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    What is Cognitive Association to Your Brand and Why Does It Matter?

    Cognitive association. It’s how you can take your product from good to can’t live without. It makes some brands feel magnetic and others unappealing. Sounds important, right? But what exactly does cognitive association even mean and why does it matter to your brand? If you’re looking to understand this crucial concept you’ve come to the right place.

    As someone charged with helping influence the growth of your company, you’ve undoubtedly mulled over how to get your brand to attract buyers rather than push them away. Making this shift starts with your branding, which is rooted in the cognitive associations customers have of your business.

    Branding influences what people say about your business when you’re not in the room, but cognitive association goes a level deeper. Cognitive association is what people think about your brand when they see your logo, hear your organization’s name, or visit your store — online or in person. It’s the words and feelings they associate with your company based on the experience they’ve had with your business at one point or another.

    Like it or not, the market pairs your brand with certain descriptors. These descriptors can range from positive terms — like elegant, rich, or warm — to less glowing ones, like flimsy, cheap, or inauthentic. You don’t get to choose your cognitive associations. They become associated with your brand based on the experiences you provide across the customer journey. Knowing what these associations are and how they relate to your brand can transform how you reach potential buyers and, more importantly, how your buyers think and talk about your brand when you’re not there.

    The process of leveraging these descriptive thoughts and words isn’t as easy as it might seem on the surface, so buckle up. In this article, I’m going to show you:

    • Why cognitive associations are so critical to your branding
    • How you can leverage your cognitive associations to set you apart from the competition and build retention
    • Where your brand’s cognitive associations fit into the revenue acceleration framework, StoryVesting

    Pro Tip: We help businesses of all sizes — from startups to Fortune 500s — get crystal clear on their cognitive association and then leverage it across all touchpoints on the customer journey. The goal? To accelerate revenues. If you’d like to learn more about how you can deploy this with your brand, schedule a free 15-minute strategy session with me. 

    The Lightbulb Moment a Fortune 50 Company Discovered Their True Cognitive Association

    Not only have I built my own companies from the ground up, I’ve also had the enormous pleasure of working with some pretty incredible businesses, including some that are household names. Across that wide spectrum, one thing has remained true:

    Understanding how users react to and feel about your brand is no easy feat.

    Understanding your customers is not and never will be a one-and-done process. Knowing the cognitive associations of your brand is something that requires consistent evaluation as you move along the S Curve of Business.

    To illustrate this point, I’d like to share a story about our experience with one well-known business. Though I am bound by golden shackles and can’t mention this company by name, I can say this — they are a well-known brand throughout households in North America and have, hands down, one of the highest customer retention rates I’ve ever seen.

    Recently, our team sat down with them to better understand how they perceive their customers’ opinion of their brand. More specifically, we asked a few questions about what they think comes to mind when their customers hear their brand name. In other words, we wanted to know what they perceive to be the cognitive association of their brand. Every single word they mentioned had to do with WHAT their brand offered. No one talked about WHY a person would shop there.

    We knew something was off. The WHAT never represents a customer’s true emotive response to hearing a company’s name. Still, we’re savvy enough to know that you can never back a hunch with an opinion, so we sought out solid data to confirm what we were confident was true. We literally took to the streets to dig into what their audience was saying about their brand and about the competition. Pre-pandemic we were able to stand outside their store doors, at various points inside their store, and even at some of their competitors’ locations. In each spot, we asked the same questions to customers in the exact same way (we wanted clean data, after all; not dirty data that could lead us a few degrees astray). The ultimate goal in our questioning was to draw out the core terms that came to mind when thinking about this particular brand.

    In this case, we found that none of the surface level associations the company thought they were known for rang true. No one was shopping there because of the WHAT. Instead, all three of the cognitive associations we honed in on had to do with the experience the brand provided.

    Presenting this data in conjunction with other, company-provided data resulted in a lightbulb moment for their team. They understood that it wasn’t about WHAT they sold or HOW they sold it. A customer’s thoughts and feelings about their brand — his or her cognitive associations to the brand — were about WHY they were buying and how they FELT making that purchase.

