Jenni Romaniuk & Louise Dunstone of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science explain how Distinctive Assets can help a brand stand out in a competitively cluttered e-commerce environment.

Envision this – a buyer, when they see a flash of colour, a combination of words or a familiar face, instantly think of a brand. How can this magic-like feat be accomplished, you may ask? Well the answer is via Distinctive Assets. When category buyers learn these non-brand name elements such as colours, logos, and characters as triggers for a brand, it becomes an autonomic response. The category buyer can’t help but participate in the game of guess the brand. 

Distinctive Assets help build mental and physical availability. While Mental Availability is vitally important to make the brand easily thought of, our focus here is on Physical Availability, which is about how easy the brand is to find and buy. 

Physical Availability has three pillars:

  • Presence – being where buying is happening;
  • Prominence – being easily found; and
  • Portfolio – having something buyable.

E-commerce = expanded presence

Demand for digital sales channels has accelerated and with it the supply of platforms. With online marketplaces such as Amazon.com, comparethemarket.com, adore.com.au, Alibaba, as well as online supermarkets such as Walmart, Tesco and Coles increasing their online presence, there are many opportunities to have the brand present in more channels. But presence alone is insufficient, because clutter means the brand needs to fight to stand out. 

Success in e-commerce = prominence

An often-cited benefit of online shopping is the range, which is great for the category buyer, but challenging for the brand. Sales, thy enemy is clutter. Plentiful, distracting, mental and physical clutter takes away our concentration capabilities and visual faculties, making any one particular brand hard to find.  

Other brands, images (such as promotions), words (such as reviews), combined with a distracted buyer brain means your brand is fighting an army for attention. Clutter takes different forms and we often underestimate its extent. Even more controlled environments such as a brand’s own website or app still have environmental clutter that the brand needs to cut through to succeed. If you don’t have a visually cohesive portfolio, your very own brand’s portfolio can add to the clutter, making it hard to find any one item you are selling. 

Types of clutter

Description

Environmental competitor brands

Brands sold in the same environment but operate in different categories.

Direct competitor brands

Brands within the same category but with different owners.

Company portfolio brands

Brands within the same category with the same owner but different brand names.

Brand portfolio offerings

Variants/sub-brands under the same core name.

Environmental clutter

Other signalling devices such as price promotions, ‘new’ stickers etc.

Does my brand look big in this?

The digital ‘shelf’ is small. It’s a challenge for even the best sighted amongst us to see all the on-screen elements, and with around 60-65% needing glasses in many countries, most of us are not even close to ‘best-sighted’. When confronted with small thumbnails on our phone or in an e-commerce store, it’s therefore not surprising that brands can be blurry and easily missed.

Shopper behaviour online can exacerbate the chance your brand will sink into the background. Searching by sub-categories such as flavour/scent, gluten free, or organic results in many similar options crowding the screen. This leads us to pose the question – how could Distinctive Assets help a brand stand out in competitively cluttered e-commerce environments?

Making your brand the Clara Bow of the screen

Clara Bow starred in the 1927 film ‘It’, about a woman who can’t help but attract attention no matter where she goes. You want your brand to similarly captivate everyone’s gaze, so it can be easily found on screen.

Building Distinctive Brand Assets, the book, introduced the idea of ‘Shopping Distinctive Assets’ as the subset of assets that act as brand beacons for buyers in shopping environments. These assets are created in advertising, but their raison d’etre is to help the brand ‘pop during the shop’.

Prior work examining which elements assist a brand in standing out on a physical shelf highlighted the importance of colour. However, it wasn’t one single colour that was advantageous, but simply whatever the brand’s colour was. This is because only part of standing out is what the brand looks like on screen. Prominence builds prior to reaching the screen, through the mental structures previously created and refreshed in buyer memory.

When we think of competitive environments, it is natural to think of major online marketplaces and supermarkets, but there are other competitive environments where the brand needs to standout such as an app on a smart TV, tablet or smartphone. We decided to look a little closer into this type of digital environment.

What stands out on your smart phone screen?

