What Is a Brand: An Overview of Corporate Branding


Find out what a brand is and how related concepts like brand image work.

Short on time? Skip to the plain English summary.


The concept of ‘brand’ is not a new one.  Virtually every person you meet will have some awareness of what corporate branding is.  Marketers and C-suite executives understand that a good brand underpins the success of their company.  Small business owners know it is an important part of their marketing (although how it relates to actual sales is somewhat fuzzy).  Laypeople understand it as a collection of tangibles – colours, logos and styles.

All those understandings are correct.  A brand does involve physical markers, and it is instrumental to successful marketing, but it is also more than that.  It’s a crucial piece of the entity that is a business, an intangible asset that is difficult to evaluate but still indisputably critical.

In this article, we will examine exactly what a brand is, as well as what it is not, and we will explore how a corporate brand interacts with other facets of marketing.

Etymology of Brand

When tackling difficult or elusive concepts, a useful place to start is the etymology of the concept’s name.  What does the word actually mean, and how was it first used?

The Old English word ‘brand’ originated from the Proto-Germanic brandaz, ‘a burning’, and had a broad range of meanings, including ‘fire’, ‘torch’ and ‘destruction by fire’.  The concept of ‘brand’ as an identifying mark first occurred in the 1400s, when it was used to describe the process of burning criminals’ flesh with recognisable imprints; by the late 1500s, it had come to describe marks made by a hot iron to identify the maker.  In the 1850s, it acquired its modern meaning – a particular make of goods, not just the symbols used to recognise them.

Understanding this transition in language is important, because it clearly debunks one of the key misunderstandings about brand: that it is nothing more than a combination of textual and visual elements, joined together by some elusive measure of company values.

The very fact that medieval brands were used shows us that a brand is certainly much more than that.  They were, in function, identical to the makers’ marks seen on medieval weaponry and jewellery – they proclaim the value of the product, differentiating it from similar but inferior offerings.  They also serve as an advertisement, so that other consumers can recognise the manufacturer (an early example of brand awareness, which we’ll talk more about later).  In some instances, such as cattle ranching, brands also proclaim ownership.  The physical components of a brand have always been signifiers of larger, more important concepts, rather than ends in and of themselves.

What is a Brand?

This brings us to the question: what is a brand?  To understand it, we need to look to John Balmer’s corporate marketing sextet, a mix of six elements that composes the corporate marketing umbrella [1].  These are:

  • Character (corporate identity)
  • Communication (corporate communications)
  • Constituencies (marketing and stakeholder management)
  • Covenant (corporate brand management)
  • Conceptualisations (corporate reputation)
  • Culture (organisational identity)

balmer's corporate marketing mix

The descriptions in the above diagram are a good way to differentiate each of the six concepts.  Why is this important?  Because, despite the vast array of literature that covers every facet of corporate branding, it’s frustratingly difficult to find a proper definition of ‘brand’, which is one of the reasons why even many professional marketers would be hard-pressed to explain exactly what a brand is.

The truth is that all six elements from Balmer’s sextet inform corporate branding.  A corporate brand is not just something communicated by marketers and graphic designers, nor is it just how consumers perceive a company.  It is simultaneously ‘Communication’ (which we can say is communicated identity, or what the company tells consumers it is) and ‘Conceptualisations’ (reputation and image, or how consumers see the company), underpinned by ‘Covenant’ (brand promise, or what consumers expect and what the company says it will deliver) and ‘Character’ (actual identity, or the objective reality of what the company is), informed by ‘Culture’ (how employees view and feel about the company and their place in it) and ‘Constituencies’ (the various stakeholder groups the company must satisfy to continue to exist, which includes customers, investors, public groups, and so on).

Is this all complex?  Incredibly so.  The days when branding simply meant product branding, or “product, packaging, pricing, distribution and advertising”, are long gone [2].  Corporate branding is now very much a deeply ingrained part of overall corporate strategy.  Cultivated and correctly managed, a corporate brand can be exceptionally powerful, gaining ‘brand equity’ and insulating itself against competitors by becoming a unique, entirely irreplicable entity.

