“Brand awareness“, the quintessential buzzword of marketers and communications experts for years, has a layered definition. It expresses a concept that has been expanded and revised over time, and one that has been gradually adapted to describe the changes in a market (and a consumer) that are constantly evolving. In this regard, we talked about the 5 marketing strategies not to be ignored in 2022.
In this post, we will start from the minimum requirements of familiarity and recognizability to see how the definition of brand awareness has gradually become more articulated to reflect the growing complexity of brand-consumer dynamics in our current context that is characterized by mass digitization.
Going through related but significantly different notions such as that of “brand equity” and “branding“, we will try to describe how a company can build “self-awareness”, presenting itself in the market with a clear and consistent identity and offering itself to its audience in the dual role of interlocutor and fellow traveler.
Brand awareness: an articulated and evolving definition
According to Hubspot, brand awareness expresses the degree to which the target audience is “familiar with a brand“. It thus refers to the likelihood that customers (or potential customers) remember or recognize the brand, or even, simply, that they know the brand exists.
Brand awareness is the awareness about a certain brand, which is activated, more or less immediately, when we hear about a brand, see it represented through the forms that define its visual identity (first of all with the logo) or identify it as the author and sender of a certain message system.
It’s a straightforward, understandable, almost literal definition, right? Well, no. At least not always and not entirely. Brand awareness is such a pervasive concept that it deserves to be explored in depth. Among the many contributions that have been made in academic or professional circles to enrich and actualize the definition of brand awareness, we have chosen to dwell on two definitions, that of Kevin Keller and of David Aaker, because they place brand awareness within an overall marketing strategy.
Brand awareness: Kevin Keller’s definition as a synthesis of memory and recognition
In Strategic Brand Management Kevin Lane Keller describes brand awareness as a synthesis of two fundamental aspects:
- Brand memory (brand recall), which indicates both the ability of the brand to be recalled from our memories if we are provided with a cue or prompt and the ease with which we associate the brand with a given product category, a previous purchase, or a certain mode of use. For example, the brand recall of a particular brand of detergent – and only that brand – will depend on the ability of that product to come back to us via an “automatic” association, for example, when we get dirty or whenever we think of our basket overflowing with dirty laundry.
- Brand recognition, which indicates our ability to confirm our knowledge of a certain brand when we come into contact with it. In practice, recognition would be triggered whenever we enter a supermarket and are able to associate a certain brand of detergent with the one we have already come in contact with.
Brand memory and brand recognition are two crucial aspects in the brand awareness’ definition, but they’re not everything. To get a more comprehensive idea, let’s add the concepts of brand equity and branding to our thinking.
The definition of brand awareness according to David Aaker: a moment of brand equity
In his book Aaker on Branding, David Aaker (2014) – considered by Philip Kotler to be the “father of modern branding” – provides a multidimensional definition of branding, projecting it far beyond the association between name and logo and identifying it with the specific proposition that each organization makes to its target audience: in exchange for a “reasonable” amount of the customer’s resources, such as attention, time, money and, at best, trust, the brand commits to deliver on the promises made in the offer stage, in terms of functional, emotional, expressive, and social benefits.
According to Aaker, brand awareness is one of the necessary steps for building brand equity, a vast concept that encompasses brand awareness and provides a snapshot of the brand’s destiny, establishing it as the end result of the branding process. But let’s go in order. What does “brand equity” mean? What does “branding” mean?
- Brand equity refers to how customers perceive the value of the brand. It’s a combination of sensation, experience, and opinion. Brand equity can be positive or negative, depending on the judgment that customers accrue regarding the modes of representation, expression, and use that the brand practices. This judgment does not remain confined to an ideal plane but has an immediate impact on the reality of consumer use and thus on conversions and sales.
- Branding is the entire process that gives meaning to an organization, a company, and a product or service. It is the set of actions, both direct and indirect, that create and shape consumers’ mental image of the brand. It is thus a strategy designed and deployed to help people quickly identify and experience the brand, which aims to formulate a concrete reason for them to choose certain products or services, outperforming the competition by first clarifying what the brand itself is and what it is not. The goal of the branding process is to attract and retain customers and stakeholders by offering them a product that is always in line with what the brand promises. To paraphrase the words of two marketing sacred visionaries: branding is the set of actions through which products and services are invested with the power of a brand (Kotler & Keller, 2015)
According to David Aaker, a company builds its brand equity by tackling three somewhat parallel paths that aim to develop brand loyalty, brand awareness, and brand associations, respectively. These paths, which correspond to as many sets of tactical actions, transform branding into a narrative with multiple alternatives, where the stakes don’t end with brand positioning but broaden to include the influence exerted on consumers’ purchasing decisions.
