Assemblage: The Art and Science of Brand Transformation

by Emmanuel Probst 

Assemblage is a French word that refers to the art and science of blending different eaux-de-vies (brandies) before bottling cognac. It is the craft of the maître de chai (also known as the master blender or cellar master) to select brandies from dozens of samples and craft a unique cognac… Assemblage is also a metaphor for building successful brands.”

The James Bond brand is an assemblage. “Over the last 60 years [the brand] evolved by constantly assembling original brand assets with newer attributes that aligned with Bond’s contemporary societal and cultural environment.”

Another example is the cooking show Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party. “It’s a perfect example of assemblage… Snoop Dogg enables Martha Stewart to stay relevant and connect with a younger audience… Stewart helped Snoop Dogg become a more family-friendly figure… Recently, the duo partnered with lighter company BIC to playfully promote how people can use BIC’s EZ Reach lighters… ‘Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart allow us to connect with our consumers in a relevant and playful way while highlighting all the usage occasions and core benefits that set EZ Reach apart in the lighter category,’ said Mary Fox, general manager of BIC North America.”

UK cell phone carrier Virgin Mobile exemplifies the power of a strong brand. “In the early 2000s, users rated Virgin more than 10 percent superior to T-Mobile on attributes like signal clarity and call reliability. At the time, Virgin Mobile was renting all of its mobile network from T-Mobile. Virgin’s perceived superiority was therefore based solely on the strength of the brand.”

The book presents an assortment of marketing eaux-de-vies to consider for your own brand blend. Here are some highlights.

PERCEPTION IS TRUTH. “Disney parks are designed using ‘forced perspective,’ which enables Disney’s Imagineers to make objects look taller than they are and manipulate the perceived distance between objects. On Main Street, guests entering the park instantly notice the Sleeping Beauty castle looming at the end of the seemingly long street. However, this same street seems shorter when guests leave the park in the opposite direction. That’s because buildings on Main Street are designed so that the side closer to the gate comes down at a wider angle than the side closer to the castle. These differences in consumer perception affect how elements are brought together in brand assemblages.”

COGNITIVE FLUENCY. “We prefer things that are easy to think about and remember rather than the difficult ones. This feeling of ease or difficulty is known as cognitive fluency. For example, food ingredients like methylcellulose, butylated hydroxy anisole, and potassium benzoate sound complicated and hence scary. The disfluency of these names makes these ingredients more foreign and, therefore, riskier to eat. In contrast, KIND Snacks makes its products only with ingredients we can see and pronounce. Its snacks are simply named: Dark Chocolate Nuts & Sea Salts, Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate, and Cranberry Almond.”

“Cognitive fluency is subtle and pervasive; research shows that a statement printed in a darker color will be perceived as more truthful than the same statement printed in a lighter color with less background contrast because it’s easier to decipher—subconsciously assuming it is familiar and therefore true.”

“Familiarity is one of the strongest drivers of our behavior because familiar things don’t require as much processing as things that are new and different. Familiar things… feel easy to understand.”

FALSE MEMORIES. “In advertising, exposure to vivid commercials tricks the hippocampus (center of long-term memory embedded into the temporal lobe of the brain) into believing that what we see in the ad happened to us.” The author cites a study in which people were shown ads for nonexistent products. “People who saw the low-imagery ad were unlikely to report having tried the snack food, while people who watched the vivid commercial were more likely to say they had tried the popcorn and rated the product favorably.”

AESTHETICS. “The aesthetic-usability effect refers to a phenomenon in which consumers perceive a product with a more aesthetic design as easier to use than a product with a less aesthetic design.”

CONSUMER IS BATMAN. BRAND IS ROBIN. “In marketing, the consumer must be positioned as the hero, with the brand only there to help and support him. Over time, consumers who feel empowered to become heroes will develop a stronger connection with the brand.”

