Brand distinctiveness: what does it mean for you?

Posted by Sapien Team - 25 July, 2019

Get lost in the crowd, get left behind. The success of a brand lies in its ability to be recognised, but knowing what elements of your brand make you stand out is more complex than it might first appear—and in a highly competitive marketing world, going on ‘gut instinct’ simply isn’t enough.

Here’s what you need to know about uncovering and improving your distinctive brand assets. 


What are distinctive brand assets?

A brand asset becomes ‘distinctive’ when it elicits recognition of a specific brand and doesn’t elicit the same level of recognition of a rival brand. 

Distinctive brand assets can take many forms, from the logos, colours, taglines and sounds described above, to the physical shape of the products (such as Coca-Cola’s distinctive bottle shape). 

Here are a few common examples of distinctive brand assets that nearly anyone will recognise:

  • The triple-bar Adidas stripes.
  • The yellow arches of McDonalds.
  • The red and white of Coca-Cola.
  • The “Just Do It” tagline of Nike.
  • The Windows startup sound.

Why should you measure the distinctiveness of brand assets?

In a saturated marketplace with low levels of differentiation, recognisable brand assets are an effective tool for driving brand salience (the extent to which a brand is thought about or noticed when a customer is making a purchase decision). 

Attention turns to preference, preference turns to loyalty, and loyalty turns to a stronger bottom line.

However, not every element in your brand arsenal is going to be distinctive, nor have the capability of becoming distinctive. In some cases, what might be considered a distinctive brand asset can actually be driving recognition of a rival brand as much as (or even more than) your own brand.

It’s all about context. Consider the colour red as a distinctive brand asset. Were a business in the FMCG space to try and own that colour and rely on it as a distinctive brand asset, it would be accidentally competing with Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mars, and a slew of other similar products in the same wider category.

By understanding and quantifying distinctiveness, you can better leverage the most distinctive of your assets without the risk of promoting competitors.

How do you measure brand asset distinctiveness?

While there are plenty of ways to generally measure the distinctiveness of a brand, one tool we use is the system developed by Jenni Romaniuk at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, called the Distinctive Asset Grid.


For an element to be considered distinctive, it must score highly on both fame and uniqueness. That is, a) most consumers must know that the element in question represents the brand, and b) the element must also evoke the brand and only the brand; not its competitors. 

As brand owners, you’ll want to maximise support for assets that trigger associations with the brand, not just the broad category of the brand. Otherwise you may end up providing benefits to category competitors as well.

That isn’t to say that an asset that doesn’t tick these boxes is worthless. An element that has been shown to be very unique but not famous may simply need to be used more often in marketing campaigns to solidify its fame among consumers. 

System 1: How is it affecting your brand's success? READ MORE

Research methodologies

Those are the metrics, now how do you measure them? You could simply ask through a survey or a focus group. ‘How many of you recognise this?’ and ‘What brands do you associate this with?’

That is one method. However, respondents can be motivated to simply get to the end of a long survey, choosing to mention only one brand, rather than all of their brand associations. Similarly, they may only mention the brand that is most strongly associated with the provided element—to give what they perceive to be the ‘right’ answer, rather than the ‘real’ answer (that might include multiple brands).

If Coca-Cola is asking you to fill out a survey about their brand, you aren’t going to be as comfortable mentioning Pepsi, even if you associate something with them.

Furthermore, these claimed recognitions rely heavily on people being able to recognise their associations consciously—what we call ‘System 2 thinking’. In reality, people will make associations with something before it reaches their conscious mind through unstoppable reactions: ‘System 1 thinking’. 

These associations drive just as much behaviour as System 2 (if not more), which is why we also use implicit priming techniques to tease out the unconscious brand associations that respondents may have for each asset. By doing so, we also avoid the overclaim and underclaim inherent in direct questioning methods, providing a more accurate representation of actual consumer brand associations.


Distinctive brand assets are a key tool in the fight for attention in the modern business world. To use them effectively, they must first be understood—and to be understood, they must first be measured. Apply the guidance in this article to take control of your brand and get the attention it deserves.


Read more about Sapien's unique approach to brand distinctiveness testing in our Sealord case study.

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Topics: Brand Health