Enhancing Brand Awareness Through Brand Symbols

ABSTRACT - Despite the potentially important role of brand symbols as communication tools, little research has examined how brand names should be selected and depicted as symbols to achieve specific communication objectives. We manipulate several theoretically and managerially relevant dimensions in the selection of brand names and their depiction as symbols (i.e., pictorial depiction of the brand name, pictorial depiction of the product category, physical interaction and a brand name that communicates product benefits) in a 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 factorial design. Results are generally supportive of those dimensions thought to prompt item-specific processing facilitating recognition memory, while those dimensions thought to prompt relational processing facilitating cued recall. Specifically, recognition memory was greatest when the brand name was depicted pictorially or a high benefit brand name was used. Cued recall was greatest when a pictorially depicted product category was coupled with factors that promoted a product category-brand name linkage (e.g., a pictorially depicted brand name, a high benefit brand name, or physical interaction). The strategic implications of theses findings are discussed.


Deborah J. MacInnis, Stewart Shapiro, and Gayathri Mani (1999) ,"Enhancing Brand Awareness Through Brand Symbols", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 601-608.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 601-608


Deborah J. MacInnis, University of Southern California

Stewart Shapiro, University of Delaware

Gayathri Mani, Cameron University


Despite the potentially important role of brand symbols as communication tools, little research has examined how brand names should be selected and depicted as symbols to achieve specific communication objectives. We manipulate several theoretically and managerially relevant dimensions in the selection of brand names and their depiction as symbols (i.e., pictorial depiction of the brand name, pictorial depiction of the product category, physical interaction and a brand name that communicates product benefits) in a 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 factorial design. Results are generally supportive of those dimensions thought to prompt item-specific processing facilitating recognition memory, while those dimensions thought to prompt relational processing facilitating cued recall. Specifically, recognition memory was greatest when the brand name was depicted pictorially or a high benefit brand name was used. Cued recall was greatest when a pictorially depicted product category was coupled with factors that promoted a product category-brand name linkage (e.g., a pictorially depicted brand name, a high benefit brand name, or physical interaction). The strategic implications of theses findings are discussed.

Brand names and symbols represent potetially potent communication tools. They represent bases for categorizing brands as members of product categories (Farquhar, Herr and Fazio, 1990), can affect inferences made about brand attributes or benefits (Aaker, 1991), and can work synergistically with other elements of a marketing mix to anchor clusters of associations about the brand (Carpenter and Nakamoto, 1989), establish a brand’s positioning, and maintain its equity (Park, Jaworski and Maclnnis, 1986). Furthermore, when brands are undifferentiated, the brand symbol may represent the sole basis for any differential advantage perceived by consumers (Aaker, 1991).

While brand symbols might serve multiple communication objectives, perhaps the most significant is their impact on brand name awareness. Establishing brand name awareness is a basic step in the creation of brand knowledge and brand attitudes (Keller, 1993), and it is often a necessary condition for choice (Nedungadi, 1990). Research indicates that brand awareness alone may actually be more important than other characteristics such as quality in making brand choice decisions. Hoyer and Brown (1990), for example, found that consumers were more likely to choose a familiar versus an unknown brand, even though they knew that the unknown brand was of higher quality. Finally, enhancing brand name awareness can have important competitive implications since it may hinder consumers’ memory for competitors’ brand names (Alba and Chattopadhyay, 1986). Perhaps recognizing the potential importance of these communication tools, marketers devote considerable effort to the selection of brand names and their depiction as symbols (Aaker, 1991; Murphy, 1987; Charmasson, 1988). Moreover, these tools serve as pervasive elements in marketing communication contextsCappearing on signs, as part of advertisements and on packages, advertising specialties, product sponsorship materials, direct mail and so on.