    Determining Your Brand’s Cognitive Associations by Leveraging the Revenue Acceleration Framework, StoryVesting

    The way we investigate cognitive associations of brands is through the lens of the StoryVesting framework. StoryVesting was designed by our fearless co-founder, Buckley Barlow, and there’s a lot to it. To read the full story behind how StoryVesting came to be, you can grab a comfortable chair and a cup of coffee and dig into the revenue acceleration framework here. For the sake of this post, here’s what you need to know.

    storyvesting and cognitive association

    StoryVesting helps you align your customers’ emotional and logical responses to your brand across all areas of your business. When it comes to cognitive association, we’re going to focus on the center of the target — your story as it relates to the story your customers are telling about your brand.

    In the center circle of StoryVesting is your company’s why. This why is the story of what prompted your company’s founders to break ground — physical or digital — and bring your product to the market. It lays out the problem you aim to solve for your clients and customers. If that why doesn’t align with the emotional responses or cognitive associations customers have when they think about your brand’s offering, you’ll have a heck of a time accelerating revenues and growing your company.

    The StoryVesting framework was created to visualize the outward ripple effect of starting with the why. This is because your brand’s cognitive associations impact everything across your brand and all decisions related to how you deliver your product or service to the market. If something doesn’t align vertically through your organization, including the 3 Ps — people, platforms, and processes — the end experience for both your employees and your customers will be off. Likewise, if something doesn’t align between your brand’s story and the story your customers are telling about your brand, there will be a massive disconnect along the customer’s journey, which will stunt your ability to acquire and retain customers.

    While acquiring new customers is nice, as a wise professional, you know that retention is everything. Delivering a beautiful end experience that keeps customers coming back requires that you know what people think and feel about your brand across all stages of the customer journey funnel.

    Revenue Acceleration Through the Bow-Tie Funnel

    You’re likely familiar with traditional upright funnels. The problem with these antiquated funnels is that they stop as soon as the customer pushes the buy button.

    cognitive association funnel

    The point at which a prospect becomes a customer is the same moment they begin reconciling their emotional and logical beliefs about your brand. In doing so, they’re simultaneously solidifying their cognitive associations with what your brand delivers. Subconsciously they’re deciding:

    • Did the brand meet my expectations?
    • What was the experience like?
    • Do I trust what I just received?

    Those are heavy questions to mull over, and yet that’s exactly what’s happening below the surface. For your brand, these questions are critical for turning one-time buyers into repeat buyers and repeat buyers into raving fans. That’s where the bow-tie funnel comes in. If you’re not familiar with the bow-tie funnel, here’s what it looks like:

    cognitive association bowtie funnel

    This modern customer journey funnel allows you to focus on what happens after the conversion. You’re able to see repeat purchases pouring in and ultimately accelerating your revenues. If you miss the chance to connect your customer’s expectations to the experience delivered, you’ll miss the opportunity to establish a positive relationship with your buyer. This will result in a shift of your brand’s cognitive associations away from your company’s why. Business 101 shows that a shift away from the brand at the first encounter can be enormously costly. To overcome that cost, focusing on aligning the two concentric circles in StoryVesting — the brand experience and the customer’s experience — is critical at all stages of the customer journey: before, during, and well after the purchase.

    Pro Tip: We’re experts at leveraging StoryVesting across all areas of the bow-tie funnel, and do so regularly for our white-glove clients. We can help you pinpoint where there’s a breakdown in your customer experience and show you exactly how to improve so you can accelerate those revenues for your organization. If you’d like our help, head here to start the conversation. 

    Leveraging Cognitive Association to Boost Customer Retention

    By now you know that when it comes to retaining your buyer, it’s all about what he or she thinks and feels about your brand. Those thoughts and feelings post-purchase are crucial for growing the Lifetime Value (LTV) of your customer. That part isn’t shocking, but you might still be scratching your head, wondering how you’ll get it done. Here are three suggestions.

    Stop competing on price.

    Price should never be the sole reason a person buys from you. People are emotional beings, and the decisions we make are rooted in how we feel going into the purchase.

