Literature Review & Hypotheses
It is no longer a secret that consumers today are bombarded by brands from all fronts and all these brands are fighting a troublesome battle to increase their brand equity. An accelerated growth in brand equity is a dream for all brand managers because this ensures viability and success of their brand not only in present period but also in the foreseeable future. Brand equity is defined as the added significance or benefit that a brand name bestows upon a product by virtue of organization's marketing efforts (the marketing mix).
The importance of branding can be realised from the fact that through branding firms create perceived value in the minds of consumers, which is far more powerful than the observable tangible worth of the product, and thus differentiating the product (Supphellen, 2000). One of the most crucial function of branding is creation of customer based brand equity, which in turn creates clear, unprecedented and beneficial brand associations leading to distinctive effects on customer responses of the marketing initiatives of the brand (Keller, 1993).
Customer-based brand equity develops when consumers' familiarity with the brand creates positive, strong and unique brand associations in their memory regarding the brand. This is important for marketers from two perspectives, firstly brand equity is an important tool to increase sales or profits but more importantly long-term success of a brand's marketing efforts will be impacted by brand knowledge that consumers have formed in their memories through firm's short-term marketing activities (Keller, 1993).
Brand Knowledge: The Building Block of Brand Association
Keller (1993), defines brand knowledge as an amalgamation of brand awareness and brand image. Brand awareness deals with consumer's ability to recognize a brand under distinctive circumstances. On the other hand, brand image is defined as brand perceptions that are formed in consumers' minds through different brand associations. Consumers usually form associations in their mind through a brand attribute or element, usage situation, brand advocate, or logo. These associations are generally considered as being arranged in a network framework which is in line with associative network models of memory (Roedder, Loken, Loken, Kim, & Basu, 2006).
Brand associations can be characterized into three major types namely attributes, benefits, and attitudes. As per Keller (1993), attributes are those distinguishing features that define a product or service or more specifically what the consumers think about the product or service. Product related attributes refer to the purpose of the product where as non-product related attributes are the external aspects that are related to the purchase and consumption of the product. The four major kinds of non-product-related attributes are price information, packaging, user imagery (that pertains to who is the user of the product) and usage imagery (the circumstance or places where and when the product is used).
Price is considered as a non-price attribute because although it is a major influencer in the purchase decision; however, neither the product performance nor the service performance is affected by price. Furthermore, price creates an critical attribute association as consumers usually have a firm conviction regarding price and value that a brand offers and thus they form their product category knowledge in terms of the price tiers of various brands (Blattberg & Wisniewski, 1989). There are two ways to create association through user and usage imagery attributes. Firstly, direct associations are formed because of consumers own experience with the brand and interaction with brand users. Moreover, indirect associations are conceived through target market's depiction in the brand communications like advertisements or other sources of information like word of mouth. Brand personality attributes can also be created through user and usage attributes. One major element of brand image is the personality or character that is associated with the brand itself (Plummer, 1985). Brands can even be described using personality descriptors such as "youthful, colourful and gentle”.
The second most important form of brand association is benefit-the personal value that consumers attach to the product or service. Benefits can further be classified into three categories namely; functional benefits, experiential benefits and symbolic benefits based on the underlying motivation (Park, Jaworski, & Maclnnis, 1986). According to Keller (1993) functional benefits are linked to the most basic motivators like physiological or safety need and the presence of these benefits eliminate a problem, correspondingly functional benefits are related to product attributes. Experiential benefits are more related to the feelings of using the product or service and are thus used for gratification of experiential needs such as sensory pleasure or variety. Symbolic benefits are more related to extrinsic advantages of the product that are non-product attributes. These benefits describe the need for motivations like social approval, personal expression, and self-esteem.
Another major form of brand association is brand attitude-that is the overall consumer evaluation of a brand. Brand attitudes are of vital prominence because they dictate consumer choices (Keller, 1993). Brand attitudes can be formed based on the concepts about product-related attributes and the functional and experiential benefits in tandem to the perceived quality. Brand attitudes can similarly be formed through beliefs about non-product-related attributes and symbolic benefits of the product in consumer minds (Agarwal & Rao, 1996).
Brand Associations: The Science Behind it
Brand associations change over time based on their favourability, intensity and uniqueness in the mind of the consumer (Keller, 1993). The aim of all marketing activities is to create strong positive brand associations and consumer trust in the product attributes that the product will satisfy their needs further leading overall positive brand attitude. The success of a marketing program is reflected in the creation of favourable brand associations that is consumers believe the brand has attributes and benefits that satisfy their needs and wants such that a positive overall brand attitude is formed. Associations are also differentiated based on the strength of connection to the brand node (Roedder, Loken, Loken, Kim, & Basu, 2006). The strength of associations is built upon information's entrance in consumer memory and storage of this information as a part of brand image. Cognitive psychologists assume that human memory is exceptionally enduring, so once information is stored in the human memory the strength of association deteriorates very gradually (Loftus & Loftus, 1985). Brands are also able to form unique associations in the mind of customers through image related attributes.
Brand associations are usually considered to exist as verbal descriptions of the brand in consumers' mind. However, according to cognitive theories this is not the only exclusive form of association and many other representation modes dwell in the human brain (Roedder, Loken, Loken, Kim, & Basu, 2006). A major problem in understanding brand associations is that huge amount of consumer brand perception is gathered or processed by the mind under low involvement conditions and is hence are not exposed to the right hemisphere of the brain which is primarily responsible for conscious processing (Supphellen, 2000). Therefore, plenty of associations are unconsciously stored in the brain in non-verbal mode.
Moreover, many associations are not verbal, but in fact these associations are visual with no related verbal descriptions as the brain receives two-thirds of all stimuli as visuals. Along with verbal and visual representations, sensory impressions also form brand associations. Sensory impression is a manifestation of the cognitive archetype of physiological knowledge of taste, smell and sound. For instance, the ability to feel the taste of tea with our closed eyes, or the fragrance of rose without smelling it is due to sensory impressions of the brain. As a matter of fact, marketers are increasingly using sensory associations to form positive brand associations. Brand emotions are sensory, non- verbal evaluations of experiences of a consumer with a brand. For instance, the taste of Coca Cola or the cognizance of a young attractive man drinking it will elicit certain emotional responses that will be stored in memory along with the taste associations and associations of brand users (Supphellen, 2000).
Understanding core brand associations has always been a challenge for the marketers as it a prime driver for brand image. Although consumers may recognize or associate a lot things with a brand, it is the core brand associations that are directly linked to the product and this should be the area of focus for the managers (Roedder, Loken, Loken, Kim, & Basu, 2006). Building, leveraging and protecting core brand associations in the mind of consumers result in a sustainable source of competitive advantage for the brand (Supphellen, 2000). Moreover, building competitive advantage for a brand using customer-based brand equity requires creation of a popular brand that has favourable, strong, and unique brand associations. There are several ways to achieve these brand associations like through the initial choice of the brand identities like the brand name, logo, or symbol and through the integration of the brand identities into the supporting marketing program (Keller, 1993).
H1: Brand logo or symbol on packaging has little impact on consumer's attitude towards purchase decision.
H2: Bright colours and smiling models on a marketing object (ad or packaging) will evoke positive associations in consumer mind.
H3: Celebrity endorsements impacts brand image, which in turn drive final purchase.
H4: Accumulation of pertinent product attributes strengthens brand associations to create a positive brand image.
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