Why Distinctive Branding & The Mere Exposure Effect Matter

Why Distinctive Branding & The Mere Exposure Effect Matter

Kyle Hoffman, Director of Growth Strategy | March 14 2024

Imagine scrolling through your phone, bombarded by ads for sparkling water that all look the same. Blue skies, pristine glaciers, athletes quenching their thirst – you get the picture.

Now picture this: a black can emblazoned with a skull, promising “murder your thirst.” That stark difference would stop you in your tracks, right? It’s memorable. You’re more likely to recall the ad, the packaging, and the brand name. That’s the power of Liquid Death, a bottled water brand that cuts through the clutter with a darkly comedic approach.

But here’s the thing: Liquid Death isn’t just a one-hit wonder. They’ve built a loyal following by strategically defying expectations. This is an example of a brand that’s both distinctive and consistent.

The Von Restorff Effect describes how our brains search for things different from their surroundings. If something stands out, we’re more likely to remember it. So, doing the opposite of what your competition can be a good idea – it'll help you capture more attention.

In this article, we look at the power of the Von Restorff and the Mere Exposure Effects to achieve distinctiveness and consistency and build lasting connections with consumers.

The Power of Standing Out: The Von Restorff Effect

Have you ever absentmindedly scribbled a grocery list, but highlighted something significant that you can’t forget or starred that one item, so it stands out? Can you vividly recall that one item written in bright red amongst a sea of black ink? That’s the Von Restorff Effect in action.

Named after German psychologist Hedwig von Restorff, this effect describes our tendency to remember things that stand out from the crowd. Imagine you're flipping through a magazine filled with photos of serene landscapes. Suddenly, you come across a page featuring a vibrant, abstract painting. Chances are, that bold splash of color will stick in your mind long after you close the magazine.

The same principle applies to advertising and branding. In a world saturated with marketing messages, distinctiveness is crucial for cutting through the noise and grabbing attention.

Think of it like attending a party. Let’s imagine you’re at a gathering filled with people dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt, but one guest sports a bright colored suit. The sea of people in jeans might blend in, but you are likely to recall the individual wearing a bright colored suit.

One of the first rules in advertising is to capture people’s attention. Whether it’s the ‘thumb-stopping tactic’ in social media (where you try to get a consumer’s attention while they are scrolling) or you’re standing out in a sea of print ads that arrive in the mail, capturing the consumer’s attention is incredibly important. Brands can leverage the Von Restorff Effect to boost recall, create memorable marketing campaigns, capture consumers’ attention, and build brand loyalty.

A Closer Look at the Liquid Death Case Study

Let’s revisit the Liquid Death example at the beginning of the article and take a closer look.

In 2019, Liquid Death launched in Los Angeles with the tagline “Murder Your Thirst.” Not only was the tagline bold, but the packaging didn’t look like a traditional water bottle. Instead, the water-in-a-can resembled an energy drink or a popular seltzer.

Today, in just four short years, Liquid Death is valued at $1.4 billion, double its $700 million valuation in 2022. And, they have built an incredibly loyal following with a whopping 2.8M followers on Instagram and 4.9M followers on TikTok.

Part of the massive success story is due to Founder Mike Cessario’s interesting and unique approach. The former advertising creative director brought the brand to life by breaking all the rules in the aspirational health and wellness category.

Water brands were almost indistinguishable before Liquid Death’s foray into the market. The brand took an entirely different approach with rebellious messaging, interesting packaging, and heavy metal and punk rock aesthetics. The brand targeted an entirely different segment of the market: young men who probably only drank water in the gym. The tallboy cans and heavy metal aesthetic make drinking water “cool” again -- you’re sure to make a statement and get noticed when carrying a Liquid Death can.

This deliberate distinctiveness is key. By adopting conventions from a different category, Liquid Death doesn't just stand out, they stand out in a way that resonates with their target audience. It's a calculated rebellion that perfectly captures the Von Restorff Effect in action. In a crowded marketplace of bottled water brands all vying for attention, Liquid Death's bold approach ensures they're the can you remember, the can you want to pick up, and the can you might even brag about on social media. Now, it’s one of the fastest-growing consumer product brands of all time.

How Can Brands Stand Out?

