The components of digital branding and their effects on brand equity

Various market orientation and branding models are already familiar to a lot of academics and practitioners. However, the digital landscape, in particular social media, has given marketers a new set of concerns. Can these elements be brought together in a single model with positive consequences for brand equity?

Jack Yan1
CEO, Jack Yan & Associates

This is an abridged version of the same article appearing in the Journal of Digital and Social Media Marketing, vol. 1, 2013.

Many words have been written about branding in the offline world, and how, for instance, a corporate vision can impact on image and business performance,2 how social responsibility is an important factor in modern branding,3 and a growing awareness of consumer rights and empowerment in the 2000s.4 When it comes to online branding, the pace of change means that academic articles can come out later than needed, although fundamentally, their principles are sound. Social media, especially the rivalry between competing websites and audiences becoming accustomed to shorter product life cycles,5 have seen even speedier changes. The advent of social media may have once been seen as marketers losing control of their brands, but in reality it is a case of adjusting to the new tools and using them effectively for the same aims.

Market orientation
The market orientation studies of Narver and Slater,6 and Jaworski and Kohli,7 endure in branding. From an organizational level, companies that are closer to the customer and understand their wants and needs, are likely to perform better. Those that have structures that enable them to respond to customers more rapidly and effectively also have better business performance. What the internet has provided is the opportunity for more internally transparent and efficient systems, as long as the organization is willing to embrace them. Even as early as 2001, the market orientation could be seen with small companies’ leaders using feedback forms to listen to their customers, rather than have them go through a separate department, and responding accordingly.8
   When it comes to brands, the models proposed by Narver and Slater and Jaworski and Kohli need little modification. It can be said that a successful market orientation can lead to stronger brand equity,9 and consequently stronger business performance. One additional element, on top of management commitment, facilitative management and interdepartmental connectedness, is the existing image of the organization, which impacts on how audiences perceive it, and the process of vision-setting.
   While these are inherently backward-looking models—customers can come into contact with a firm only when there is a complaint—there is potential for using the feedback as inspiration for innovation. Audience engagement can, at least, be a sounding board for future developments, and social media themselves can provide inspiration if an organization is careful selecting which thought-leaders to follow. With the rise of outsourcing, virtual businesses and collaboration in the 21st century, market orientation principles apply even more strongly. Just as with customers, organizations need to adopt a similar approach to external contractors, for instance, requiring top management commitment and the sort of integration of those contractors to the organization once expected of an in-house department. There needs to be a different type of interdepartmental connectedness—more an inter-organizational connectedness—to enable forward-looking approaches, environmental scanning, research and development, identifying latent needs and creating demand.10 Similarly, treating customers and audience members as sources of knowledge and value creation benefits organizations;11 the interaction, whether real or virtual, can strengthen the organization’s brand.12