    As evidence, let’s look at the Australian wine industry. This may seem like a random choice, but stick with me. Prior to the 1960s, Australians were not wine connoisseurs. They rarely sipped a glass of cab or champagne. Needless to say, wine producers in Australia were struggling. They knew that the solution wasn’t to lower prices but rather to shift cognitive association. To do this, Australian wine producers collaborated with their competition to educate the public on the nuances of each bottle of fine wine. Consumer perceptions quickly shifted, and in the year following that campaign wine sales quadrupled. Today, Australians are some of the largest wine consumers in the world.

    Wine producers knew they weren’t competing with each other. They were competing with the beer industry. Rather than trying to lower the quality of their products so they could compete on price alone, they compensated by improving the cognitive association of their product.

    The experience you develop within your offering as it aligns with the cognitive association of your brand will determine how closely your customers stick by you. The stickier they are, the less likely they will be to flee just to save a few bucks with a competitor.

    Focus on the retention side of the bow-tie funnel.

    The bow-tie funnel above makes it clear — successful companies aren’t just hoping to gain customers; they’re hoping to build brand ambassadors. After all, loyalty leaders, or those who do not undervalue their customers, grow their revenues 2.5 times faster than others in their industry, according to research conducted by Harvard Business Review. Companies can create loyal customers by continuing to honor, deepen, and strengthen the cognitive associations of their brands.

    One of the best ways we’ve found to do this is by offering subtle conversational guidance across the digital journey. Leveraging Pulsemotiv on post-purchase pages can help new buyers — who we know experience a wealth of emotive responses immediately after making a purchase — feel at ease. Right at the moment they’re reconciling buyer’s remorse with excitement and anticipation, the trusted voice of the brand can come in and reassure them they’re in the right space. Moreover, this guidance can move that person to the next stage in their journey, effectively eliminating the “what do I do now?” question.

    The better you can answer your buyers’ needs at every stage of the journey, especially post-purchase, the more likely they are to become not only loyal buyers, but also raving fans. Leveraging a strategy like conversational guidance can equip your brand to stand above the competition by making buyers feel comfortable with and trusting of your brand. This feeling of trust immediately correlates to the cognitive association of your brand, helping buyers default to your company the next time they need something.

    Strive to boost recall rates.

    Let’s face it — today’s world is noisy and chaotic. Buyers have a hard time remembering whether they closed the garage door, let alone which brands they’ve bought from. Case in point: one study found that only 47% of respondents could identify the Apple logo in a lineup with seven altered versions. Apple, one of the most well-known brands in the world, also struggles to generate visual recall. The only way they drive recall rates is by delivering an experience so sublime it ignites an emotional response in their buyers. Your brand must do the same to stand out in this cluttered world.

    One way to do this is via something Harvard Business Review calls ensnarement — the stickier your brand and product, the more likely a customer will be to return. Coca Cola has done this well with their Share a Coke campaign. Rather than relying on one-off purchases, Coca Cola prints common first names on their cans to inspire someone to buy a friend or coworker a coke. It’s this kind of approach that enhances the experience and personalizes the interaction.

    Forget one-and-done purchases. You can use the ensnarement tactic in your digital marketing by offering personal touches throughout the experience. Personalizing your brand experience with positive and potent touchpoints will boost recall rates, making it easier to retain new buyers.


    While the StoryVesting framework might appear simple on the surface, it’s anything but. It’s rich with emotive responses, influenced by behavioral economics, and steeped in logical reasoning that’s deeper than meets the eye. To truly understand it, I encourage you to carve out a good chunk of time to sink your teeth into this post about how this business transformation and revenue acceleration framework came to life, written by the creator of the framework himself, Buckley Barlow.

    You can put the framework to work in your business to examine each detail and nuance inside your buyer experience. We’re constantly helping companies tweak and adjust minor things to have a major impact on their revenue acceleration efforts.

    Can we help you too? Schedule your free 15-minute strategy session to learn exactly how to boost your buyer experience and retention by leveraging the power of the human voice across the customer experience.

    Written by Jonathan Greene


    Pulsemotiv Team Member

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