Liquid Death's success is a testament to the power of defying expectations. But how can other brands adopt a similar approach and achieve distinctiveness without veering off too far? Here are some key takeaways:

  • Know Your Audience: Liquid Death’s success came from finding an opportunity with a very specific audience. Don't be random, be relevant. Identify and understand your target market. Think about their interests, sense of humor, and preferred communication style. Your communications plan should all lead back to that distinctive voice and style.
  • Be Strategic with Disruption: Don’t be afraid to break the mold, but make sure you’re intentional. Study what everyone else is doing and then create a plan to do the exact opposite to stand out. Maybe your industry hasn’t tapped into humor. Find something unique about your brand that grabs attention and sets you apart.
  • Be Bold: Taking chances and risks can help brands reap big rewards. Experiment with your branding and think outside the box. Add a splash of color if your industry is traditionally generic. Choose a font that is sure to make a statement and stand out. Come up with a bold tagline. Craft a distinctive voice with bold visuals.

Remember, distinctiveness doesn’t have to mean outlandishness. The goal is to find a way to stand out in a way that’s authentic to your brand. Above all, the tactics and strategy should resonate with your target audience. This will cut through the clutter and leave a lasting impression on the consumers you’re trying to reach.

The Mere Exposure Effect – Consistency Breeds Connection

Imagine you walk to work each day and pass the same bakery every single day. At first, you might not pay much attention to the storefront. After weeks of seeing the same charming window display and the inviting aroma wafting out the door, you find yourself drawn in. The repeated exposure, passing the bakery daily, created liking and familiarity.

This is a strong example of the Mere Exposure Effect. The Mere Exposure Effect is crucial in the loyalty loop. While distinctiveness and standing out is key to grabbing initial attention, consistency keeps pulling you in and builds lasting connections.

Let’s revisit Liquid Death’s branding through the lens of the Mere Exposure Effect.

The initial bold branding and taglines may have stopped you from scrolling on social media. Still, it’s the consistent use of dark humor, edgy visuals, and a rebellious attitude across all touchpoints that truly solidifies brand recognition. Every touchpoint reinforces the unique brand identity.

This consistency plays a powerful role in the loyalty loop. The more consumers are exposed to Liquid Death’s message, the more comfortable and familiar they become with the brand. The initial intrigue soon blossoms into loyalty and try. Consumers start to “like” what they see, not just because it’s different but because it consistently reflects their values and sense of humor.

The Von Restorff Effect grabs attention, while the Mere Exposure Effect strengthens the brand identity, building trust and familiarity. By mastering both, Liquid Death has created a loyal following.

A Closer Look at the Loyalty Loop: Consistency Creates Communities

Imagine the last time you were at a concert or sporting event. Did you bond with the people around you as you sang every song or cheered for your favorite team?

We all want to feel a part of something – that’s why we cheer for the home team at a sporting event or connect with locals in our community.

Brands strive to create a sense of shared identity and belonging with their target audience. This sense of community can help brands cultivate loyalty and turn customers into passionate advocates. 

Here’s where Liquid Death’s commitment to consistency plays a crucial role. Their dark humor and rebellious attitudes aren’t just a one-off marketing gimmick. It’s truly woven into the fabric of the brand. They are consistent with their marketing messages on every channel – whether it’s social media, a piece of merchandise, or its website. While distinct, fans know what to expect: a brand that aligns with their values and has a darkly comedic sense of humor.

Liquid Death has taken it a step further to cultivate a community around their brand. They engage with fans on social media, host events with a heavy metal theme, and collaborate with artists and influencers who share their spirit and passion. Their shared identity and experiences have helped build a tribe or community.

The benefits of fostering a community and shared identity around a brand are undeniable. Loyal fans become brand ambassadors, and thanks to social media, spreading the word about a favorite product has never been easier. Ambassadors also provide valuable feedback, helping the brand stay relevant and improve its offerings. This network creates a powerful sense of belonging, driving brand loyalty and sustainable growth. It’s a win-win situation for all involved.

The Science of Standing Out, Being Consistent, and Building Brand Loyalty

Liquid Death has carved out a unique path in an otherwise crowded marketplace by mastering the science of distinctiveness with the Von Restorff Effect and consistency with the Mere Exposure Effect. Their dark humor and rebellious attitude might seem out of place in the world of bottled water, but that’s what makes the brand memorable. And they’ve been able to target an entirely new audience.

Want to learn more about the Liquid Death case study? Tune in to the newest episode of Consumer Behavior Lab’s podcast, where we dive deeper into their strategies and the psychology behind their success.

Ready to leverage the power of behavioral science to grow your brand? Function Growth can help. We partner with brands to fuel scalable growth and build brands that people love. Get in touch with us today to schedule a free consultation and learn how we can help your brand stand out from the crowd.