitton product today that will not have gleaned some impression of the brand through repeated encounters over their lifetime. Changing a lifetime of associations is a big challenge. You can more easily add to what already exists, but it may be difficult to change people’s associations.


Once a brand has created a piece of real estate in people’s heads it is very difficult for a competitor to displace it or the marketer to change it. This is the main reason that sales do not suddenly stop when marketing investment is cut but erode slowly over time. For packaged goods people continue to buy habitually until something displaces the brand from a person’s repertoire. For more considered goods, lasting positive impressions will still give a brand a head start in the purchase race, even though that advantage may be negated if someone actively researches their purchase and finds a better or cheaper alternative in the process.

Of course, memories fade and there will always be another brand eager to encourage people to switch. On average we find that brand associations will decay 10 percent per year in the absence of any media support. However, this is far slower than the decay of short-term sales stimulated by media investment. We find that on average the incremental sales due to TV and Online Video decay at near 10 percent per week, with other media, particularly digital display, paid search and social, decaying at faster rates.

An important part of marketing, therefore, is simply to keep motivating ideas, feelings and associations salient in people’s minds. To do so, requires both creativity (to earn attention and create a memorable impression) and repetition (to entrench the right associations). And sometimes the things that we believe to be obvious and understood about a brand are just the things that will encourage people to buy it again. The challenge is to find new ways to say the same things. Of course, that is not always the case, sometimes a brand gets out of sync with people’s lives, values and expectations and it which case it is time to take on the bigger challenge of changing people’s perceptions.

Can you think of any brands that have drastically changed the way people think about them? Please share your thoughts.


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  1. Thomas H. Kern, August 23, 2019
    One of the more elegant and concise disquisitions I have seen on this topic, Nigel.  I hope it gets the audience it deserves.
  2. Diego Koch, August 19, 2019
    Hi, I'm thinking about the evolution of Nike in the last year o so, with the bet on Kaepernick's assotiation... it must involve a transformation for the associations in people's mind with the brand, going much deeper in the interest and motivations for the consumer, not betraying the essence of Nike, but making it more relevant.

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