What is brand salience?

Published Jul 9 2024 6 minute read Last updated Jul 9 2024
brand salience
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  • Sean Dougherty
    Written by Sean Dougherty

    A copywriter at Funnel, Sean has more than 15 years of experience working in branding and advertising (both agency and client side). He's also a professional voice actor.

While visiting an unfamiliar city, you wake up feeling desperate for a morning cup of coffee. You immediately wonder where the nearest Starbucks is. After all, Starbucks has locations everywhere, and its offerings are consistent from place to place. It's your go-to spot when you can't brew a cup at home.

But why Starbucks?

While consistency and accessibility definitely influence your decision to look for a Starbucks, brand awareness and brand salience also play a role.

Brand awareness is a huge component of a marketer's toolkit. In fact, you probably spend a lot of your time consuming brand awareness messages. It is critical toward driving long-term demand. 

Brand salience, however, isn't discussed quite as much. That's unfortunate, since knowing how to improve and measure it can give companies a huge competitive advantage.

So let's unpack what brand salience is, how it benefits companies, how you can use it and how it is best measured.

Defining brand salience

Brand salience can be defined as the likelihood that consumers will think about your brand when making a purchase. For instance, when want to but a to-go coffee, are you thinking of Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts or something else? Whatever brand comes to mind first enjoys the highest brand salience specific to you.

And while it salience might seem like awareness, there a some nuanced distinctions. High brand awareness means consumers are generally familiar with your brand. For example, Apple has exceptionally high brand awareness, because nearly everyone knows about the company and its popular products.

However, high brand salience is a more specific factor that applies to situations when consumers buy products. You know about Apple's iPhones because you see them everywhere — and the company has some very influential advertisements. Depending on your budget, though, Apple might not come to mind when you're ready to buy a new phone.

Let's say you can afford to spend $200 on a smartphone. In that case, your mind probably goes straight to Android options that cost much less than iPhone models.

The psychology of brand salience

It's worth taking some time to talk about the psychology behind brand salience. Luckily, there's a lot of academic research to rely on.

In Conceptualizing and measuring brand salience, Jenni Romaniuk and Byron Sharp write that "brand salience reflects the quantity and quality of the network of memory structures buyers hold about the brands."

Don't let the phrase "memory structures" intimidate you. It isn't as complicated as it might sound. In this context, a memory structure refers to the connection between an outside item (like an iPhone or a cup of Starbucks coffee) and an internal memory.

Brands often use this concept to make campaigns "sticky." Through frequent exposure to brand assets, including color combinations, logos and trademarked phrases, a consumer's memory structures become stronger.

When you see the phrase "just do it," you think of Nike. When you hear "think different," you think of Apple. You've been exposed to these messages and their related campaign assets so often that there's a strong connection between the brands and your memory. At this point, you'd have a hard time not associating those phrases with the brands.

Today, marketers have so many ways to reach people and influence their purchasing decisions.

You can expose them to branded content through:

  • TV commercials
  • Social media platforms
  • PPC advertising campaigns
  • Banner ads
  • Content marketing that uses emotional stories

Category entry points

You may employ all of the tactics listed above and wonder how those are any different than brand awareness tactics. 

And you're right. Recognizing the psychological framework is only half of the challenge. You must also connect memories with key events that encourage consumers to think about your brand while preparing to buy something.

That involves cataloging and prioritizing category entry points to enhance mental availability at crucial times among your target audience.

It'd be great if everyone had a uniform list of entry points to focus on. But like so many things connected to a good brand strategy, it's specific to your company. You need to conduct research to identify the entry points that work specifically for your brand, its products and the people likely to purchase.

Let's say you're managing a campaign for an ice cream company. After testing ALL the flavors (in the name of research, of course) you start making a list of possible entry points for your category:

  • Grocery store ice cream aisles
  • Pop-up locations during summer events
  • Branded store locations that only sell products from the ice cream company
  • Specialty stores with freezer sections
  • Ice cream trucks

You can enhance mental availability by identifying your top entry points (based on cost, ease of implementing and anticipated return) and attaching your brand to them. This ensures that your brand comes to mind when the customer is making key purchase decisions.

The value of high brand salience

The higher your brand salience is, the more likely your brand will come to mind in a buying situation. And that means it's more likely for consumers to buy your products.

Salience does more than increase consumer sales, though. Bain Consulting finds that 80% to 90% of B2B brands were already in mind before buyers started researching. Additionally, 90% of the final purchases came from the brands that were considered on the first day.