Unfortunately, despite their potential impact, little is known about the effectiveness of characteristics of brand symbols on brand awareness objectives like recognition and recall. As Robertson (1987) notes, though guidelines are available for the selection of names and their depiction, such guidelines are often anecdotal. Further, though research on interactive imagery has identified certain characteristics of brand symbols that may affect brand name awareness (Childers and Houston, 1984; Lutz and Lutz, 1977), accumulated knowledge in this area is limited. Additionally, clear understanding of past results is hindered by the presence of confounds in some research, and the fact that brand awareness has primarily been assessed with cued recall while other measures such as recognition are equally important.


A brand symbol is defined here as a representation of the brand name and its product category. Although symbols may depict either brand names or product categories alone, we focus on symbols that represent both, such as those depicted in Figure 1 which were extracted from the Yellow Pages. When we use the term "brand name" in this research, we mean the name of the brand or company that distinguish it from others in the category (i.e., American Eagle, Alliance, Wallace, Bon Appetit, or Reliable in Figure 1). The generic term "product category" is used to refer to the product or service category in which the brand competes (e.g., health club, mortgages, electric company, catering service, rubbish service in Figure 1).

Dimensions of Brand Symbols

Brand symbols such as those shown in Figure 1 vary on a number of potential dimensions. Since the study of brand symbols has been the topic of limited prior research, and since it is impossible for one study to investigate the myriad of factors that influence the effectiveness of brand symbols, it becomes instructive to investigate those thatare most (1) theoretically relevant, (2) managerially significant, and (3) consistent with existing research.

With respect to the latter issue, Lutz and Lutz (1977) were the first to investigate the memorability of brand symbols. Three dimensions of brand symbols can be identified from their study. The first two relate to the modality in which (1) the brand name and (2) the product category are depicted. Specifically, both the brand name and the product category can be represented either pictorially or verbally. Thus, some symbols represent both entities pictorially (e.g., American Eagle Health Club in Figure 1), others represent both verbally (e.g., Reliable Rubbish), while still others represent one entity pictorially and the other verbally (e.g., Bon Appetit Catering). The third dimension relates to whether the brand name and product category are portrayed as physically interacting vs. physically separate. Physical interaction occurs when all components of a scene are depicted in a unified context (Childers and Houston, 1984). Thus, symbols that include physical interaction integrate the two entities of the symbol into a figurally united depiction (e.g., Reliable Rubbish company or Bon Appetit Catering in Figure 1) while symbols that do not involve physical interaction depict the two entities separately (e.g., Alliance Mortgage Corporation in Figure 1). Another important paper (Childers and Houston, 1984) revealed a fourth dimensionCthe use of brand names that communicate product benefits (e.g., Bon Appetit Catering in Figure 1) vs. names that do not (e.g., Wallace Electric in Figure 1). This dimension is very relevant in a marketing context, since brand names that convey information about the product may be critical in promoting desired brand associations (Aaker 1991).



Importantly, these four dimensions not only allow us to build on existing work (described in more detail below) on brand symbols, they are also managerially significant as they represent common decisions in the development of brand symbols. As we will show subsequently, they are also theoretically relevant to the achievement of various brand awareness objectives.

Unfortunately, past research provides an incomplete understanding of the effects of dimensions of brand symbols on brand awareness. For example, Wollen et al. (1972) examined only interacting vs. non-interacting pictures relative to verbal controls, while Childers and Houston (1984) examined high vs. low benefit physically interacting pictures relative to verbal controls. While Lutz and Lutz (1977) examined pictorial-verbal combinations, they did not separately test pictorial brand names/verbal product categories and verbal brand names/pictorial product categories. This precludes a comparison of the relative impact of each dimension as well as an examination of potential interactions among them. Second, considerable research has focused on the effects of interactive images in intentional learning situations where consumers were made aware of a subsequent memory test prior to exposure (Biron and McKelvie, 1984; Lippman and Shanahan, 1973; Lutz and Lutz, 1977). Knowledge of a subsequent memory test has been shown to affect how subjects process information, and thus may have contributed to the memory effects found in previous research on brand symbols. While consumers may try to remember a new brand symbol so that they can later recognize it or recall it at the time of purchase, given the enormity of advertising clutter and the fact that consumers often devote limited resources to processing ad information (MacInnis, Moorman and Jaworski, 1991), it is equally if not more likely that brand symbols are processed on a more incidental basis, where consumers are not explicitly trying to memorize the brand symbol. Finally, while past research has often focused on cued-recall of the brand name, recognition of the brand symbol may also be strategically relevant to the firm.