What A Corporate Brand Is Not

It is very easy to fall into the trap of adopting words used by other industry peers, regardless of whether the meanings attributed to those words are correct.  ‘Branding’ is one of those words.  Google ‘branding agency [your city]’, and you will find results pages packed with agencies who say all the right things: brand identity, strategic branding, and so on.  Take a look at their services, and the illusion quickly collapses.

Many of these agencies will simply be offering graphic design services under the guise of ‘branding’ – they are creating visual brand elements, not a brand, but very often claim to be ‘branding experts’, despite the gap between technical design work and corporate strategy being vast.

This is not a new problem.  In 1991, King called out the conflation of ‘corporate brand’, ‘corporate identity’ and ‘company logo’ [2].  In 2003, Balmer and Grey stated [3]:

“A disconcerting trend from the world of consultancy over recent years has been the adoption of the term corporate branding by graphic design consultancies in describing their work and profession: this can only have a pernicious effect on the area. In part, this is understandable since both brands and identities have historically been regarded in visual terms.”

For marketers, business owners and executives alike, it is essential to understand that a brand is not a logo, or a colour palette, or typography – these are simply signifiers, a shorthand, if you like, that enables consumers to quickly draw mental links between the service or product and the very complex entity that is a corporate brand.

This doesn’t mean graphic design is not essential to brand-building, nor does it mean that logos and other brand elements should be dismissed as insignificant.  Rather, it means that creating a corporate brand is definitely not the domain of graphic designers, even if they call themselves ‘branding experts’, because it requires a multi-disciplinary strategic approach spearheaded by strategic communicators.

Using a Corporate Brand

It is my personal belief that one reason the concept of ‘brand’ has become so debased is because technicians, like graphic designers, don’t have a strategic understanding of it – they only see its implementation, the tactical side, when brand elements are leveraged by marketers for results, and so they conflate a brand with that brand’s various elements, not comprehending that the only reason these elements are effective is because of the much more complex corporate brand they signify.

In literature, these brand elements are collectively referred to as ‘brand identity’, which “is the means by which consumers identify different brands through distinctive (predominantly visual) features, and […] is an important component of brand equity” [4].  Once again, this explanation clearly highlights that brand elements are just signifiers.

For many marketers, though, the signifiers are all that is relevant.  The work of developing an actual corporate brand has been done by senior management, and it then falls to technical communicators to capitalise on that development.  In the next section, I’ll discuss the primary way marketers and executives use corporate brands.

To Create Expectations

Think back to when we talked about the origins of ‘brand’.  Remember how a brand was originally used to proclaim the value of a given product?  That usage is still the primary one.

When a corporate brand is used and the brand is known to the consumer, expectations are invariably created.  These expectations are informed by the six aspects of Balmer’s sextet.

Here’s an example.  You’re hungry, so you get into your car to find a restaurant to purchase food from.  At the nearest shopping centre, there are three burger joints: McDonald’s, Grill’d and a small independent restaurant.  Seeing the three neon-lit logos (brand elements), your brain immediately fetches relevant information based on your prior understandings of each brand’s corporate identity.

The McDonald’s logo triggers a few things:

  • The McDonald’s ad you saw last night on TV, which showed a family happily waiting for a returning father there (communicated identity – McDonald’s has communicated an ongoing narrative that it is a staple of family life)
  • Your own experiences with McDonald’s in the past, which have been mostly quick drive-through takeaways (an aspect of actual identity)
  • The McDonald’s brand promise, “an inexpensive, familiar, and consistent meal delivered quickly in a clean environment
  • The general way you perceive McDonald’s, which focuses on relevant aspects like quick service and consistent quality (conceived identity)

You’ve never been to Grill’d, but its logo also signifies certain things:

  • The Grill’d brand promise, “natural, healthy and fresh burgers designed for all dietary requirements”
  • The general way you perceive Grill’d, which is informed by what you’ve heard about it; you think of it as a hip but overpriced burger joint (conceived identity)

When it comes to the unknown independent, there is no brand for your brain to draw from, so, in this case, the brand element actually does constitute the brand.  Although you do create some impressions of your own based on the quality and composition of the logo, studies have shown that you’re almost always more likely to choose a known brand for common, repeat-purchase products, so it’s down to Grill’d and Macdonald’s [5].

