Brand Influence Is More Than Good Communication



  • Brands are a mode of influence. They need to affect customer behavior.
  • It doesn't matter how much people know about your brand if you can't get people to buy it.
  • Successful brands help customers arrange their environments in ways that support the continued engagement with a product.


Great brands come to mind easily. You hear the product category, and these brands spring immediately to consciousness. You also get a mental image of product-related information, whether it is the image the brand hopes to convey, or the packaging that you expect when you encounter it in the world.

Because of the amount of time that brand managers spend focusing on positioning a brand and thinking about integrated communications around it, it is easy to believe that developing the brand image and then finding ways to communicate about it are the two central forces behind creating successful brands.

Ultimately, though, brands are a mode of influence. You create and nurture your brand as a way of affecting the behavior of customers. It doesn’t really matter how much people know about your brand if you can’t get them to buy it. And it turns out that communication is only one small tool for influencing people’s behavior, and it is often one of the least effective. Ask yourself: How often does someone simply tell you something that fundamentally influences your behavior? When put that way, the answer is often rarely, if ever.

If you truly want to influence people’s behavior in order to build your brand, then you need to focus on five central tools for affecting behavior. These tools need to be integrated into your strategy for developing a brand.

First, it is critical to help customers develop a plan to engage with your product. Communication can help with this, of course. Lululemon, for example, has done a great job of associating its clothing with yoga and working out, to help customers incorporate the brand into their wellness routines.

But, you can also encourage customers to think about when and where they will engage in brand-relevant activities. Don’t just associate the product with a situation; get customers to add that activity into their routine. This continued engagement is crucial, because no brand can survive if it sells a product to people only once.

Third, help customers to create habits and routines. It is a mantra of brand management that we want a brand to be “top of mind” for customers. But, the most successful brands are the ones that are so deeply entrenched in the lives of their users that they engage with the brand without thinking.

Creating habits means setting up consistent situations in which the customer engages with the product. For some brands (like detergents or toothpastes), this is easy because there is a daily usage context that supports developing habits. For luxury and image brands, though, this task is harder. For these brands, you want to create a consistent relationship between situations that repeat in people’s lives and the presence of your brand.

That leads to the fourth element of influence: the environment. We are all lazy creatures. That is, we do the things that are easiest for us to accomplish in our world. That means that you need to help customers to arrange their environments in ways that support the continued engagement with a product.

BMW is masterful at continuing their engagement with drivers. They send periodic gifts to drivers including sketches of the car and pens as a way of staying present in people’s environment. In this way, BMW is engaged with their customers, even when they are not in the car.

The environment can also be used to encourage customers to use the product more often. As I discuss in my book Smart Change, Procter & Gamble had to redesign their product Febreze to increase usage. Febreze contains a chemical that binds to oderants in the air and ensures that those molecules can no longer be smelled. Consumers loved the product when they tested it, but they rarely used it.

A big part of the reason why they did not use the product often was that it was packaged in the kind of spray bottle typically used for glass cleaners. Consequently, consumers tended to put the bottle in the cabinet under the sink where it was used only on cleaning days. When the product was redesigned to have a bottle that was attractive and could be left out on a counter, usage and sales increased.

Finally, brands need to engage with people to increase their influence on others. We are social creatures, and we are wired to adopt the goals of the people around us. When we see other people engaging in an activity or using a particular product, it strengthens our own goal to do the same thing.

One reason why obvious brand markers on clothing are so successful is that they subtly increase the goal for other people to engage with that brand. Returning to Lululemon, the ubiquitous company logo encourages other members of the community to engage with the brand.

Ultimately, brand communication is the starting point to influence, not the primary means to make it happen. It is crucial to think through the factors that will change people’s behavior to engage with a brand more often, and then to structure messages around behavior.

This article originally appeared in the December issue of Brand Quarterly. Copyright © 2014 Brand Quarterly. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from Brand Quarterly.

Photo Credit: missmac/Flickr Creative Commons


The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily The University of Texas at Austin.

About The Author

Art Markman

Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing, University of Texas at Austin

After getting a B.S. in Cognitive Science from Brown University in 1988, Professor Art Markman went on to graduate school in the Psychology...

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