Brand Symbol Dimensions and Types of Processing

To better understand the effects of the four dimensions of brand symbols on cued recall and recognition, we first consider factors that facilitate memory and the consumer information processing activities that might be influenced by the dimensions identified above.

The ability to retrieve information from memory is facilitated when there is a match between the information learned and the requirements of the memory task (Tulving, 1983). For example, memory measures which rely on discrimination (i.e., recognition) would be enhanced by the extent to which the information is processed in a manner which focuses on distinctive aspects of the to-be-remembered stimuli. Similarly, memory measures which rely on the presence of a link in memory between two stimuli (e.g., cued recall) would be enhanced to the extent to which the information is processed in a manner which focuses on the relationship between the to-be-remembered stimuli. Previous research in marketing has identified these two different types of processing methods as item-specific processing and relational processing respectively (Meyers-Levy, 1991).

Item-specific processing involves elaboration on the distinctive features of a particular item. This form of processing thus helps to enhance the accessibility of that item from memory. Relational processing, by contrast, involves the drawing of linkages between items to be learned. Thus, relational processing is useful for traversing from one node in memory to another. Relational processing, in and of itself, does not help to retrieve an item from memory while item-specific processing does not help to cue related items once the item itself has been accessed (Begg, 1982).

We propose that the four dimensions of brand symbols investigated here can be classified by the type of processing they induce. The use of a high benefit brand name should induce relational processing since the meaning inherent in the name provides a semantic link that connects the brand name and the product category. As Kanungo (1968) notes, a fitting (i.e., high benefit) brand name influences the strength of the brand-product relationship, as it readily evokes associations to the product in the minds of consumers. As such, a high benefit brand name provides a conceptual (i.e., semantic) basis for inducing relational processing. Physical interaction may also induce relational processing. However, the basis for inducing relational processing may be perceptual rather than conceptual in nature. As Begg (1982) notes, physical interaction promotes the encoding of the two items in a single memory trace because of the figural unity of the depiction.

The remaining two dimensions of brand symbolsCpictorial vs. verbally depicted brand names and product categoriesCare relevant for their potential to induce item-specific processing. As Childers and Houston (1984) note, one common explanation for the superior memorability of pictures over words is that they promote more distinctive encoding than words. The unique sensory features of pictures allows such distinctive encoding and ensures that the encoding process is more reliable and less susceptible to interference.

Given this classification of the type of processing induced (distinctive vs. relational) by different dimensions of brand symbols, and extant theory regarding retrieval requirements (discriminability vs. presence of a memory link) of various brand-awareness objectives, hypotheses can be developed regarding the effects of these brand symbol characteristics on the brand-awareness objectives identified below.

Cued Recall of the Brand Name

Cued recall is dependent upon consumers’ abilities to recall the brand name from memory when they are provided with the product category as a cue. This brand awareness objective is important when consumers decision making is mixed, involving the cueing of some information from the enironment followed by the retrieval of related information from memory. For example, there are many situations in which consumers are typically exposed to the product category name (e.g., the word "chips" on the aisle marker in the supermarket, the word "beer" on a menu, a list of items on sale at a clothing store, or requests from family members to buy cookies), and must then retrieve from memory one or more brands associated with that category (e.g., Lay’s, Becks, Arrow, Oreos). Thus, for cued recall the drawing of linkages that connect the brand name with its product category is a priority. However, since the product category is available and serves as a retrieval cue, it is not necessary that the product category be recallable. It is, however, necessary that the product category is recognizable, since if is to serve as an effective retrieval cue it must be one that consumers know they have seen before.

