The brand identity (BI) model, sometimes called the Aaker model, was introduced in my book Building Strong Brands back in 1996 and was refined and elaborated four years later in my book Brand Leadership. Although there are many dozen competitive models, the BI model has a worthwhile market share – as reflected by the fact that some 170,000 copies of the two books have been sold.
But why? What are the differentiating beliefs or principles that the model is based on? Let me identify six.
1. A brand is more than a three word phrase.
In fact, a motivation for developing the BI model was the prevalence of advertising agency brand models that needed a single thought to guide an advertising campaign. The BI model usually has six to twelve of them that are termed identity elements, values, pillars or principles. These elements are created by listing the aspirational associations, clustering these associations into coherent groupings and finally generating a phrase to describe each cluster. Some of these associations can be points of parity in that they are critical to being relevant but do not differentiate.
2. The “one-size-fits-all”/“fill-in-the-box” models are too confining.
The BI model does not pre-specify dimensions that all brands in all contexts must contain. It also doesn’t elevate those dimensions to equal weight, even those dimensions that are minor or make no sense. Nor does the model discourage people from introducing dimensions for which there is no box. Users are encouraged to draw on organizational associations and values, symbols, emotional benefits, social benefits, self expressive benefits, personality, user imagery (values and lifestyle), functional benefits and bases of authority. The freedom to use (and exclude) any dimension when establishing the BI can be powerful.
3. Extended identity elements play a useful role.
The identity elements are prioritized. A core set of two to five that will drive programs are identified, but there is also an extended identity set (usually three to five elements.) The extended identity can provide texture to the brand vision and allow strategists to make judgments as to whether a program is on brand. It can also provide a home for a brand characteristic that is important but will not be a program driver and for a brand personality that often doesn’t make the cut as a driving differentiator, especially in B2B contexts. Finally, an extended identity element sometimes evolves into a core element – staying visible keeps it alive.
4. The brand essence should be optional.
The brand essence can represent much of the brand identity. However, there are times in which the core identity is compelling, and the insistence of an essence will only divert energy and cloud the strategy going forward. If the essence is not compelling, it will become a focus and the whole brand identity will suffer. One firm had leadership, partnership and trust as its core identity. An essence in that case would only get in the way, and a compulsion to create one would have distracted.
5. The elaboration of the core identity leads to the identification and prioritization of programs.
The ultimate goal is to create effective brand building programs that bring the brand identity to life. To create the bridge and discover brand building ideas, each core identity element should be elaborated. The elaboration could include defining strategic imperatives (programs that need to be developed if the brand is to deliver on the aspirational promise), proof points (assets and skills now in place that support an identity element), external role models (other brands that have achieved an aspirational association) and internal role models (people, products or programs that best illustrate an identity element.)
6. The brand should be able to be adapted to different products, markets or countries.
Wherever possible, the same brand identity should be applied especially so that effective programs can be scaled and efficiencies will result. However, the goal should be strong brands everywhere, not the same brand everywhere – adaptation is often necessary. The BI model is well suited to adaptation because an identity element can be added, de-emphasized or redefined. The result is an effective strong brand in each context that is never inconsistent with the overall BI. Chevron, for example, has this type of adaptation available to its business units. The BI model’s six principles serve to make it a less confining, more flexible model than many of its competitors. But any framework is better than none, especially if it is not rigid in its execution. A business that manages its brand in an ad hoc manner without a guiding framework is unlikely to create a brand that will support the business strategy.