Building brand salience in financial services

What is brand salience?

So you’ve got the best mortgage product hands down. Your rates and terms are chart-topping. Your broker service ratings are off the scale. Sadly, none of that matters a jot, if nobody ever thinks of you at that critical point – when they’re ready to buy. 

That’s the essence of brand salience and how it differs from brand awareness (familiarity with your brand), brand recognition (being able to identify characteristics of your brand), and brand recall (coming to mind with some prompting). 

Brand salience is the propensity of a brand to come to mind in a purchasing situation. 

That might be as the result of deeply embedded and rich memories of the brand, or simply by virtue of being visible.

Why is brand salience important?

Within financial services, increasing brand salience is key to brand growth and driving stronger business results.

If your brand is in the mix for consideration at the point of purchase, then there’s a chance of being chosen. If your brand doesn’t come to mind, how great you are is immaterial.

It’s simple really – you’ve got to be in it to win it. 

In the mortgage intermediary market, a mortgage broker will typically work with upwards of 20 lenders, for the 100 or so cases they place in a year. But, when approached by a client looking for a mortgage, only 3-4 lenders will typically come to mind for that broker. Those are the most salient brands. Your challenge is to be one of those brands. 

It’s a task all the more daunting when you factor in a couple of stark truths around brands in general.

The fact is people care very little about brands, including yours.

It may be the primary focus of your day, but not for everyone else. They have more important stuff on their minds. Getting the kids to school, paying the bills, the big birthday bash at the weekend. Your brand’s simply not on their radar. That is until such time that what you offer is what they’re looking for. 

Compound that with ever increasing noise and choice, and it’s easy to see why building memories of your brand and increasing visibility has to be a marketing priority.

Is focusing on brand salience the only route to brand growth?

Pretty much everyone agrees brand salience is important. It’s more a question of relative importance, and what else matters.

The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, publishers of one of the most read and referred to books on branding in recent times, How Brands Grow, make a powerful case for focusing marketing endeavours on simply reaching as many people as possible. It’s a market penetration strategy that favours big budgets, and leans heavily into the idea of being distinctive to drive salience.

It worked for Lloyds

My son, Joe, is thirteen. He doesn’t watch many ads, and he certainly doesn’t get excited about banking. In fact, there’s only one bank he can name – the one with the horse. He’s seen it on TV and he’s seen it on billboards. He thinks it’s cool, too. And one day, when he decides to open an account, you can bet it’s Lloyds he’ll think of.

This should be music to the Lloyd’s marketing team’s ears. It’s an example of exactly what they set out to achieve some years ago. Around 2015, in a post-crunch era defined by a heightened suspicion and distrust of banks, and when their competitors were focusing on communicating their values and products, Lloyds chose a different path. They chose to focus on a brand asset that had previously gone little beyond the logo, but they believed had potential – the black horse.

It’s a strategy that’s not just caught Joe’s attention either, the evidence is all there to show it’s worked on the grandest scale. Developing campaigns sensitive to the mood of the nation, with the iconic black horse always the hero, mental availability went up, and so did positive brand associations. That in turn impacted on brand consideration, ultimately driving brand growth.

But a balance is better

For those who champion salience above all, others see it as only half of the equation. Kantar Millward Brown offer a powerful evidenced-based case for investing in meaning and differentiation, too. It makes sense, because once your brand has come to mind, and assuming it’s one of a few brands, it’s then that conscious consideration comes into play. At that point there needs to be a reason to be chosen. Emotional or rational, it doesn’t matter, but meaningful difference is what will take your brand over the line.

Our take on the question of the importance of brand salience is based on what we’ve witnessed first hand with countless brands, in different sectors, over nearly three decades. The most sustainable brands – in the sense of market-leading longevity and performance – invest in both being salient and having a stand-out product. They punch well above their weight through a combination of being memorable and meaningfully different.

How do you build brand salience?