Thus, a brand symbol should incorporate aspects designed to facilitate the recognizability of the cue. Item-specific processing of the product category should make it more recognizable because such processing helps to make the category stand out as different and distinctive and hence more familiar (Begg, 1982; Meyers-Levy, 1991). Thus, pictorial representation of the product category, because it stimulates item-specific processing, should enhance recognizability of the cue. Consistent with this expectation, numerous studies have shown that pictures are more easily recognized than words (see Lutz and Lutz, 1978 for a review). The symbol should also include elements that facilitate relational processing because, unless linkages between the brand and category have been established, the category cue will fail to retrieve the brand name. Since a high benefit brand name and/or physical interaction are anticipated to create these linkages, we hypothesize that:

H1: Cued recall of the brand name will be enhanced by brand symbols that use a pictorially depicted product category with a high benefit brand name, physical interaction, or both a high benefit brand name and physical interaction.


Recognition is dependent upon consumers’ abilities to discriminate between previously encountered and new brand symbols. Recognition is a relevant brand awareness objective when consumers’ purchase decisions are stimulus-based because choice may not be based on what brands and/or product categories consumers retrieve from memory, but rather on what brands they are exposed to (i.e., those that are present and observable) when they make a choice. Such stimulus-based purchase contexts arise, for example, when consumers decide among brands displayed on shelves in a supermarket, choose among the services advertised in the Yellow Pages, respond to direct response communications like direct mail, or select retail stores and service outlets based on the signs they see while driving.

One way to enhance recognition is to make the brand name stand outCmaking it different and distinctive. Item-specific processing, by promoting distinctive encoding of an item, helps to discriminate that item from other entities. Since it can be more readily discriminated, consumers should be better able to determine whether the brand symbol has been encountered before, and thus whether it is familiar. The distinctiveness achieved through a pictorial depiction of the brand name should therefore facilitate recognition of the symbol. Consistent with this prediction, past research on interactive images (Barrett, 1985; Biron and McKelvie, 1984, 1986) found that compared to verbal controls, recognition memory for brand names is greater when the brand name and product category are depicted pictorially, irrespective of whether the items are represented as interactig. It is interesting to consider, however, whether pictorial depiction of one entity (i.e., the brand name or product category) is sufficient to render the entire depiction distinctive, or whether both entities need to be depicted pictorially. This issue cannot be addressed by past research since pictorial vs. verbal depiction of a brand name vs. a product category in a brand symbol has not been manipulated. Thus, we hypothesize that:

H2: Recognition of the brand symbol will be enhanced by symbols that use a pictorially depicted brand name, pictorially depicted product category, or both a pictorially depicted brand name and product category.



The study uses a 2 (modality of brand name: pictorial vs. verbal) x 2 (modality of product category: pictorial vs. verbal) x 2 (physical interaction: interacting vs. separate) x 2 (brand name benefit communication: high vs. low) fully crossed between subjects experimental design.

Development of Stimulus Set

We needed to create brand symbols created which depicted both a brand name and product category. We used several criteria to develop brand symbols. To control for product category differences across the benefit manipulation, we needed to select two brand names for each product category, with one communicating relatively more meaning about the product when linked with the product category (e.g., Feather MattressBhigh benefit) versus the other (e.g. Key MattressBlow benefit). To be more confident that any differences found across the high and low benefit conditions are attributable to the brand name’s ability to communicate benefits when linked to the product category, and not to the brand names themselves being differentially memorable (e.g., the brand names used in the high benefit condition being more memorable than the brand names used in the low benefit condition, or visa versa, when not linked to the product category), we also needed to select brand names with no artifact that made them differentially memorable (e.g., concreteness, imagery value, familiarity, meaningfulness) across the benefit condition . These criteria were satisfied through several rounds of pretesting.

