Molecular influences
July 9, 2001
"See Your Brands Through Your Customers' Eyes," in the June issue of the Havard Business Review, suggests using three-dimensional "molecules" to show how the perception of brand is affected by companion brands and other outside influences. The article, which is available for a small fee, is not only an interesting approach to branding, but also a nice use of information design, and may be useful in other contexts where you need to show influences.

In essence the "brand molecule" diagrams look like the three-dimensional models of molecules used in science diagrams. Each brand or influence is represented by an "atom" and size, color and location are used to show different characteristics. For example, the article depicts a brand molecule for Miller High Life brand beer and some of the 20 atoms include: Miller (the parent brand), Miller Lite (one of several related brands), "Miller Time," (the company's well-known slogan), as well as less obvious influences, such as Philip Morris (Miller's parent company), the Blind Date Concert Series that Miller sponsors, and Miller Park, the baseball stadium for the Milwaukee Brewers.

Size represents the relative importance each each has influence consumers. So for example, Miller Park is a much smaller influence than the parent Miller brand. Each molecule is also color-coded to show whether it's a positive, negative or neutral influence. The authors use location to indicate proximity between related brands or influencers. The largest atom in the molecule is the lead brand (or influencer) and occupies the center, while the other atoms are strung along one or more branches that lead out to areas of lesser influence. It's important to note that the "core atom" might not be the brand you're studying. In the authors' example, the Miller High Life brand is overshadowed by its parent Miller brand, which is the largest atom and occupies the center of the digrams.

Finally, the authors use links between atoms to show relationships, both direct and indirect, and the width of the link indicates the degree of control brand managers can have over that relationship. For example, Miller's brand managers have much more control over influencing Miller Lite than Miller Park. These linkages are perhap most useful in uncovering less obvious cross-relationships, such connections between Miller Lite, "Miller Time," and the Super Bowl (which Miller sponsors).

As with most modeling techniques, the importance is less on the model itself as much as the thinking that's provoked both by process of building it and by unexpected views of information it can uncover. (Incidently, if you don't have access to 3-D software, the models can be done in 2-D, although complicated molecules can get somewhat confusing to develop and view.) If you're serious about using this technique for brand modeling, I'd suggest buying the article, since the authors walk through the specifics of creating a "brand molecule" based on brand criteria (and the article also includes an interesting insight on why General Motor's Cadillac brand seems to be in decline).

However, the "molecule" approach could be useful for many other contexts where you're trying to show influences, for example as an alternate way to represent the "cultural model" recommended by "Contextual Design" ::

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