Increase brand salience through marketing

Increasing brand salience through marketing relies on helping people create memory structures in their minds. A successful marketing strategy will likely focus on the quantity and quality of memory structures among the target audience.

Quantity of memory structures

The more a brand is linked to various memory structures in the brain, the more salient it becomes, making it more likely to be recalled during purchase decisions. For instance, a person who wants to start using email marketing campaigns to boost their company's reach is frequently exposed to Mailchimp through its long-term marketing efforts, ads, and industry mentions.

These efforts increase Mailchimp's brand salience and make it an obvious consideration for potential users. The person has so many memory structures connected to Mailchimp that they can't help but think about the brand when they need an email marketing service.

Quality of memory structures

The relevance and personal significance of a brand can create high-quality memory structures, enhancing brand salience. For example, someone who has been using an iPhone and MacBook for many years will have strong, high-quality memory structures related to Apple, making the brand highly salient and memorable.

So, how do you go about improving brand salience? Three steps can help:

1. Clear positioning

Some marketing efforts try to position a product or service as the solution for several types of situations. While that can work as a top-of-funnel strategy that builds brand recognition, you want a single, clear message for brand salience.

Let's go back to the marketer trying to improve ice cream sales. That person might position the "lime sorbet" flavor as the perfect treat on a hot day. The "dark chocolate" flavor, however, could be positioned as a nighttime indulgence.

With enough exposure, the next time someone wants ice cream during a summer baseball game, they'll recall the refreshing lime sorbet flavor and want to purchase it.

2. Distinctive brand assets

Distinctive brand assets help a company and its products stand out from competitors. They can also contribute to building brand salience by encouraging consumers to consider the brand when buying a product.

Some of the most distinctive brand assets include:

  • The Apple logo, which evolved over the years while remaining iconic
  • Mercedes-Benz's three-pointed emblem
  • The Nike "swoosh" (and the "Just do it" phrase referenced above)
  • The FedEx logo, which includes a subtle arrow to indicate movement

When you see any of these assets, you immediately know what brands they represent. They don't necessarily encourage brand loyalty, but they certainly improve overall brand visibility and recognition.

3. Category entry points

Jenn Romaniuk of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute defines category entry points as "the cues that category buyers use to access their memories when faced with a buying situation." In other words, a CEP can include any situational or environmental context that triggers a memory in the buyer.

How to measure brand salience

Since brand salience exists in the world, we can measure it to make sure our marketing attempts reach their goals.

An illustration from The Smart Branding Book shows how you can measure mental market share, which is closely aligned with mental availability and brand salience.

Dan White breaks the process into five stages:

  1. Talk to a diverse set of consumers to learn why they choose certain products in a category and how they make the decision.
  2. Use the interviews to identify potential CEPs.
  3. Start quantifying your research by surveying consumers and asking them which CEPs they use most often. (In case it isn't obvious, you want to use plain, straightforward language when talking to consumers. Most of them will have no idea what you want if you ask them about "category entry points.")
  4. Ask consumers which brands come to mind for each CEP.
  5. Make a chart that lists the CEPs along the x-axis (horizontal) and the number of responses for a brand along the y-axis (vertical).

Now, visualize each brand that stood out among the consumers you interviewed.

This visualization is rather simple but shows which brands excel within each CEP. Your brand has high salience if it does as well as or better than the other brands. If it doesn't, you have low salience and probably have a lot of work to build emotional connections and memory structures that influence purchasing decisions.


What is the difference between brand awareness and brand salience?

Brand awareness and brand salience have a lot in common, but there's one important difference: brand salience refers to how often consumers think about your brand when actively buying products or services. Brand awareness is a more general metric that applies to how familiar consumers are with your brand.

What are important books about brand building?

Byron Sharp's How Brands Grow is probably the most important book about building brands. It's a great book everyone in marketing should read. Keep in mind, though, that it can be a bit dogmatic. Learn from it, but remember that you might need to take a more nuanced approach in real-world scenarios. You can't overestimate the power of creativity.

It's also important for marketers to read diverse perspectives so they can adopt frameworks that fit a campaign's unique needs. Some of the books that will make you a well-rounded marketer include:

Also, If you want a short read that packs in a lot of useful information, check out The Smart Branding Book: How to Build a Profitable and Resilient Brand by Dan White.

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