From the original set of presumably high and low benefit brand name/product category pairs, 12 of the "high benefit" and 12 of the "low benefit" names were retained for use in this study. The retained "high benefit" and "low benefit" names were (1) significantly different in terms of their ability to communicate product benefits, (2) equally unfamiliar, and (3) equivalent in terms of other variables that might also affect memory (i.e., concreteness, imagery value, and meaningfulness). [To identify high and low benefit brand names, forty subjects were asked to indicate associations they made to approximately 45 high benefit and 45 low benefit brand name/product category pairs (e.g., Feather Mattress vs. Key Mattress). They also rated on a seven point scale the extent to which each brand name communicated information about the product. Subjects also indicated in an open-ended format the meaning they attached to each name, if any (e.g., comfortable) in the context of the product category. In subsequent pretest, three sets of eighteen subjects were given definitions of concreteness modified from Paivio, Yuille and Madigan (1968), imagery value (also modified from Paivio et al., 1968) and meaningfulness and were asked to rate the brand names alone (i.e., not in the context of the product category) on a 7-point scale. To ensure that brand names were unfamiliar, three sets of subjects used 7-point scales to rate prior experience with, prior familiarity with, or the extent to which they had previously heard of each brand/product category pair.]

Corresponding with the 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 design, we depicted each high and low benefit brand name pictorially or verbally (as in the pretest discussed above), each product category was depicted pictorially or verbally, and each pair was depicted as physically interacting or not (see Figure 2 for brand symbols that correspond with one of the 12 high benefit and one of the 12 low benefit brand names). The pictorial and verbal elements common to each condition were constant in size and design. This was achieved by constructing symbols using a computer graphics package. The symbols produced by the computer graphics package are similar in their level of detail to symbols found in the phone book, newspapers and signs of local business establishments, and are similar to brand symbols used in previous research (e.g., Lutz and Lutz, 1977; Biron and McKelvie, 1984, 1986; Childers and Houston, 1984). Furthermore, we kept the lvel of stimulus detail as similar as possible across the various brand symbols. We explicitly avoided adding colors and other interest-laden features since they (a) represent potential confounds, and (b) are not a necessary component of brand symbols. Finally, we placed a verbal label beneath each brand symbol to ensure correct interpretation of the pictorial depictions (Lutz and Lutz, 1977). Since the verbal label is constant across conditions it cannot explain any of the differences between conditions observed in this research.

An additional pretest was conducted to confirm that the physically interacting symbols were perceived as such. [Twelve subjects were exposed to a packet of 16 symbols, one from each of the 16 conditions. Each subject saw a different set of brand symbols. Subjects used seven point scales to indicate the degree to which items in the symbol were physically integrated, physically isolated and physically interrelated (alpha=.71). Symbols designed to be physically interacting were perceived as significantly more interactive than those designed to be non-interacting (F=6.98, p=.001).] Finally, a pilot study involving 155 subjects was conducted to ensure the success of the benefit communication manipulation for the final set of symbols, and to ensure that the final set of stimuli did not confound benefit communication with concreteness, imagery-value or familiarity. [A final pretest was also undertaken to rule out the possibility that any memory advantage of high benefit brand names over low benefit ones was due to factors inherent in the brand name itself. Eighty one subjects were exposed to high and low benefit brand names alone (not in the context of the product category), depicted either pictorially or verbally. The results revealed that high and low benefit brand names were not differentially recognizable, either when they were depicted verbally (F(1,38)=.91, p=ns): or pictorially (F(1,41)=1.77, p=ns.]

Subjects and Procedures

One hundred and ninety male and female undergraduate students were randomly assigned to one of the 16 experimental conditions. Within each group, subjects were exposed to the twelve brand symbols relevant to their condition. The procedure used in this study was designed to improve upon the external validity of previous research while still maintaining a high level of internal validity. In past research subjects have been told that they would be given a memory test following their exposure to the brand symbols. Moreover, memory has been assessed after a very short delay (e.g., 10 minutes). To create a situation more analogous to many consumer contextsCin which there is a delay between exposure and purchase, and where information is learned somewhat more incidentallyCwe assessed memory after a two day delay, and we did not inform subjects that they would be given a memory test. To insure a relatively high level of internal validity, exposure duration was controlled to make processing opportunities within and between the experimental conditions equivalent. Although controlling for exposure duration may not reflect all conditions in which brand symbols are viewed, there are many situations in which consumers have limited control over the length of their exposure to a brand symbol (e.g., commercials, billboards, store signs).

