The Law of Association

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by: David Armano

It’s a simple exercise really.  Take a brand, and next to it–write the first word that pops into your head.

Harley-Davidson > Freedom
Coke > Nostalgia
Southwest > Folksy
Marlboro > Cowboys
Apple > Design
Marvel > Heroes
IDEO > Innovation
Nike > Style
Volvo > Safe
Google > Search (and possibly the internet)

Now–let’s take a few brands that perhaps have seen better days behind them:

Motorola > ?
Krispy Kreme > ?
K-Mart > ?
Burger King > ?
Kodak > ?
American Airlines > ?
Ford > ?
AOL > ?
Yahoo! > ?

I’m leaving the question mark because several words come to mind for
each but none really stand out–when you compare the lists, they speak
for themselves.

Back in 1996 I got seriously infected by the internet–to me, companies like Yahoo! and Netscape were the internet
I associated them with the Web and all the possibilities that came with
it, and so I made the move to work full time in the industry.  Back
then, Yahoo! was a great brand.  It represented the opposite of slow
moving non-digital companies.  The name Yahoo! itself was a perfect
choice–it felt like a maverick, an anomaly.  Back in 1996, if you
worked in the Web–you could relate to feeling this way. We were
mavericks.  Most businesses were struggling with what the Web meant for
them–we looked to companies such as Yahoo! to help pave the way for the
rest of us.  Today–we look to companies like Google.

Something happened.  If you asked people what Yahoo!’s business
model actually was you’d get several different answers–some might say
online content, others, applications and others yet–search.  But that
may have been the first warning sign that something wasn’t right at the

When brands–whether they be corporate or personal begin to
lose meaning–when it becomes difficult to do the one word association
exercise, then it’s a sign that there may be trouble.  Even
Microsoft–as much as most brand professionals are are quick to
criticize has a definitive association:

Microsoft > big

the end, Microsoft’s move is consistent with the both the companies’
business model and brand.  For Yahoo! it seems like if you compared the
brand from the 90s to the current version–you would see a disconnect in
associations.  This particular application of “the law of association”
isn’t real.  I’m just borrowing the phrase to illustrate a point–great
brands always seem to stand for something definitive don’t they?

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