Let’s take an example of a smart phone screen, filled with apps vying for attention. On average, people have around 80 apps installed on their smart phone. That is a lot of crowded and cluttered screens of apps competing for attention and selection. We created some mock-up images of smart phone home screens and filled them with branded apps to ask two questions:  

What stands out to you? and why?

Our sample was 1,020 US Adults aged 18+. Two examples we tested were from the banking sector, where we tested apps from US banks as well as unknown bank apps (sourced from the Australian banking category). Looking at unknown apps allows us to focus solely on the design qualities of the app, as there is no brand usage or familiarity to draw from. 

The results across the different apps tested highlight the factors that dominate. Below we can see the reasons for standing out for five of the most commonly selected apps in each test.

Table 1: Reason for standing out: Top apps in each test
(% of those picking the app that gave that reason for standing out, multiple responses possible)


na= not applicable

Brand = Distinctive Asset

Brand usage/familiarity is the most common response across all US bank apps chosen and accounts for over half (51%) the responses overall. This was irrespective of brand size, with even smaller brands such as TD and Citi Group experiencing brand usage and familiarity as the most commonly mentioned aspect. The prize for original response does go to the person who recognised the Chase app because ‘my name is Chase’!  That takes branding to the extreme (although he did not say if he banked there!). Here’s a little win for the branding geeks. Only two of the five US bank apps have the brand name displayed in their logo. Regardless of this, a high percentage knew the brand. This shows the power of Distinctive Assets as they can become synonymous with the brand in category buyer memory, and as such draw people’s attention. 

Colour needs context to work in a competitive environment

Looking at colour, two US bank apps (TD Group and Citibank) dominate, but with very different colours. Amongst the unknown bank apps, three apps have colour as the most common response with the actual colours varying – green, black and blue, and black and red. This highlights again that while colour/colour combinations help a brand stand out, it’s not a function of a specific colour, but the colour as a brand asset and/or in contrast to the environment it is in.

Design matters

We also see design aesthetics holding significance across the board, consistently featuring across all ten apps. This is where branding and design come together – the combination of using the ingredients of a brand’s distinctive assets and presenting it in an appealing way help a brand stand out, even if not used or known.

Images have power when they have (brand) meaning

Amongst the US bank apps, the power of visual images is understated as the image responses often get subsumed in the brand recognition. Wells Fargo is the exception here, where the power of the image makes it one of the most common reasons for the app to stand out. For the unknown apps, one thing is clear: People love animals! The image of the lion and Dragon (or perhaps, as mentioned, the Loch Ness Monster or Unicorn?) were the most cited out of the five apps for standing out. Now that doesn’t mean everyone should rush and turn their app into an animal image, it just highlights when something is known and has meaning it gets attention, which is essentially what Distinctive Assets create for the brand. It doesn’t have to be an animal to do this, but it can be.

Words and weirdness are not big drawcards. 

Also noticeable are the weaker factors – simply being different/unusual and words/fonts. Being ‘quirky’/different for the sake if it was not why apps stood out, so don’t confuse distinctiveness with just being odd or weird.  

Words/fonts rarely attracted attention in either test. The app for ME bank is the slight exception (as one person wrote – ‘it just screams pick me’!).   

Key takeouts for succeeding in e-commerce

So, what does this mean for success on e-commerce platforms? Here are three tips:

  • Develop the right ‘shopping’ distinctive assets according to the type of environments your brand will be displayed in.
  • Marry together branding + design to use the brands’ distinctive assets in a way that is visually appealing to category buyers.
  • Images are more powerful than words, so prioritise them, particularly if you are a smaller brand with fewer users and lower awareness.

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Further reading

Romaniuk, J. (2018). Building Distinctive Brand Assets. South Melbourne, Victoria, Oxford University Press.

Romaniuk, J. and B. Sharp (2021). How brands grow: Part 2. South Melbourne, Oxford University Press.  Revised edition.

Gaillard, E., A. Sharp and J. Romaniuk (2006). Measuring brand distinctive elements in an in-store packaged goods consumer context. European Marketing Academy Conference (EMAC), Athens, Greece.