Subjects were told that their task was to rate the attractiveness of each symbol. They were not instructed to remember the items, nor were they told of subsequent memory tests. Subjects were exposed first to three filler brand symbols, then the twelve experimental brand symbols, and then to three additional filler symbols. The filler brand symbols were designed to control for primacy and recency effects. After exposure to each symbol subjects were asked to rate the symbol on a 7-point attractiveness scale (1 not at all attractive; 7= very attractive). Presentation order was constant across the experimental conditions. Following the presentation phase, subjects were asked if they tried to learn the brand symbols. Data from 15 subjects who said yes to this question were eliminated.

Subjects then completed the Style of Processing Questionnaire (Childers et al., 1985) designed to assess individual differences in preferences for visual vs. verbal information. The dependent variables reported in this study were assessed two days later. At this time, subjects also completed manipulation check measures for the benefit manipulation as well as data on several control variables described later.


To assess cued recall of the brand name we asked subjects to think back to the exposure episode two days prior and were shown 6 product category names and were asked to recall the associated brand name. Each subject only completed this measure for half of the brand names so that the effect of completing the cued recall task on the subsequent recognition task could be determined.

We assessed recognition by giving subjects a folder containing the 12 brand symbols they hadseen two days earlier (for any given subject, 6 of the symbols were used in the cued recall task they had just completed and 6 were not), the 12 stimuli shown to subjects in the opposite benefit condition, and a set of filler stimuli (depicted according to the condition). Thus, each target brand (e.g., Feather Mattress) had another brand in the same product category as a distracter (e.g., Key Mattress). This was done to better assess discrimination ability under conditions of competitive interference. Subjects indicated on a dichotomous scale whether they recognized (1) or did not recognize (0) each stimulus. They also indicated on a 7-point scale whether they were not at all confident (1) or very confident (7) about their recognition ratings. Recognition memory was based only on the twelve brand symbol pairs and not on the filler stimuli. The discrimination measure d’ (Swets 1961) derived from signal detection theory was computed for the responses weighted by their confidence scores.

We measured the success of the benefit manipulation by showing subjects a list of the 12 brand names after they had completed all memory measures. They were asked to indicate on a 7- point Likert scale whether the name suggested nothing (1) or a great deal (7) about the product/service.

We also collected data on several control variables in addition to handedness, gender and age. First, to assess prior brand name familiarity, we asked subjects to indicate on 7- point Likert scales whether they had encountered each brand name/product category pair frequently (7) or rarely (1). Second, attractiveness ratings from the incidental learning task were also used as control variables. Finally, since memory for pictorial or verbal information may depend on processing style, scores from the SOP Questionnaire (Childers, Houston and Heckler, 1985) were used as control variables. Since none of these variables influenced the results when used as covariates, their effects are not discussed further.


Manipulation Check Results

To check the success of the benefit manipulation, a 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 ANOVA was performed on the manipulation check measure. As expected, high benefit brand names were perceived as significantly better in suggesting something about the brand (X=4.66) than low benefit brand names (X= 2.18) (F(l.,173)= 213.33, p=.00l).

Detailed ANOVA results are reported in Table 1. Those results which are qualified by higher order interactions are not discussed in the text and are indicated as such in Table 1.

Cued recall of the Brand Name

We reasoned that cued recall of the brand name was contingent upon subjects’ recognition of the product category cue (achieved by its pictorial depiction) plus the cue’s effectiveness in retrieving the brand name (achieved by a high benefit brand name and/or physical interaction). As expected, a significant three-way interaction between product category modality, benefit, and physical interaction was found (F=8.26, p=.005). An a priori contrast revealed that cued recall was greatest when a pictorially depicted product category was combined with a high benefit brand name and physical interaction (X=2.25) compared to any other condition (F= 7.59, p=.000).