FOCUS ON THE EXPERIENCE. “Brands provide us with bridges between reality and our hopes and ideals… The focus should not be the advertised product itself but the experience that has triggered or will trigger some imagining. Through this process, the product becomes part of the daydream or facilitates it.”

DISTINCTIVE BRAND ASSETS. “Brands must adopt and promote their distinctive brand assets, as these act as powerful mental shortcuts to help shoppers identify and find them… Brands can create three types of memories: Sensory memories capitalize on haptics[touch], scents, and sounds. Semantic memories help inform and educate consumers. Episodic memories sequence the consumption experience in our minds.”

SONIC BRANDING.  “Music is five times more memorable than visuals: Sounds mark us for five seconds; images leave our minds in less than a second.”

DISTRIBUTION. “As online shopping, in general, is becoming more competitive, the cost of digital advertising has soared, resulting in a steep increase in customer acquisition costs. Also, most digital-first brands only appeal to narrow online audiences. Aware that brick-and-mortar retail still accounts for about 85 percent of the US retail market,
digital-first brands turn to traditional retailers to reach mass audiences and drive greater sales volume… That’s how brands like Caraway Home partnered with Crate & Barrel when its growth plateaued. Other brands like Harry’s (shaving products), Quip (oral care), and Native (personal care) now sell their products at Target.”

SMALL BUT FIERCE. “For 50 years, big retailers, and big brands have ruled the world by focusing on scale to reduce costs from sourcing through manufacturing to marketing and overheads… Times have changed. From 2016 to 2020, extra-small manufacturers (with less than $100 million in sales), small manufacturers ($100 million to $999 million in sales), and private-label brands all gained market share at the expense of large manufacturers (more than $6 billion in sales).”

PRIVATE LABEL. “Private-label brands such as Walmart’s ‘Great Value’ and Amazon’s ‘Basics’ … Target’s Up & Up… In 2021, US private-label brands generated over $143 billion in sales, up from only $14 billion in 2015.” —Wow!

CONTEXTUAL COMMERCE. “Contextual commerce is about enabling people to buy something as soon as they discover it… The point of contextual commerce is to reduce the time lag between discovery and purchase while doing something else, such as cooking or commuting… Contextual commerce is particularly suited for monetizing brands’ content strategy, whereby brands can seed products throughout the educational content they disseminate rather than just advertising. An efficient content strategy also helps reduce returns as consumers access more information about the product to ensure they select the best option to fulfill their needs.”

ECOSYSTEMS. “Ecosystem brands enjoy a greater return on ad spend than any other brands. In an ecosystem, the advertising deployed to promote one service indirectly benefits all the others. When Microsoft advertises its Surface product, the campaign also drives awareness of its Office 360 brand and equity for its Microsoft master brand. Ecosystem brands can measure and optimize the impact of each campaign on each product, brand, and master brand.”

NOBODY’S PERFECT. “We are not perfect and neither are the brands we buy… Some brands exaggerate their flaws to humor their audience. To promote their new Las Vegas show, magicians Penn & Teller once claimed the tagline, ‘Fewer audience injuries than last year!’”

BRAND EXTENSION.  Al Ries and Jack Trout (authors of Positioning and The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing) argued vehemently against brand extension. Probst disagrees. “While many marketers are terrified to extend their brand beyond its core product, the risks associated with such an endeavor are often overstated. Indeed, a failed extension is unlikely to damage the flagship brand in the long run. Besides, risk conveys authenticity and mistakes can help make the brand more authentic. Virgin once entertained the arcane idea to displace Coke and Pepsi with its Virgin Cola. By now, almost everyone has forgotten about the failed cola.”

“I hope Assemblage inspires you to be creative, try new things, and take risks.”

Emmanuel Probst is also the author of Brand Hacks: How to Build Brands by Fulfilling the Human Quest for Meaning. He earned a PhD in consumer psychology and is an executive with the market research firm Ipsos.

Probst, Emmanuel. Assemblage: The Art and Science of Brand Transformation. Ideapress Publishing, 2022. Buy from

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