Because you’re very hungry and you’re trying to save money, you go to McDonald’s; their brand has created an expectation of quick and affordable meals.  If that expectation was not met, you’d feel disappointment.  You might not go back.  And now think what would happen if many other consumers had expectations which were also not satisfied – very suddenly, McDonald’s has a reputational crisis, which can and normally does translate into serious implications for sales.

This is a very basic example of how a brand instantly creates expectations with consumers, and how those expectations can be both beneficial and, when not met, troublesome.  The measure of how a brand meets expectations is referred to as ‘brand credibility’.

Plain English Summary: What is a Brand?

A brand is made up of things like a company’s reputation, image, products/services, corporate culture and more. Consumers use the brand to interact with the company – think of it like a collection of all the important aspects of a company, boiled down into a single concept that consumers can understand and communicate with.

A brand is physically represented by brand elements, which are things like logos and brand colours. A brand is founded on the promise it makes to consumers, in which it pledges to deliver a specific product or service in exchange for the consumer’s money and time. If this promise isn’t kept, the brand’s credibility will be seriously damaged.

Brand Elements

Brand elements have already been discussed extensively in this article, but I will attempt to offer a single, clear definition for them to guide understanding:

Brand elements, collectively forming a brand identity, are the sensory cues that signify a given brand to consumers.

Like all signifiers, brand elements are only effective when they are recognisable and consistent.  They include things like:

  • Brand names
  • Logos
  • Taglines and mottos
  • Symbols
  • Packaging
  • Shapes
  • Brand voices
  • Colour palettes
  • Fonts
  • Sounds
  • Songs
  • Textures
  • Smells

The most recognisable brands only need one or two elements to be identified by consumers.  For example, if you created a logo written in Klavika Bold, using white text and a blue (#3b5998) background, virtually all consumers would associate the result with Facebook, because the font and colour palette are so widely representative of that brand.

facebook logo
The Facebook logo.

Brand elements are often formalised with the registration of a trademark, which legally enforces the brand’s exclusive right to use them, and makes it illegal for competitors to confuse or mislead customers by using very similar elements.  Normally, a single element cannot be trademarked – rather, it is the usage of them in combination which is trademarked.

Brand elements are typically created by technicians, like graphic designers and copywriters, in response to guidance from senior management.  Although a brand’s visual identity (logo, colours and fonts) is often its most recognisable element, others, such as brand voice or sound, can also play a critical role in creating evocative signifiers.

Corporate Identity versus Corporate Brand

Before we go any further, we need to address a point of confusion in the literature: corporate identity versus corporate brand.  There are various concepts proposed by different scholars, a useful summary of which can be found in Abratt and Kleyn’s 2012 article [6].

I have already discussed corporate identity at some length in another article, available here.  For simplicity’s sake, we can borrow Balmer’s 2008 definition [7]:

“The traits that define a corporation’s identity are numerous.  For instance, they encompass company ethos, activities, quality, market position, location, geographical scope, organisational type, structure, procedures and culture. Corporate identities are informed by history and will have been shaped by past strategies. A corporation’s relationships and degree of dependency with other corporations and with customers, shareholders and governments will also materially influence the corporate identity.”

Also worth noting is that a corporate identity is not a fixed entity, nor does it take a single shape – it is subject to constant change, evolving and reaffirming in relation to its composite elements, as well as having multiple, co-existing forms, like:

  • Actual Identity
  • Communicated Identity
  • Conceived Identity
  • Ideal Identity
  • Desired Identity

Most of these identities and elements are present in the definition of brand we discussed earlier.  So what is the difference between corporate identity and corporate brand?  We can look to the diagram of a consumer’s interaction with a brand for the answer.