A significant three way interaction (p=.06) between brand name modality, product category modality, and benefit communication was also found. Scheffe’s test indicated that combining any two of a pictorial brand name, a pictorial product category, and a high benefit brand name led to greater cued recall than having any one alone. The facilitation achieved by the pictorial product category/high benefit brand name combination is consistent with our expectations. The pictorial prduct category/pictorial brand name effect was unexpected and is explored later. No other results were significant.


Before the recognition results could be examined, we first determined if prior completion of the cued recall task affected performance on the recognition task. Recall that the recognition task included all twelve brand symbols that subjects were exposed toBsix which were previously used in the cued recall task and six which were not. A comparison of the recognition responses from those symbols which were versus were not used for a given subject in the cued recall task indicated that prior completion of the cued recall task did not affect performance on the recognition task (p=.32). Thus, the recognition results reported below incorporate all twelve brand symbols. It is important to note, however, that the same pattern of results was found when both sets of brand symbols were analyzed separately.

We predicted that factors which enhanced the discriminability of the brand symbol would enhance recognition. Thus, we expected either a pictorial brand name, pictorial product category or both would enhance recognition. As anticipated, there was a main effect for brand name modality, with recognition scores highest when the brand name was pictorial (X=.92) vs. verbal (X=.82) (F 13.3, p= .000). There was no main effect for product category modality (p> .05). There was also a significant interaction between brand name modality and product category modality (F=5.19, p=.03). Scheffe’s test, conducted to investigate this interaction, revealed that if the product category is depicted verbally, recognition is enhanced if the brand name is depicted pictorially (X=.94) versus verbally (X=.78) (p<.05). While this is consistent with our hypothesis, interestingly, there was no significant difference in recognition performance between a symbol containing a pictorially (X=.86) versus verbally (X=.78) depicted product category (p>.05) given that the brand name was depicted verbally. Thus for recognition it seems to be more important that the brand name versus the product category is depicted pictorially. Finally, a main effect for benefit communication was found, with a high (X=.91) vs. a low (X=.83) benefit brand name leading to significantly greater recognition memory (F=7.33, p= .008).




Summary of the Findings

Despite the potentially important role of brand symbols as marketing communication tools, their role in stimulating brand awareness has rarely been the topic of empirical research. This research is among the first to conceptually and empirically distinguish theoretically and managerially relevant components of brand symbols, and to test their effects on multiple brand awareness objectives. We had identified two dimensions with the potential for inducing item-specific processing (pictorial depiction of the brand name and of the product category) and two dimensions likely to stimulate relational processing (benefit communication and physical interaction). These processes were hypothesized to differentially affect different brand awareness measures with the former facilitating recognition memory and the later facilitating cued recall. Results were generally supportive of this distinction.

Although we had not anticipated that recognition memory would be enhanced by the presence of a mechanism linking the brand name and the product category (i.e., a high benefit brand name, physical interaction), we found greater recognition memory for brand symbols containing high vs. low benefit brand names. One explanation for this result is that subjects not only had to discriminate between seen and new symbols across multiple product categories, but also discriminate between seen and new symbols within the same product category (e.g., Feather Mattrss and Key Mattress were both in the recognition packet). As noted earlier, a brand symbol that communicates a brand’s benefits promotes semantic linkages to the category. If a consumer has created such links, the brand is likely to be discriminable from competing brands, and thus familiar and recognizable. Since recognition is an easy task that only involves determining whether a symbol is familiar (as opposed to retrieval of entities from memory), elements that facilitate accessibility (pictorial depiction) may not be required.

Additionally, although we did not anticipate that a purely pictorial depiction would enhance cued recall, depicting both elements pictorially may stimulate processing of both entities and cause them to be encoded in a single trace. Since cued recall requires linking the two entities, such joint encoding may facilitate this objective.

While the results of this study help to enhance our understanding of how various dimensions of brand symbols may affect processing, and the subsequent effects this processing has on consumer memory, they also provide insight into a larger set of strategically oriented brand awareness objectives that might be identified for firms. We elaborate on these issues below.