Brand awareness plays a crucial role in customer decision making because it:
- makes the brand visible and facilitates its recognition;
- produces a sense of familiarity, which in turn creates engagement;
- prepares the customer for the consideration stage.
For all of these reasons–because it helps build brand equity, transforming a company’s potential into real value–brand awareness is often one of the main goals of marketing initiatives, whether in terms of generic digital marketing campaigns or real-time marketing.
Brand awareness and marketing strategies in times of crisis: the definition changes again
In his recent article, Imran Hirani (VP, Strategic Accounts at Nielsen) points out that during the pandemic and in the periods immediately following the reopenings, companies tended to focus their marketing efforts more on retaining existing customers than on acquiring new ones. This type of approach – focusing on the lower end of the funnel – is typical of historical periods (and markets) characterized by great uncertainty. The major investment in this case is directed toward pushing consumers toward conversions and purchases so they can count on a more certain return on investment in the short term.
While admitting that devoting time and resources primarily to consideration and decision-making actions is still a common trend with companies today, Hirani says that giving up investing on the upper part of the funnel (and thus on brand awareness activities) could easily end up being a myopic, short-sighted, and unsustainable choice in the long run. According to Hirani, marketers should instead learn to recalibrate their tactics so that they can design a balanced marketing strategy where brand-building efforts are balanced between the upper part of the funnel (brand awareness) and the middle and lower parts (consideration and decision making).
The definition of brand awareness becomes even more complicated, it becomes even broader, it “stretches”, we might say, across the entire funnel. Companies thus try to expand their digital presence, intercepting consumers at different moments of their journey and through different channels and touchpoints.
A balanced marketing strategy, where this rich brand awareness can fully unfold, can be activated in basically two ways: considering the customer journey from start to finish and creating the most appropriate content to make the customer experience truly relevant.
1. Invest in creating awareness throughout the customer journey
If a consumer cannot interact with a brand that he or she has never heard of, brand awareness initiatives are essential for making an organization visible, recognizable, and newsworthy. The issue is paramount not only from a communications perspective: creating brand awareness is necessary to rationally create pipelines for future sales. In fact, being able to count on a qualified audience makes a huge contribution to making sure that efforts at the lower end of the funnel are successful.
Brands that set out to maintain achievements rather than growth cannot overlook the fact that even acquired customers still need good reasons to return, especially when we consider that markets today are increasingly crowded and competitive. In this sense, brand awareness actions continue to play a very important role: cultivating brand memory can make all the difference, even in cases where, legitimately, one intends to maintain the focus on strengthening existing relationships and engagement is more intense on consideration and decision making.
2. Increase awareness with the right content strategy
Consumers learn about a brand, gain trust, and tend to confirm their relationship with the brand over time if the brand’s messages resonate with their sensibilities, are consistent with their value systems, and become part of the common imagination. In other words, brand awareness increases if the content produced by the brand is meaningful and relevant to the target audience.
It goes without saying that, in order to increase brand awareness, it is essential to develop a content strategy that is consistent with the needs, wants, and problems of the target audience and that is effective in reaching each consumer at the most appropriate time and place.
Content marketing is about creating and sharing content that can capture attention first and foremost. High quality, engaging content can connect with the user and help them remember the brand in a positive way. Whether it is a blog post, a video, or an infographic, content helps increase the consumer’s perception of a brand, helping it to position itself accurately and definitively in the marketplace.
Today, the most engaging content is personalized content that is created from the “digital footprints” left by users as they interact with offline and online touchpoints. Based on this data, which comes from a variety of sources, companies can identify ever more precise user profiles in a one-to-one dialog. In this way, when motivated by specific actions and through the provision of tailor-made content that is perceived as useful or interesting, consumers will be more likely to react positively.
In this post, we provided a definition of brand awareness that would restore its character as a methodological tool that is open to change. In today’s fluid context, the concept of brand awareness can continue to have its theoretical validity and operational meaning only if it can be translated into gradually more targeted and customizable actions, affecting the reality of each individual consumer.