The existing image and ensuring fidelity
While market orientation is concerned with antecedents and consequences, branding adds one additional loop: the impact of an existing image. The audiences’ prior contact with the brand or even the industry at large will influence them. On the one hand, the online world has provided practitioners with tools to ensure greater fidelity, especially in the area of typography, thanks to new technologies and the popularity of tablet-targeted magazines, while social media have, in some ways, reversed these very developments.
   There have been studies of how brand associations—one of the ingredients of brand equity13—influence consumer preference and behaviour, so its connection to business performance has been established.14 But when the organization itself is planning its brand, or a rebrand, those existing perceptions will come in to play, too: those associations will impact on what vision the organization will set. It needs to know where the organization is at in the minds of consumers so it gets an idea of how much or what effort is needed to change mindsets; for a new organization, it needs to know how the industry is perceived so it can create a brand that is sufficiently differentiated, which can communicate unique selling propositions to the audience. The now-defunct GM brand Saturn was one example, which told consumers they could expect better service and haggle-free deals on cars; Orange was a successful exercise in differentiation when it came to the mobile telephone market by adopting a friendlier, non-technical name—something unheard of at the time. In a pre-social media era, both were backed up by sufficiently large campaigns that allowed them to buck the trend—without them, few would have realized just how different the brands were.
   Walvis notes that ‘brand preferences, retrieved from long-term memory at the moment of choice, [can influence] the final decision in favour of one brand at the cost of another,’15 which explains why less established brands wanting to look established often adopt the æsthetic of their industry. Law firms will often use black or blue as their brand colours, with a serif typeface;16 fashion magazines will often have a modern17 typeface in their masthead (Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle all share this characteristic). The choice, then, is to either go against the establishment to distinguish yourself markedly to get among those preferences; or to be part of it, and align yourself with a market leader in the hope that industry associations along with more subtle differentiating factors make you the more likely choice. There is a third way: bringing in conventions from another industry into your own one, in the belief that the associations from there give positive associations to your brand.
   The theory is that the visual cues, among others, help guide the consumer toward the brand. When the brand is chosen, it has to be recalled from memory (unconsciously in the majority of cases) before it is evaluated.18 Brands which have the greatest saliency have the greatest chance of being selected, says Walvis:19
   The finding that saliency—in the sense of becoming top-of-mind at the moment of choice—is such a dominant factor in brand choice and is supported by recent findings in neuroscience. In an overview article, Duncan20 has shown that there is a very general principle at work in our brain under which stimuli compete for ‘cortical representation’. Visual and auditory signals, for example, vie for our attention. There is a constant battle going on in our brain, whereby cues compete for entry into our awareness.

This principle of competition for awareness not only applies to external cues (eg visual or auditory stimuli coming from the environment) but also to thoughts, actions, goals, meanings and especially memories as well (eg cues emanating from inside the brain).

   Among the techniques to get the brand chosen is repetition, with empirical studies showing that the stimuli need to be identical for activating and retrieving the memory. Others that Walvis outlines are how a brand is associated with elements that are personally important to the consumer; and how many links it has to cues, forming a rich synaptic network in the mind. In the last situation, experience with the brand—Walvis uses the example of Lego play areas in toy stores—forms a greater number of cues. He expresses these as three corollaries:21

   Law 1: The higher the distinctive relevance of branding efforts, the more likely the brand will be chosen.
   Law 2: The higher the coherence of branding efforts across time and space, the more likely the brand will be chosen.
   Law 3: The more engaging the branding environment that is created, the more likely the brand will be chosen.

   Similar lessons can be applied in semiotics, especially how the brand is communicated to audience members after the branding exercise is complete, during the exposition stage. Brand equity is strengthened through the above laws, too, which leads to the brand’s performance in the market-place.
   Historically, the three laws have not had complete relevance in the digital world. Early websites, for instance, were hampered by download speeds, colour choices, and poor graphics, and were accessed by small audiences.22 Organizations might invest greatly in a corporate identity programme, only to find that the expense was frustrated once the web was involved. Of Walvis’s first two laws, brands were not doing too well online in the early days.
   Yet, the web still helped those who employed it well. A 2002 study by Stanford University23 showed that credibility was still largely judged on appearance as the first criterion. Those sites provided users with an experience that was visually pleasing, and the uptake of newer sites such as Tumblr and Pinterest, for instance, which launched 2007 and 2010 respectively, suggests that visuals remain a strong part of the web experience for some users.24 The third law was fulfilled by many sites, especially those that were pushing the envelope with animations by the turn of the century. But meeting one out of three laws did not make the World Wide Web that enticing a medium for brands. It remained a medium that was, in the fin de siècle vernacular, ‘the weakest link.’ It has taken till the 2010s, the third decade of the World Wide Web, when online typography began resembling offline typography, and when brands could expect that their investment in an identity programme would not be frustrated by the internet.