The goal of enhancing cued recall is suggestive of a different brand strategy than that of enhancing recognition. Cued-recall may be relevant when the brand strategy involves creating new brand-product category linkages (i.e., represents a new brand in a new category or a new brand in an old category). Thus, for cued-recall it is critical that consumers develop linkages that connect the brand name with its product category. In other situations, firms wish to pursue a strategy of enhancing broad-based brand familiarity across multiple categories (e.g., brands like Ivory or Arm and Hammer have entrants in multiple categories), or in the context of a specific category (e.g., Salem cigarettes within the cigarette product category). Thus, they are interested in promoting the brand’s discriminability, independent of any one category or from competing brands. One way in which this may be achieved is to make the brand name stand outCmaking it different and distinctive. However, firms may be unable to anticipate the strategic situations that existing brands may encounter in the future. Additionally, whether the purchase context driving brand choice is typically mixed, or stimulus-based may depend on consumer or situational factors that may be outside of marketers# control. Given the above, firms may be interested in developing symbols that are maximally flexibleCi.e., capable of achieving multiple awareness objectives, and/or those that are maximally adaptableCi.e., offer the greatest potential to fit with future strategies. Interestingly, there may be some tradeoffs to achieving these goals.

For the cued recall objectives, we found facilitation from symbols that portrayed a product category pictorially and as interacting with a high benefit brand name. Since such symbols subsume benefit communication, and since benefit communication enhances recognition, this type of symbol may be most beneficial for the achievement of multiple awareness objectives. However, since this type of symbol makes the product category salient and strengthens the brand’s ties to it, it may be appropriate only for firms that desire links to the product category. Since the brand name is strongly tied to the product category, it may be difficult to extend equity to other categories. Hence, such symbols may be less adaptable since the use of a high benefit brand name implies that the brand name can be extended only to categories in which the benefit is still relevant. As such, symbols of this type may reduce the firm’s latitude in brand extensions. Depicting a brand name pictorially is useful for achieving recognition memory. Moreover, since it is not tied to any particular category, it may be adaptable to future brand goals and strategic situations. Moreover, when it is tied to a product category, depicting the brand name with a pictorially depicted product category can also influence cued recall. Thus, such a brand name offers several important avenues for frms with multiple objectives.

Limitations and Research Directions

As with any study, this study has several limitations that highlight avenues for future research. First, given the large number of treatment conditions (16) and the need for subjects to participate on two different occasions (Time 1Bexposure and Time 2Bcompletion of the dependent measures two days later), it was difficult to obtain large cell sizes. However, a power analysis indicates that we had sufficient power to detect even medium-sized effects.

Second, this study focused on explicit memory measures that required conscious recollection of the brand symbols. Emerging work in marketing examines memory effects based on feelings of familiarity, which do not require conscious retrieval of the brand information (e.g., Krishnan and Shapiro 1996; Krishnan and Chakravarti 1996; Lee 1996). Future research on brand symbols could include additional measures to capture these more subtle, familiarity effects.

Although brand symbols have several important communication functions, we by no means contend that they alone are sufficient to build and maintain brand awareness. Brand symbols represent one marketing communication tool that could work in tandem with other marketing communications to influence brand awareness. Given the recent focus on integrated marketing communications (Schultz 1992), additional research focusing on the effects of combinations of communication tools on learning, memory and persuasion is warranted. (Houston, et al’s (1987) study is an important step in this direction). For example, high benefit brand names may be less important in an advertising context if the claims describe meaningful ways in which the brand name and product category may be related. Similarly, brand symbols may be less critical for non-durables (because of information available on their packages) than for durable goods and services where packages may not be present. On the other hand, since brand symbols may be critical parts of the package/ad itself, package/ad information and brand symbols may interact to affect communication.


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Deborah J. MacInnis, University of Southern California
Stewart Shapiro, University of Delaware
Gayathri Mani, Cameron University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26 | 1999

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