Creating a highly distinctive and memorable identity

Brand identity is key to improving mental availability, and central to branding is the creation, management and development of distinctive brand assets. Multi-sensory codes – visual, verbal, sonic, even olfactory and haptic in some cases – that people associate with a brand and become embedded in their memory. So in the absence of seeing your brand name, someone still knows it’s you. Think Lloyd’s black horse from earlier, the red/yellow colour combo of McDonalds, the shape of the Coke bottle, Nike’s ‘Just do it’, the sound of Netflix firing up, the smell of a Lush store.

The power of distinctive assets can be seen clearly in the relatively niche world of intermediary mortgage lending. It’s a repertoire category, defined by the presence of ‘preferred suppliers’. And like many B2B categories, creating meaningful differentiation on the basis of products is incredibly difficult. What’s more, because needs can often be met by multiple providers, brand loyalty is low. All the more reason to stay front of mind.

The Mortgage Works, part of Nationwide Building Society, is the leading intermediary-facing buy-to-let mortgage provider in the UK. And it’s no coincidence that in ongoing research of marketing effectiveness by BVA-BDRC, The Mortgage Works consistently scores the highest among its peers for Unprompted Willingness to Recommend (a measure of brand salience) and Unbranded Recall (a measure of distinctiveness). 

The latter is achieved through showing an advert with the brand name removed, so recognition of the brand is determined by the correct identification and attribution of other assets, such as colour, typography, imagery, words etc. For The Mortgage Works it is a unique illustration style and colour palette in particular, that brings the brand quickly to mind.

You may already have strong distinctive assets. Or at least ones with potential, that with some focus, investment and creative thinking could be hugely valuable. Taking stock of where you are now, finding out what’s in customers’ and prospects’ minds about your brand, and even delving into the past (you might uncover a hidden gem) is a good place to start.

Improving visibility

In the quest to be easy to mind in the mortgage intermediary market, increasing visibility may be more challenging, but the rewards even greater. 

You don’t see mortgages stacked on supermarket shelves, and you can’t park a BDM (Business Development Manager) in the office of every broker (as far as I am aware), so the thinking needs to be directed elsewhere. 

But what about the frequency of contact with intermediaries? The ease of the mortgage buying journey? Can you make more of your relationships with distributors and partners to get your financial services brand in front of more brokers, more often and at the right time? And how might you retain a presence in a broker’s environment, even in the absence of you being there? All opportunities for potential salience wins.

And don’t underestimate the power of creativity. Whether looking at how to make your brand more memorable or visible, when all else is equal – budget, product features, channels – it’s creativity that’s proven to make the difference.

Getting savvy with salience in 2023

As we settle into what looks to be another tricky year with more than a healthy dose of uncertainty, my prediction is that the winners in financial services will be those brands that continue to invest in building salience alongside product innovation. 

The ones that think strategically and creatively about how to make their brand thought of more often, by more people, in more purchase situations. 

Achieving that requires a focus on creating rich and deeply embedded memories of your brand, through experiences and the building and managing of distinctive brand assets. It also means finding ways in a sector where products don’t sit on shelves to be more visible. Increased frequency of interactions, reminders of your brand when you’re not physically there, leveraging partners and networks, smoother paths to purchase – small gains that stack up to a significant one, increasing your potential to be in the mix for consideration.

All without forgetting that’s only half the equation. Focus too on creating meaningful difference. That means constantly developing and refining your core product, so that when comparisons are made you’re always the brand of choice. 

Remember salience gets you in the race. The functional and emotional value of your offering is what ensures you win.

About Alastair

Founder and Creative Director

Ali co-founded mark-making* in 1995 after graduating from Lancaster University in Marketing & Visual Arts. Ali works closely with our clients to help bring clarity to their story, and oversees the wider mm* team to ensure it’s expressed effectively, with authenticity and coherence. Ali regularly speaks on the concept of Magnetic Brands, an approach to creating and building brands that embraces the power of being more human, in pursuit of both profit and positive impact. Ali leads mark-making’s work in helping ambitious organisations of all shapes and sizes build extraordinary and enduring appeal.