What's in a word?

What's in a word?

If there’s a word more associated with planners than any other, it is this: s-a-l-i-e-n-c-e.

A word that makes creatives sigh. And account service frown.

After all it isn’t a simple word. It has layers. Is fat with nuance. The exact opposite of what strategy should be. Or is it?

The appealing quality of salience is, literally, stand out. As an adjective, it states ‘prominence’. ‘Striking’. ‘Conspicuous’.

We now live in a world that accepts how emotional messaging works harder than rational. How emotional stories snag more easily on long-term memory. How emotional marketing and advertising breed more sustained commercial effect for business.

And it’s this truth that makes ‘salience’ so critical.

When something or someone is salient they project out. And pull towards. They are distinct. Not necessarily different. Key is the emotional response they evoke.

The inimitable Professor Byron Sharp has drilled this home in his excellent book, How Brands Grow, What Marketers Don’t Know. Whilst alumni such as David Aaker tell us that differentiation is the cornerstone for successful brands, Sharp flouts that and highlights how perceived difference rarely drives purchase of a product.

On average, only 11% of users of a brand within a category perceive it as different. Only 10% as unique. “Buyers don’t need to see differentiation to buy a brand, or keep on buying it,” writes Sharp.

Instead, we can look to the role and benefit of salience. A transmission of a sense of something happening. A positive charge of kinetic energy that builds on association and memory and reminds people of a brand’s character.

Ad agency creative directors – such as the UK’s legendary Dave Trott – highlight the strength of salience. He laments and reflects on "the risky, the unusual, the daring, which…[bring] fear, insecurity and adrenalin" – reminding us of the point of being alive.

Trott revels in a world of tension and breaking the rules. And, what he always demands from planning is prominent truth. Insight that may harbour differentiation, but doesn’t have to.

For instance, a chocolate bar that contains 80% cocoa has a point of difference. But it’s how chocolate lovers feel about an intense cocoa hit, and how that hit is conveyed in packaging and design, that offers the biggest clue for a creative team in search of ‘prominent truth’.

Salience provides the best chance of gaining a disproportionate share of popularity, of fame. And as all good planners know, brand fame breeds devastating effect in hard commercial terms. Literally, it pays back.

Here’s an acid test.

Find your nearest bar. Walk into it. And task yourself with being its most striking visitor that day.

What would you do?

Buy everyone a drink?

Tell a raucous joke?


Simply being different isn’t going to help.

Instead, you’d want to stand out. You’d want to be a salient presence. Because only through some form of drama and movement would you generate notice and notoriety; would you prompt conversation.

And it’s this fuel for conversation that salience offers. Fuel that helps generate ideas that get people talking. Conversation to build brand equity. Conversation to build profit.

So, s-a-l-i-e-n-c-e needn’t be a niche word then. Nor planner’s parlance.

Instead, let’s embrace ‘a sense of something happening’. And harness its value.

As French philosopher Gaston Bachelard once quipped: “The poetic image is a sudden salience on the surface of the psyche.”

In a world where neuroscience is making its mark, and spontaneous recall is every planner’s quarry, ‘salience’ is precisely the metric all marketers and agencies should be chasing on behalf of their brands.

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