Differentiation in the age of social media
All the popular social media sites—Facebook, Twitter, the 2012 incarnation of Myspace, Pinterest, Google Plus—have their own interfaces, where the body type is whatever their designers, not the organizations’ brand consultants, have chosen. Tumblr—if it can be called a social media platform—allows for greater customization of skins, but generally not when it comes to the news feed, where users will often get their information about a brand they follow. All the advances highlighted above, to get websites behaving as offline media, no longer come into play within these networks; nor do they work particularly well with mobile devices.25
   It is no surprise that digital branding, then, can become more about the photography and personalities, and building the relationship between organization and audience member. Differentiation,26 in this realm, is still done through visuals, but a different type: these visuals highlight the culture of the organization, of people there expressing behaviours consistent with the vision statement or strategy, and of the way content is phrased. It may be done through audio cues—important for musicians, especially with the new Myspace—or even videos and Podcasts. It may be done through the style of engagement, which expresses the attitude of the organization’s brand itself. Or, it may even be done through the form of the product itself, such as Microsoft extending its reach from software to the Surface Tablet for Windows, or the way a tablet’s or smartphone’s interface works.27
   With the rise of mobile devices—something forecast in the 1990s but only taking hold today—brands will need to make themselves work in very different environments, those in which they have little control over the interface’s brand exposition in any respect. People populate social networks as they never did before: Facebook crossed its 1,000 million users’ mark in 2012. In some ways, brands are back to where they were at the dawn of the web, where browsers were limited by resolution, colour and graphics—and from where we can learn some lessons. In summary, brands have shifted to a content-, experience- or context-based decade when it comes to the digital sphere, one that is ideally collaborative with the audiences.
   Differentiation is also done through the level of transparency that a brand provides, in line with the thinking in Beyond Branding, identified as early as 2002.28 This might be extended to the ideas of user engagement—that by lifting the veil on the organization, audiences will become more involved and form a greater connection to it. Not only have the internal and external messages of brands become more similar,29 in the social media sphere, showing “behind the scenes” activities30 may have a positive effect on audience engagement and, therefore, may be considered one of the cues in how one might associate with the brand.31 While it would elicit honest feedback—sometimes negative—one marketing director said at a 2008 Marketing Society forum:32

The opportunity to create genuine, lasting dialogue is priceless, and brands can gain more valuable opinion and information on a social network than from any focus group or questionnaire.
   The key to success is open-mindedness, a willingness to engage in debate, and the persistence to maintain conversation with users for as long as they feel it is necessary. People will embrace brands if they take the time to interact, and placing such an emphasis on consumer respect will be rewarded with invaluable levels of loyalty and trust.

   Engagement33 is part of the task, and in both cases, this is aided by the companies being relatively small and run by their founders. The first generation’s personality is still very much part of the communications’ mix. Existing branding knowledge already informs us how having the right tone for communicating with audiences is important, and this equally applies in social media.
   But where does social networking fit in to the branding model? It is unlikely to be the first point in branding: people might not be aware of the brand’s social network presence (nor would they wish to follow it) until they encounter it elsewhere first, fitting in with Novak34 as well as student research by Pereira de Almeida.35 While in some cases, a strong social network can be useful for previewing an upcoming venture, there is still a prior relationship somewhere that led a user to it, such as a friend’s recommendation. If the user is introduced to the venture for the first time, then there is no brand per se: the brand could not yet have differentiated, communicated or symbolized itself. At best, there is knowledge of only a brand name, a single proprietary brand asset. Branding via social networks only takes place after some contact with the user, when it has had the chance to perform the basic functions, and the relationship is formed.
   The relationships created through social networks may have a different form to those created via call centre contact, a branch visit, or an email exchange, but it is a relationship between an organization and a person, not one between friends. Traditionally, those touch-points are thought of as part of how the brand is exposed to audiences; an organization’s social network could be thought of as part of how the brand is expressed to audiences, with various parts feeding in to brand equity. This would make the model very simple, but it runs counter not only to Bonchek, who believes in an entirely parallel model, but some of the authors who have pointed to the increasing democratization of branding.
   If Ind,36 Engeseth37 and others are also right, then the demand for transparency by modern consumers should mean that social networking should also impact on vision-setting and research, two earlier stages in the branding model. The overall brand attitude of the organization should take in to account what audiences think of it. Brands are no longer created in a top-down model since the factors affecting the brand are so diverse and uncontrollable, a trend that began with email as well as subvertising.38 Media are too diverse and there are too many communications’ channels. Anyone who connects with the brand is a potential communicator of it, through re-Tweets, Facebook shares and Tumblr reblogs. Organizations can best be thought of as stewards for a brand, but not their controllers.
   The author proposes that social networks create an additional layer of concerns for marketers, but they can be incorporated into any branding programme without affecting the existing model drastically. The consequences of working well in social media are still image and brand equity, which other researchers have shown. The reality of the digital world is that it falls somewhere in between being a complete game-changer and a mere addition to one part of the model: it should impact on how we practise branding, but not what we practise.

