Distinctive Brand Assets Are Treated Like Sacred Scrolls; Here’s Why You Should Break Them

Golden, deep-fried arches. Witty, dairy-provoking billboards. A tombstone label filled with beans. Distinctive brand assets, like shapes, colours, words or sounds, help you recall a brand name even when it’s not written out.

Since 2018, the term ‘distinctive brand assets’ has gained momentum, slung out increasingly in marketing departments eager to find that brand-building, growth-spurring thing. And most importantly, because they are measurable to some extent. These assets are considered crucial in creating mental availability for brands, ensuring consumers know which brand is speaking to them.

But this presents a problem. Focus is too often on the ingredients instead of the dish. Then, it becomes more important to follow corporate guidelines than to engage consumers.

Assets Are Part of Something Greater

Your distinctiveness, your brand, is much more than what type of colours you use or whether your font is italic or monospaced.

When too focused on the assets, it gets hard to see and remember the bigger picture. It becomes too easy to forget each asset’s role in the grander brand scheme, why it’s there, and, even more importantly, how significant its role is.

Each asset of your brand works in a context. To build, emphasise and maintain your distinctiveness, you must understand the context in which your assets work. There’s a big difference between an ad on Pinterest and a packaging design and how your brand assets work optimally for each media.

Red. Sure, but Why?

If all your competitors are green, going for a red hue will make you stand out. No doubt about that. But why? Does red have the right connotations for your brand? Does red help cement your position in the market in a way that consumers instantly understand? Perhaps there’s a reason everyone else chose to be green?

To stand out, you need to know from what. And why. What overarching story are you trying to tell with your distinctive brand asset? How does it set you apart from your surroundings in the right, strategic way?

To stand out brand-wise means both strategically and visually. For this process, we use our contextual research tool, the 4Cs, which helps us map a brand’s context: Company, Category, Culture and Consumer. You can forge distinctive assets by combining, understanding, curating, and navigating the four Cs.

Occasionally and unfortunately, we hear about how distinctive brand assets have become an internal political checklist. Rather than being a creativity catalyst, it becomes a creative straightjacket. You can’t do much, and the organisation becomes afraid of changes, again stifling innovation. Everybody is limited – when the assets are supposed to inspire and provide opportunities.

However, it doesn’t have to be like that. Working with Danone-owned water brand Aqua d’Or, we managed to utilise assets for distinctiveness and coherence.

How Aqua d’Or Achieves Flexible Consistency

It all began with plain water, with or without sparkles. Simple. But gradually, things started evolving. Sparkles, Ice Tea, and Vitamins have joined the product line-up, so Aqua d’Or has refreshments for every occasion and personal preference.

Naturally, we wanted to ensure consumers always knew they were drinking Aqua d’Or. This would instil trust, create synergy and help cross-promote. But simultaneously, the system had to be flexible enough to let each product concept speak to relevant category cues while feeling branded.

Therefore, although Aqua d’Or’s building blocks are a rich blue, circular logo and clean typography, these assets are primarily for the master brand. When developing new product concepts, we altered the founding ideas to fit the category. E.g., the logo can be adjusted in colour along with the typography look & feel as well as flavour or functional cues. This allows for direct communication that fits the context and ambition. Now, every Aqua d’Or asset is focused on consumers and flavours, not corporate guidelines.

Distinctiveness Is Having an Edge; What’s Yours?

When distinctiveness is just for the look, it’s a problem. Distinctiveness is also about relevance, both regarding your brand and market position but also to the category, consumers and culture.

This is why the conceptual and strategic thinking behind distinctiveness is essential and foundational but also hard to do. It’s much easier to link brand assets to design than strategy because when we’re talking strategy, it also needs to tell a story and cement a position in the market.

Every distinctive brand asset originates from somewhere. If it’s a good idea, you can keep it. Otherwise, don’t be afraid to kill a darling or give your brand some new life. Never be scared of breaking a rule if it helps you tell your story in a better way. In any case, always ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Why are you using this asset?
  2. How does it help you tell the (brand) story?
  3. How does it help you cement your market position?

If the questions seem hard and are not easy to answer, perhaps it’s time to bend the rules a little.