In his 1995 book, Building Strong Brands, David Aaker introduced his now-famous Brand Vision Model. Originally dubbed the “Brand Identity Model” it’s now commonly referred to as the “Aaker Model.i” All three of these names—Brand Vision Model, Brand Identity Model, and Aaker Model—refer to the same framework, which is explained in this two-post series. In part one, I’ll cover the basics of the model as well as the brand essence, core vision elements, and extended vision elements.
For a brief overview, here’s David Aaker, now Vice Chairman at Prophet, explaining the ideas behind Brand Vision:
To fully grasp the thinking behind the Brand Vision Model, it’s useful to understand the context in which it was created. At the time, advertising agencies (who were “running things in those days,” according to Aaker) would define brands by developing “a three-word phrase, a single thought, a single concept—and then you develop a campaign around it.” Other agencies were using “fill-in-the-box” models, in which every brand was defined by the same kinds of ideas. Aaker was convinced both approaches were wrong.
I thought brands—certainly B2B brands, but any brand—have got multiple dimensions. … You have to allow a brand to stand for more than one thing—maybe six or twelve things.
The second thing I really disliked was the fill-in-the-box model. … It just drove me crazy. They would have eight boxes and you had to fill each one … even [if it] wasn’t relevant to your brand.”
David Aaker on How Brands Are Built
At first glance, the Brand Vision Model might appear daunting. But the image below—taken from the front of Building Strong Brands—overcomplicates what is, in reality, a very straightforward model.
First off, we can temporarily set aside everything in the diagram except the central box labeled “Brand Identity.” (Remember, in Aaker’s updated terminology, this would be “Brand Vision.”) Within this box are two crucial pieces of the model:
- The concentric circles representing the extended vision elements, core vision elements, and (added in later versions) the brand essence; and
- Below the concentric circles, four brand vision “perspectives,” each with two or more element categories listed underneath.
The simple idea behind the Aaker Model is that every brand can stand for multiple ideas—maybe as many as six, ten, or twelve. And these ideas, attributes, or associations vary in the degree to which they are central—or “core”—to the brand’s identity. To avoid creating another fill-in-the-box model, Aaker avoids specifying how many ideas to include or what kinds of ideas to include. In other words, Aaker’s Brand Vision Model does not require the inclusion of brand personality (as does Kapferer’s Brand Identity Prism), or purpose and values (as does Marty Neumeier’s Brand Commitment Matrix), or a set number of positioning pillars (as do many agency models).
Let’s further examine the three concentric circles, which Aaker has previously referred to as the “Identity Structure.”
Core and extended vision elements
These outer two circles should contain about six to twelve vision elements, prioritized into core elements—usually the two to five most central to the brand’s relevance and differentiation—and extended elements, which add texture but may be less important or less differentiating. Over time, a brand’s extended elements may become core, and vice-versa.