   1. LLB, BCA (Hons.), MCA. CEO, Jack Yan & Associates (; Founding Publisher, Lucire (; Director, the Medinge Group ( Copyright ©2012 by Jack Yan & Associates. All rights reserved.
   2. J. Yan: ‘The business of identity’, CAP, volume 4, no. 3, spring 2000.
   3. N. Ind (ed.): Beyond Branding: How the New Values of Transparency and Integrity Are Changing the World of Brands. London: Kogan Page 2003; T. Kitchin: ‘Corporate social responsibility: a brand explanation’, The Journal of Brand Management, vol. 10, no. 4, May 2003, pp. 312–26.
   4. C. Lawer and S. Knox: ‘Customer advocacy and brand development’, Journal of Product and Brand Management, vol. 15, no. 2, 2006, pp. 121–9.
   5. A. Hermens: ‘Knowledge exchange in strategic alliances: learning in tension’, Creativity and Innovation Management, vol. 10, no. 3, 2000, pp. 189–200.
   6. J. C. Narver , and S. F. Slater: ‘The effect of a market orientation on business profi tability’, Journal of Marketing, vol. 54, October 1990, pp. 20–35.
   7. B. J. Jaworski and A. K. Kohli: Market orientation: antecedents and consequences’, Journal of Marketing, vol, 57, July 1993, pp. 53–70.
   8. J. Yan: ‘Online branding: an antipodean experience’, in: W. Kim, T. W. Ling, Y.-J. Lee, and S. S. Park,(eds.): Human Society and the Internet . Berlin: Springer 2001, pp. 185–202 .
   9. J. Yan, ‘The business of identity’, op. cit.
   10. J. I. Jenssen, E. Nybakk: ‘Inter-organizational innovation promoters in small and knowledge-intensive firms’, International Journal of Innovation Management, vol. 13, no. 3, 2009, pp. 441–66; G. Ahuja, ‘Collaboration networks, structural holes, and innovation: a longitudinal study’, Administrative Science Quarterly, vol. 45, no. 3, 2000, pp. 425–52.
   11. D. A. Levinthal and W. M. Cohen: ‘Absorptive capacity: a new perspective on learning and innovation’, Administrative Science Quarterly, vol. 35, 1990, pp. 128–52.
   12. J. H. Alexander, J. W. Schouten, H. F. Koenig: ‘Building brand community’, Journal of Marketing, vol. 66, January 2002, pp. 38–54.
   13. D. Aaker: Managing Brand Equity. San Francisco: Free Press 1991.
   14. A. G. Woodside and R. J. Trappey: ‘Finding out why customers shop your store and buy your brand: automatic cognitive processing models of primary choice’, Journal of Advertising Research, vol. 32, no. 6, 1992, pp. 59–78; B. S. Castleberry and A. S. C. Ehrenberg: ‘Brand usage: a factor in consumer beliefs’, Market Research, vol. 27, no. 4, 1990, pp. 477–84.
   15. T. H. Walvis: ‘Three laws of branding: neuroscientifi c foundations of effective brand building’, Brand Management, vol. 16, no. 3, 2008, pp. 176–94 at p. 180.
   16. J. Yan: ‘Between the Gibson Sheats: a law firm rebrands’, All about Branding, March 2003,
   17. Defined as a typeface related to Bodoni or Didot, a serif style with a geometric base and characterized by strongly contrasting vertical and horizontal strokes.
   18. Walvis, op. cit., at p. 181.
   19. Ibid., at p. 182.
   20. J. Duncan: ‘Brain mechanisms of attention’, The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, vol. 59, no. 1, 2006, pp. 2–27, cited by ibid.
   21. Walvis, op. cit., pp. 186–8.
