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I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with measuring brand awareness, especially aided awareness (“have you ever heard of a brand called….”).  Aided awareness is a good measure when a brand is healthy and can be used to compare progress across markets. However, it becomes a useless measure when a brand declines.  I remember being at Unilever in the late 70s and seeing really high aided awareness levels for some brands that once were leaders but had since dwindled to tiny shares (Pepsodent and Lifebuoy to name two; the reader probably is still aware of them today—admit it!).  Sometimes awareness is high for brands that don’t even exist (called “ghost awareness”) like a made-up Betty Crocker sweet baked good, because it seems so damn logical.

Look at this table of data of aided awareness vs. brand shares from a household products category and you’ll see little relationship.

Aided awareness is what we measure but it isn’t really what we want to know.  In an era of shopper marketing and Procter’s call for store-back thinking, CPG Marketers want to know how to get their brands noticed at retail.  That means the brand broke through the clutter and became relevant to that shopper at that moment; it got in the game.  It could even mean that a shopper became instantly aware of your brand and bought it. THAT is shelf-back thinking!

Getting noticed at retail is NOT a no-brainer; it is hard and requires great marketing. There are 40,000 SKUs in a typical supermarket and a shopper buys 1% of them over the course of a year.  John Dranow from Smart Revenue says the first thing a shopper does on a given trip is deselect 90% of what’s in the store. The 90% of products that are deselected are like the gorilla in the video with kids bouncing basketballs.  You are so intent on counting the number of passes by those kids in white shirts amidst the chaos, you don’t see the person in the gorilla suit.  “Inattentional blindness” is the name of the phenomenon and it happens to shoppers on every shopping trip.

What a marketer should want from their communications efforts is to make their brand relevant to break through the chaos.  Create anticipation, curiosity, meaning, and desire pursuant to actions like getting people talking, searching, visiting your owned media sites, and looking for your brand at retail and ultimately buying it.  Post-purchase, media can help guide the experience consumers are having with the product to get them to want to replenish as they run out.  Yes, media is about post-purchase influence; can you say “below the funnel”?

The ability for a marketer to get their brand noticed on the shelf and then instantly have people make meaning or mentally retrieve information about it is critical. Even better, is if it gets noticed first, which, any behavioral economist will tell you, is a really good advantage to have.  The best thing for a marketer is if the shopper puts THEIR brand on the shopping list by name and then every other brand becomes the gorilla. The best marketing and media strategies for accomplishing this will vary, depending on how people shop for that type of product so shopper insights must inform media strategy.

Literally, awareness is a survey construct that measures the ability of a respondent to retrieve a brand memory during survey questioning regardless of whether or not the product category was relevant to their lives at the moment they clicked the link.  In contrast, what CPG marketers really want to know is how to make the retail experience evoke a brand memory and create meaning while someone is shopping and what communications approaches best accomplish that given the path to purchase for their product.

If marketing research wants greater impact on marketing decision-making, if it is to get that seat at the table, it has to start measuring what the business really needs to know.

Postscript: if you still think awareness is a prerequisite to purchasing, come back tomorrow where I will post a picture of my shopping cart at mid-trip from yesterday with commentary.

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9 Responses to “Is brand awareness a useful research measure in an era of digital and shopper marketing?”

  1. Robin

    Joel – great post as always.

    Is there any thinking or research on how brand commitment or brand memory interacts with in store stimuli and the decision at the shelf?

    I think that understanding is the key to mapping the path from the shelf back.

  2. Back when I was a survey writer, I always included red herring brand names. I considered the awareness rates for those fake brands to be the base level, the new zero. So, instead of saying awareness was 80%, I would subtract the red herring awareness (say 15%) and use 65% as the real awareness score.

    I think most people aren’t lying. They just truly can’t differentiate between the 8 zillion brands fighting for attention.

    • Joel Rubinson

      Hi Annie. thanks for your comment. I don’t think people are lying either. I think they are problem-solving as they go through a survey, which includes being primed by the prior questions and whatever just happened in their lives. My point was that this is the wrong priming environment for people to problem solve or have brand memories accessed. It is more about the retail environment (or search if they are online doing research). I am still conflicted. It’s hard not to ask aided awareness but it is a really flawed measure.

  3. All awareness measures are clumsy measures of a brand’s “mental availability” because they use a single cue, usually the name of the product category (well the name that marketers use for it, not necessarily consumers).

    Similarly, recognition is vastly different from noticing.

    This is discussed in the journal article Romaniuk, Jenni and Byron Sharp (2004). “Conceptualizing and measuring brand salience”, Marketing Theory, Vol.4, No.4, p.327-342.

    I hope that people find it useful, the article can be downloaded from here:

    Professor Byron Sharp

  4. Joel & Byron

    I very much agree that the problem is with asking the question in the first place, and especially with the context of the question. As Byron says, the wording of awareness questions bears little relation to the way in which consumers think about brands. If memories are primarily built on associations, then the word(s) that are used to define the “context” of awareness will define the answers that a consumer gives. Product categories as defined by manufacturers are rarely relevant to a consumer who will think in terms of a salient set of products to satisfy a specific need – the need/desire/motivation is the context, rather than the retail category. Behavioural economics demonstrates that minor changes in context trigger major changes in behaviour (read for instance).

    Perhaps a way to improve awareness questions is to think more carefully about the wording of the question and the way we define the context or situation?


  5. Great perspective, and a little unsettling for many people since marketing effectiveness have often been linked to this measure. I guess the fundamental problem is the belief that awareness translates to behaviour and hence all focus has been to drive awareness rather than influencing behaviour. For example, healthcare is rife with evidence that awareness is a poor predictor of action. Cancer from smoking, HIV and Breast cancer awareness programs have all created perceptions that they have a higher probability of occurance than is in reality. As an illustration, people believe that the chance of contracting HIV in one incidence of unprotected intercourse is 75% while in reality the chance is far lower (one in thousand). Even then, behaviour changes were difficult to achieve. Obviously there is far higher ROI in investing in behavioural interventions than increasing this awareness any further

  6. […] languages, you can change the way that participants behave and the decisions that they make.  A recent article by Joel Rubinson (and discussion), explores some of the issues with measuring brand awareness.  I believe that many […]

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  8. Paul Hancock

    Hi Joel,

    I think what you are talking about is part to do with how the brain works and how the world has been changing.

    I would imagine there are many brands still held in memory which we can still evoke which are long gone. Only recently I was on a nostalgia trip with friends talking about confectionery brands we remember from being children, some which haven’t seen a shelf for a few decades. That is a kind of aided recall conversation.

    I agree that we need a complete re-think on awareness which appears to me to be measured in a context where demand exceeded the supply of stuff. Clearly that balanced tipped a very long time ago but our way of understanding the world probably hasn’t. Mere exposure, information retrieval and how we get to social meanings are all subject to different kinds of processing and meaning making yet we have very generic measures to tackle this.

    The challenge is finding ways in which we can measure and acknowledge these different kinds of processing but as we are quickly entering a world where media is exploding around us and paths to content are constantly evolving we risk being even forther behind.