The Subtle Science of Pseudo Branding

Say hello to the quiet, unobtrusive genius that creates powerfully positive associations with your brand.

  • Pseudo Branding

By Matthew van der Valk, Executive Creative Director of VMLY&R

So, what is pseudo branding anyway? Simply, it’s the subtle science of creating positive brand associations in the minds of consumers without shoving your brand down their throats. Think of it as a way to woo consumers. But before we get into that, an important distinction: “pseudo branded” is not the same as “unbranded”. Unbranded is about adding value, while pseudo branding is about creating associations that are not obvious at first but build brand love by taking the consumer on a journey that fosters identity curation.

It’s important to create variety in your pseudo branding approaches, since its strength is its subtlety. Here are some of the ways this can be achieved.

Borrowed interest
At its core, borrowed interest involves creating a connection to something bigger than your brand. This can be anything from an altruistic cause to a cultural phenomenon. The important thing is to make sure it’s relevant to what the brand’s purpose aims to be. We know that behavioural economics makes allowance for our irrationality as humans, but where borrowed interest really wins is in the predictably of irrationality. The connection to a particular interest or popular culture subject may not be rational, but if it is consistent, then it can be predicted. And that is key to having the authority to comment on a particular subject.

Visual representation
In pseudo branding we use design that is reflective of your brand but not directly representative of it. This is to avoid creating over-branded spaces that make consumers feel like their senses are being accosted. I am not suggesting here that we abandon our traditional branding approach, but rather acknowledge when too much is too much. Consider how you can create interest and solicit a response without shouting when a whisper may be more effective.

Auditory branding has long been used to aid recall, while pseudo branding can be used to alter the recall experience through personal connection. Unlike traditional branding, this is not about a catchy jingle or mnemonic, it uses tone and pitch to make consumers think of your brand in a different way. While this is arguably moving into the space of a brand asset, the opportunity here is to own a tone and pitch that allows consumers to create their own mental connection with brands. For example, in podcasts or video series, think of it as pseudo branded product placement.

There is a plethora of studies that speak of scent being the most powerful trigger of emotion and memory. However, here we are not talking about creating a branded scent. The opportunity in pseudo branding is to use scents in branded environments that illicit specific emotions that we want our brand to be associated with. With a branded scent, you only own a particular aroma. With pseudo branding, however, we can use different scents to illicit specific emotions that we want to be associated with.

State of mind
As brand custodians, one of our aims is to make our brands top of mind. This is extremely powerful from a pseudo branding perspective, where our brands become the default purchase of a particular state of mind. The benefit of this is that we can use a category job to drive volumes in spaces where our branding might be absent, and by not being directly branded we can benefit from other stakeholder messaging – for example, the retailer’s merchandise signage. When we are sensorially overwhelmed (such as in a crowded store environment) we tend to automate our responses to biological impulses. As a result, a sign that simply says “soft drinks” can make us consider if we are feeling thirsty and default to the brand that is top of mind. By not imposing our brand on the consumer, they feel like they have choice, but knowing that we have built the equity we know that we are the default choice.

The consumer as a medium
Pseudo branding is about building a bigger picture of how your brand fits into consumers’ lives. It’s an opportunity to create triggers of consideration beyond a regular branding repertoire. It’s creating spaces for consumers to think positively about your brand as they navigate life outside of your planned brand plan. We therefore want to teach consumers how to identify our brands even when our presence is not obvious. By teaching them to pick up on these subtle cues and enjoy the inherent dopamine response to “figuring things out”, we create greater brand presence in the mind of the consumer. And, of course, give them the brag value that they are acutely attuned to things that their peers are oblivious to.

It may sound quite meta, but the power of the pseudo brand is to use the thoughts, feelings, associations, and recognition that our brands build as a form of brand building in and of itself. When we look at the systemic relationships that our brands have with our consumers, we can use these connections for amplified brand building.

Originally published in Financial Mail.

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