A corporate brand is, as Abratt and Kleyn state, the interface through which companies interact with consumers and vice versa, whereas a corporate identity has a multiplicity of forms, some of which feed into a brand and some of which (desired and ideal identities) do not.  I agree with Abratt and Kleyn that both brands and identities are formed regardless of whether a company wills them to or not; as long as there is an interaction of some sort between the company and the consumer (a touchpoint) and a brand element (even just a company name), a brand will be formed.

consumer's interaction with a brand

Brand Personality

Brand personality (BP) has existed as a concept since the 1950s, but modern methodologies have been largely shaped by Jennifer Aker’s 1997 article, ‘Dimensions of Brand Personality’, where she defines BP as “the set of human characteristics associated with a brand” [8].

Understanding brand personality is not an idle theoretical exercise.  When consumers attribute certain personality traits to a brand, these traits act as magnets for similar audiences.  Compatibility between BP and consumer personalities equates to greater brand preference.

We can borrow Aker’s example of BP for clarification: “Absolut vodka personified tends to be described as a cool, hip, contemporary 25-year-old, whereas Stoli personified tends to be described as an intellectual, conservative, older man” [8].   As both common sense and academic research illustrates, these BPs have a direct impact on buying choice [9].  Following the above example, a 25-year-old might purchase the ‘cool’ brand, because that is how they view themselves; a businessperson wanting to be respected in the eyes of their peers might purchase Stoli, because the brand’s personality reflects their own desired image.

BP is formed, as Aker notes, through a variety of factors, including [8]:

  • User imagery, or “the set of human characteristics associated with the typical user of a brand”
  • The company’s employees
  • Product-related attributes
  • Product category associations
  • Brand elements
  • Pricing
  • Distribution channels

Brand Associations

Brand associations are closely intertwined with related concepts like brand personality, but are much more broadly understood and utilised by mainstream marketers.  The theory behind exactly why and how brand associations are formed is complex, but the functional output is simple: when you think of a brand, you also think of other things – these are the brand associations.

Associations can include both brand-related associations (past experiences, brand elements, et cetera) and non-related associations (everything from traits like ‘high in fibre’ to locations like ‘snowy mountains’ to demographics like ‘middle-class middle-aged females).

Brand associations are generated by consumers, so it is true that there will be variance in associations between individuals; it is the task of marketers to establish uniform positive associations through repetition and thoughtful marketing choices.  Some researchers, like A. S. C. Ehrenberg, have argued that brand associations are unstable, but newer research indicates that brand associations do not typically change, and, if they do, the primary reason is increased exposure to the brand’s marketing stimulus [10].

The most important understanding regarding brand associations requires us to reverse our thinking: rather than asking ourselves which concepts we associate with our brand, we need to ask ourselves, which concepts is our brand associated with?

Associations are a two-way street: just as thinking of Coca-Cola might induce thoughts of summertime parties with friends, wondering which drinks you should purchase for your summertime party might prompt thoughts of Coca-Cola, opening the door to a sale.  Another example: thinking of ‘basketball shoes’ will invariably elicit thoughts of Nike Jordans, which Nike’s excellent marketing has managed to irrevocably link with playing basketball.

Jonah Berger refers to these ‘reverse associations’ as ‘triggers’, which I think is more appropriate language – triggers create thoughts of brands, while brands create thoughts of associated concepts [11].  I have briefly discussed triggers as they relate to content marketing in another article, but I strongly recommend also reading Berger’s book Contagious for a clearer explanation of triggers in action.

Brand Positioning

Brand positioning is the concept of brand associations taken to its logical conclusion.  A good definition from Janiszewska and Insch is “assuming a desired position in the audience’s awareness by owning a specific set of associations in the context of competition” [12].  Therefore, positioning is both subjective and relative – it varies between consumers, and requires orientation with competitors.

Janiszewska and Insch make the assertion that, although brand positioning is a means to differentiate a brand from very similar competitors, good positioning needs three additional attributes:

  1. Emotional and functional significance; the position must draw on benefits to the target group.
  2. Credibility; the position must by corroborated by delivery of the expectations created by said position.
  3. Opportunity for growth; the position must be able to withstand brand extensions and changes in products/services.

