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Picture: 123RF/niserin
Picture: 123RF/niserin

Pseudo branding is the subtle science of creating positive brand associations in the minds of consumers without shoving the brand down their throats. Think of it as a way to woo consumers.

An important distinction to be made is that “pseudo branded” is not the same as “unbranded”. Unbranded is about adding value, while pseudo branding is about creating associations that are not obvious at first but build brand love by taking the consumer on a journey that fosters identity curation.

It’s important to create variety in pseudo branding approaches, since its strength is its subtlety. Here are some of the ways this can be achieved.

Borrowed interest

At its core, borrowed interest involves creating a connection to something bigger than the brand. This can be anything from an altruistic cause to a cultural phenomenon. The important thing is to make sure it’s relevant to what the brand’s purpose aims to be. Behavioural economics makes allowance for human irrationality. Where borrowed interest really wins is in the predictability of irrationality. The connection to a particular interest or popular-culture subject may not be rational, but if it is consistent it can be predicted. And that is key to having the authority to comment on a particular subject.

Visual representation

Pseudo branding uses design that is reflective of the brand but not directly representative of it. This is to avoid creating over-branded spaces that make consumers feel as if their senses are being accosted. I am not suggesting that we abandon a traditional branding approach, but rather that we acknowledge when too much is too much. Consider how to create interest and solicit a response without shouting when a whisper may be more effective.


Auditory branding has long been used to aid recall, while pseudo branding can be used to alter the recall experience through personal connection. Unlike traditional branding, this is not about a catchy jingle or mnemonic but rather by using tone and pitch to make consumers think of the brand in a different way. While this is arguably moving into the space of a brand asset, the opportunity here is to own a tone and pitch that allows consumers to create their own mental connection with brands. For example, in podcasts or video series think of it as pseudo-branded product placement.


A plethora of studies indicate that scent is the most powerful trigger of emotion and memory. This is not about creating a branded scent. The opportunity in pseudo branding is to use scents in branded environments that illicit specific emotions that we want the brand to be associated with. A branded scent only owns a particular aroma. With pseudo branding, however, different scents can be used to illicit specific emotions that we want the brand to be associated with.

State of mind

As brand custodians, one of our aims is to make our brands top of mind. This is extremely powerful from a pseudo-branding perspective, in which brands become the default purchase of a particular state of mind. The benefit of this is that a category job can be used to drive volumes in spaces where branding might be absent. By not being directly branded, the brand benefits from other stakeholder messaging – for example, the retailer’s merchandise signage. When consumers become overwhelmed from a sensory perspective (such as in a crowded store environment) they tend to automate their responses to biological impulses. As a result, a sign that simply says “soft drinks” can encourage consumers to consider if they are feeling thirsty and default to the brand that is top of mind.  By not imposing the brand on the consumer, they feel they have choice, but knowing that we have built the equity we know that we are the default choice.

The consumer as a medium

Pseudo branding is about building a bigger picture of how a brand fits into consumers’ lives. It’s an opportunity to create triggers of consideration beyond a regular branding repertoire. It’s creating spaces for consumers to think positively about the brand as they navigate life outside a planned brand plan. Consumers therefore need to be taught how to identify the brand even when its presence is not obvious. By teaching people to pick up on these subtle cues and enjoy the inherent dopamine response to “figuring things out”, we create greater brand presence in the mind of the consumer. And, of course, give them the brag value that they are acutely attuned to things that their peers are oblivious to. 

It may sound quite meta, but the power of the pseudo brand is to use the thoughts, feelings, associations and recognition that brands build as a form of brand building in and of itself. Considering the systemic relationships that brands have with consumers, these connections can be used for amplified brand building.

Matthew van der Valk is the executive creative director of VMLY&R.

The big take-out:

The power of the pseudo brand is to use the thoughts, feelings, associations and recognition that brands build as a form of brand building in and of itself.


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