Here are some examples of core and extended vision elements listed by Aaker in some of his books and other writings:
|Brand||Type of element||Element name||Found in|
|Ajax||Core||Spirit of Excellence||Aaker on Branding|
|Ajax||Core||Team Solutions||Aaker on Branding|
|Ajax||Core||Technology That Fits||Aaker on Branding|
|Ajax||Extended||Worldly but Informal||Aaker on Branding|
|Ajax||Extended||Confident, Competent||Aaker on Branding|
|Ajax||Extended||Global Network of Local Experts||Aaker on Branding|
|Ajax||Extended||Open Communicator||Aaker on Branding|
|Ajax||Extended||Support World Health||Aaker on Branding|
|Berkeley-Haas School of Business||Core||Beyond Yourself||Aaker on Branding|
|Berkeley-Haas School of Business||Core||Confidence without Attitude||Aaker on Branding|
|Berkeley-Haas School of Business||Core||Question the Status Quo||Aaker on Branding|
|Berkeley-Haas School of Business||Core||Students Always||Aaker on Branding|
|A major financial services company||Core||Bias to yes||Aaker on Branding|
|A major financial services company||Core||Easy to work with||Aaker on Branding|
|A major financial services company||Core||Flexibility||Aaker on Branding|
|A major financial services company||Core||Speed||Aaker on Branding|
|Saturn (from 1996)||Core||Quality: A world-class car||Building Strong Brands|
|Saturn (from 1996)||Core||Relationship: Treat customers with respect and as a friend||Building Strong Brands|
|Saturn (from 1996)||Extended||Commited employees||Building Strong Brands|
|Saturn (from 1996)||Extended||Loyal users||Building Strong Brands|
|Saturn (from 1996)||Extended||Personality: Throughtful and friendly, down-to-earth and reliable, but also youthful, humorous, and lively; thoroughly American||Building Strong Brands|
|Saturn (from 1996)||Extended||Product scope: U.S. subcompact||Building Strong Brands|
|Saturn (from 1996)||Extended||Retail Experience: No pressure; informative, friendly; no-haggle pricing||Building Strong Brands|
|Saturn (from 1996)||Extended||Slogan: "A different kind of car company, a different kind of car"||Building Strong Brands|
|Saturn (from 1996)||Extended||Spring Hill plant: A symbol of Saturn's U.S. workforce||Building Strong Brands|
Interestingly, Aaker’s original model excluded a brand essence in an effort to move away from the “three-word phrase” approach he was so averse to at the time. He added the brand essence—right in the center of the model—because “it can be magic in terms of internal communication, inspiration to employees and partners, and guiding programs.ii”
In my first version of the brand identity model, I didn’t even have a brand essence because I was so attuned to the fact I didn’t want a three-word phrase to appear anywhere. I later added a brand essence because it turns out for a large percentage of the cases, that’s helpful. It’s not always helpful, but in a large percentage of the cases, it is.”
David Aaker on How Brands Are Built
In Aaker on Branding: 20 Principles That Drive Success, Aaker describes the brand essence as representing “a central theme of the brand vision” and “a single thought that reflects the core of the brand vision.” He offers several examples of brand essence:
|Brand||Brand essence||Found in|
|Ajax||Commitment to Excellence—anytime, anywhere, whatever it takes||Aaker on Branding|
|Berkeley-Haas School of Business||We develop leaders who redefine how we do business||Aaker on Branding|
|Disneyland||Family Magic||Aaker on Branding|
|London Schoool of Business||Transforming Futures||Aaker on Branding|
|Panasonic||Ideas for Life||Aaker on Branding|
Note that, while the brand essence often sounds like a tagline, taglines are external-facing and can differ—sometimes significantly—from the internal-facing brand essence.
Brand vision elements and perspectives
Earlier, I mentioned that this model doesn’t require the inclusion of specific components like brand personality or values. Instead, Aaker encourages the strategist to consider including these categories, but only if they make sense for the brand in question. This is a key distinction between Aaker’s model and many others. To ensure the brand has been considered from every angle, Aaker recommends strategists try thinking of it from four “perspectives”—as a) a product, b) an organization, c) a person, and d) a symbol—and consider each of 12 element categories broken out across these perspectives.
In part two of this series, I’ll go into more detail on the perspectives and elements, explaining each and providing examples.
Rob Meyerson is a brand consultant, professional namer, and host of the How Brands Are Built podcast. He is also principal and founder of Heirloom, an independent brand strategy and identity firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.
- i Aaker decided to rename the model recently because “identity” is often misconstrued as a reference to a visual identity or logo.
- ii Aaker on Branding: 20 Principles That Drive Success
Sources/further reading and listening:
- “David Aaker got religion on the power of stories,” How Brands Are Built podcast episode
- Building Strong Brands, David Aaker
- Aaker on Branding: 20 Principles That Drive Success, David Aaker
- “6 Reasons Your Brand Needs a Brand Identity Model,” David Aaker on the Prophet blog
- “It Starts with a Brand Vision: 6 Key Components of Successful Models,” David Aaker on the Prophet blog
- “How to Build a Successful Brand: 7 Essential Steps,” David Aaker on the Prophet blog
- Aaker Model, Wikipedia