Fuchs and Diamantopoulos identify five key types of positioning strategies, which I have replicated below [13]:

Type of positioning Description Examples
Features (concrete attributes) Company highlights the concrete attributes of the brand in order to create a differential advantage; concrete attributes are characteristics of the brand advantage; they are objectively measurable, mostly tangible and typically “search features”; they are also specific to the product category Knee airbag; cylinders; horsepower; price; air-conditioning; hybrid engine
Abstract attributes Often regarded as bundles of concrete attributes; attributes that are frequently comparable across product categories; they are not tangible Quality; style; sporty; fast acceleration; innovativeness
Direct (functional) benefits Communicate advantages of (the usage of) a brand; the personal value consumers assign to product or service features; closer related to oneself than product attributes; not directly observable; reflect whether a brand works as intended; mostly attribute-based benefits; refer also to problem solutions and functional needs Cost reduction; park in smallest lots; comfort; convenience; durability; superior service; ease-of use
Indirect (experiential/ symbolic) benefits Benefits that satisfy experiential/hedonic needs; psycho-social consequences out of the use of the product that have a hedonic, expressive, or symbolic function; give consumers an indirect advantage of the consumption of a product; perception of a self-or a social-image benefit Car X draws people’s looks; makes driver feel younger; gives you respect; driving experience; driving fun
Surrogate positioning Designed to create consumer associations about external aspects of a brand; says something about the brand that allows the consumer to come to individual conclusions; not attributes and benefits; creation of inferred (secondary) associations; refers to intangible aspects of the brand User type “for people who never grow up”; making associations with Formula 1 or great writers; highlighting the pioneer status; product category disassociations; “the bestselling car”


Of the above, the study by Fuchs and Diamantopoulos found that functional benefit, experiential benefit and surrogate positionings outperformed either of the attribute-based positionings [13].  To corporate marketers, this shouldn’t be surprising – users almost always respond better to benefits over features, regardless of the specific scenario.

Importantly, a brand is not necessarily limited to a single type of positioning.  Janiszewska and Insch offer four different strategies [12]:

  1. Concentrated positioning; different positionings for very narrow, niche target demographics.
  2. Exclusive positioning; different positionings for broader, more diverse target groups (the example of tourists and investors for holiday destinations is given).
  3. Interrelated positioning; different positionings for different target groups, underpinned by a common idea.
  4. Uniform positioning; the positioning is the same across all target groups.

brand positioning integration level

Brand Values

Unlike many of the other concepts we’ve discussed, brand values are not informed by the brand so much as they themselves inform it.  They are not a consequence, but a choice, deliberately selected by the company’s executives as a guiding moral light for the company.  Brand values affect each of the six elements in Balmer’s sextet, and, consequently, must align with each.  A mining company proclaiming ‘environmentalism’ as a value would quickly erode its brand credibility if it destroyed high-value conservation areas; a research company claiming ‘integrity’ would suffer hugely if it was found to have fabricated research results.  When there is dissonance in brand values and brand actions, one of two things occurs:

  1. The brand’s values are revealed as hollow. They have not been taken up in the organisation nor in its broader marketing strategies, and stakeholders do not really believe them.  In this case, the dissonance has no effect.  This normally occurs when the espoused brand values are not properly thought out, and do not actually reflect the brand’s true values.
  2. The brand’s values are believed by stakeholders, and are heavily relied upon in its marketing strategies. In this case, the dissonance will cause a reputational crisis.

Brand Equity

Brand equity is not a factor of brand, but rather a desired outcome of it.  A concise definition of brand equity is “the added value with which a given brand endows a product” [14].  High brand equity can be achieved through a complex web of factors, which are perhaps best explained through Keller’s customer-based brand equity pyramid [15].

keller's brand equity pyramidTo begin building brand equity, the brand must be salient in the minds of consumers (brand awareness).  The next two building blocks are brand performance and brand imagery.  Brand performance is essentially the functional features – how well does the brand meet the needs of consumers?  Brand imagery is how consumers perceive the brand, and encompasses factors like brand reputation, brand image, brand personality, corporate identity, user imagery, brand associations, brand positioning and brand values.