   22. M. A. Tinker: Legibility of Print, 3rd ed. Iowa: Iowa State University Press 1963. However, Poole argues that Tinker’s conclusions could have come from the familiarity of serif typefaces at the time of the original study in 1932, and that the more commonplace nature of sans serif today could yield a different result. The debate, then, is not settled, and Poole believes that there is no discernible difference in modern practice. This author agrees with his belief as far as print is concerned, and that the legibility of any one style of typeface will be influenced by context and familiarity. Online, however, serifs, especially those without antialiasing or subpixel rendering, can appear too heavy because of pixel sizes—though no empirical studies have been made. A. Poole: ‘Which are more legible: serif or sans serif typefaces?’. Alex Poole, February 17, 2008, J. Yan: ‘New dawn’, Eye, no. 79, spring 2011,
   23. B. J. Fogg, J. Marshall, O. Laraki, A. Osipovich, C. Varma, N. Fang, J. Paul, A. Rangnekar, J. Shon, P. Swani, M. Treinen: ‘What makes a web site credible? A report on a large quantitative study’, Proceedings of ACM CHI 2001 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, vol. 1, New York: ACM Press 2001, pp. 61–8.
   24. See, e.g. A. Williams: ‘The Gospel according to Pinterest’, The New York Times, October 3, 2012,
   25. The author’s investigations show that Firefox for Mobile is perhaps the best device to handle linked fonts, but it is not widely available, nor is it particularly stable. Most mobile devices, then, will soldier on with a limited range of default fonts—more limited than that of the World Wide Web at its inception, where designers could rely on a palette of around 35 common fonts.
   26. One of the important aspects of branding, according to the author, alongside communication and symbolization of the organization. See, e.g. J. Yan: ‘Between the Gibson Sheats: a law firm rebrands’, All about Branding, 2001,
   27. M. Burton: ‘When pixels dominate design, your hardware is the brand’, Fast Company Design, December 4, 2012,
   28. N. Ind (ed.): Beyond Branding: How the New Values of Transparency and Integrity Are Changing the World of Brands. London: Kogan Page 2003.
   29. S. Engeseth: One: a Consumer Revolution in Business. London: Cyan–Marshall Cavendish 2005.
   30. For an example of the increasing technologies in this sphere, see E. H. Chi: ‘The social web: research and opportunities’, Computer, September 2008, pp. 88–91.
   31. J, Schriener: ‘Study finds branding top use of social networking tools’, Engineering News–Record, vol. 263, no. 4, August 3, 2009, p. 15.
   32. Nick Blunden of Profero, quoted in ‘Opinion: the Marketing Society Forum—can established brands work on social networking sites?’, Marketing, November 18, 2008,
   33. See, e.g. T. Henning-Thurau, E. C. Malthouse, C. Friege, S. Gensler, L. Lobschat, A. Rangaswamy, B. Skiera: ‘The impact of new media on customer relationships’, Journal of Service Research, vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 311–30.
   34. M. C. Novak: ‘Consumer perception of the efficacy of social media branding by non-profit and for-profit organizations’, MA thesis submitted to Department of Public Relations & Advertising, College of Communication, Rowan University, 2012.
   35. I. Pereira de Almeida: ‘Social brand equity’, thesis for Faculdade de Economica, September 30, 2011, following B. Yoo, N. Donthu and S. Lee: ‘An examination of selected marketing mix elements and brand equity’, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, no. 28, spring 2000, pp. 195–211.
   36. Op. cit.
   37. Op. cit.
   38. J. Yan: ‘Getting serious with subvertising’, Desktop, June 2009.

Jack YanThe components of digital branding and their effects on brand equity

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