It is worth noting that when Sinha et al measured brand equity in their 2008 paper, they found perceived quality significantly outweighed intangibles like brand personality, which is important for corporate marketers [16].  If consumers fail to recognise the quality of a brand’s offerings – even if the offerings are objectively high-quality – then building brand equity will be an effort in vain.

Consumer judgements and consumer feelings are informed by brand performance and brand imagery.  Keller delineates judgements and feelings as arising from the ‘head’ (considered evaluations of the brand) and the ‘heart’ (emotional responses to the brand) [15].

He cites four types of important consumer judgements [15]:

  • Brand quality
  • Brand credibility
  • Brand consideration
  • Brand superiority

He also lists six types of important consumer feelings [15]:

  • Warmth
  • Fun
  • Excitement
  • Security
  • Social approval
  • Self-respect

The final building block of the pyramid, consumer-brand resonance, “reflects consumers’ loyalty, attachment, identification and engagement with a brand” [14].

Brand Loyalty

The final concept that we will touch upon is brand loyalty, which is indisputably the holy grail of marketing outcomes.  To achieve a state where consumers will select a brand, again and again, indifferent to minor fluctuations in price, quality and competitors, is an incredible thing.  It is an indication that the brand has tapped into something so powerful it is now partially insulated from market forces – it has, if you like, succeeded in brand-building.

The exact reasons why consumers choose to repeat-purchase from specific brands are complex.  Russel-Bennett et al identify three dimensions of loyalty: attitudinal (encompassing the emotional and cognitive dimensions) and behavioural [17].

Katz also identifies four functions of attitudes (motives) which explain brand loyalty [18]:

  1. Utilitarian/adjustive function. Consumers evaluate a range of similar brands, choosing a brand that maximises rewards and minimises penalties.
  2. Value-expressive function. Consumers purchase a brand that they feel exemplifies and expresses their values.
  3. Ego-defensive function. Consumers purchase a brand that they feel contributes to their self-image and self-esteem, and protects them from internal conflict.  Purchasing a particular luxury brand which exemplifies power and social importance to mask internal insecurities is an example of the ego-defensive function.
  4. Knowledge function. Consumers purchase a brand because they are familiar with the brand, which helps them anticipate future outcomes related to the product or service.

While understanding why brand loyalty occurs is not as important as understanding how to elicit it, it is useful for identifying the motives of consumers, and, consequently, the potential impact of brand changes.

For example, Gucci, for a range of reasons, has come to exemplify luxury, style and wealth.  Its excessively high pricing excludes its consumers from the utilitarian function, and its quality difference is perhaps not significant enough to justify brand loyalty via the knowledge function.  Perhaps certain individuals feel Gucci’s style expresses them well (the value-expressive function), but I suspect that, for many consumers, the ego-defensive function is the primary driver of loyalty.  This is significant because if Gucci were no longer one of the apex representatives of luxury fashion, many of its presently loyal customers would defect to brands which better boosted their self-esteem.  Thus, to retain the loyalty of its currently user group, Gucci needs to keep its exclusive status intact.


Understanding what brands are and how they are built is incredibly complex.  Actioning that understanding in real-world situations is even more challenging.

For marketers, business owners and C-suite executives, though, the concept of brand demands comprehension.  A brand is built not just by the technicians who create its elements, but by the entire organisation – from the frontline staff who act as touchpoints to the CEO whose decisions have wide-reaching consequences for corporate identity.

If you want to create a brand that holds equity and attracts enduring loyalty from its consumers, you can’t do it alone.  Educate your decision-makers.  Teach them about the importance of brand-building.  And, when necessary, ask for their help, because you will need it.

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[18] Katz, D. (1960) The Functional Approach to the Study of Attitudes. Public Opinion Quarterly. 24(2), 163–204. DOI: 10.1086/266945

By Duncan Croker

Duncan is a copywriter with a background in editing and storytelling. He loves collaborating with brands big and small, and thrives on the challenges of hard marketing.