Should We Ever Pursue Brand Awareness for Its Own Sake?
There’s a new mandate in marketing: don’t just grab attention — hold it.
If you’re new here (hi! Welcome!), I’ll catch you up. At MSR, we believe that the marketing of yesteryear — the type that relied on flashy gimmicks and splashy mass campaigns and pursued reach and brand awareness above all — should stay firmly in…yesteryear. We know that as our audiences interact with an ever-growing landscape of brands and content and branded content, we need to ensure we hold their attention, so they’ll keep interacting with us. That means we’re more interested in how well our message resonates with our target audience than how many total people it reaches. It means we’re favoring a new metric: brand affinity — (how much people care about your brand) vs. brand awareness (how many people have heard of your brand).
Got all that? Ok great.
Amid all the fervor around brand affinity and the blossoming notion that you — yes, you, oh fellow marketer — could justifiably focus on creating something that fosters true affinity for your brand, a small voice might be nagging at the back of your mind. You might be thinking:
But…I’ve pursued brand awareness as a primary goal in my job. And sometimes, it kinda works.
If you’re anything like me, you might be wondering how you can reconcile a true passion for and belief in the concept of brand affinity and brand affinity marketing with your own experience creating content for the sake of spreading the proverbial word about your company. You might be wondering: in this new era of marketing, where we’re focusing on holding attention rather than grabbing it, are we ever justified in pursuing brand awareness for its own sake?
But…is anyone ever really pursuing brand awareness for its own sake?
Let’s call a spade a spade: brands need people to be aware that they exist. Without customers to purchase their products or services, brands would simply go out of business. But too often, we focus on identifying ourselves to more people without a commensurate focus on capturing the lasting attention of the most relevant people to our brand. We get so caught up in driving awareness that we forget an important fact: increased affinity naturally broadens awareness — for free.
If you’re a brand-new company with zero customers, you wouldn’t be remiss in thinking: zero people are aware that we exist. Our marketing needs to focus on brand awareness at all costs.
It’s a reasonable thought. Consider a new restaurant opening in your city. No one’s eaten there yet — no one knows how the food tastes, no one can yet articulate the vibe of the place, no one’s written a glowing or scathing review on Yelp. The owners can’t yet rely on a core group of regulars to fill tables on slow weekdays or passionately spread the word about their delicious chicken parm. They just need bodies — any bodies — to come to the restaurant and order food in the first place. They need brand awareness.
Marketing campaigns that strive to increase brand awareness — a poster campaign all over town, a flood of Instagram ads, a one-time meal discount — could make sense for that initial period where the restaurant just needs diners to come through the doors.
But once the customers arrive — then what? The restaurant owners don’t say: “Ok, great, you’re here! Now we’re done.” Rather, they immediately begin the process of enticing customers to come back. They take pains to serve them delicious food, to offer exceptional service, to create a pleasant atmosphere. They want customers who care about the restaurant. They begin to focus on building brand affinity.
The upside of that affinity? Without being asked, those passionate customers will spread the word. They’ll leave rave reviews. They’ll make reservations for themselves and their friends, who in turn will spread the word about their exceptional experience at the restaurant. By successfully converting awareness to affinity, the restaurant builds a constantly flowing awareness pipeline.
It sounds so simple — but so often, brands spend all their time and resources on the initial awareness campaign. Once they get customers in the proverbial door, though, they don’t serve them a meal. They don’t serve them anything…and then they wonder why their conversion rates are so low.
There’s nothing wrong with driving brand awareness if that awareness feeds into a larger goal and an opportunity for the customers who’ve arrived to stick around and get to know your brand. There’s nothing wrong with capturing customers’ attention so you can delight and further engage with them. As an employee of a for-profit company, it’s important that you maximize the number of people who will care about your brand and continue to purchase from it. You want resonance, sure — but you also want reach. You want to reach as many people as possible with whom your brand’s message is likely to resonate.
Here’s the thing about brand affinity: it’s not a direct replacement for brand awareness. For loyal customers to care about your brand, they obviously first have to know about it. You need people to be aware of your brand so you can draw them in, engage with them, and offer them something that keeps them coming back for more. Too often, though, we focus on “more more more” at the expense of focusing on “deeper deeper deeper.” Once we’ve identified ourselves to prospective customers, we fail to seize and hold their attention. Instead, we’re back to square one, trying to drive up awareness from ever-more net new prospects. In taking our eyes off the proverbial prize — a smaller subset of people who are more likely to become truly loyal to our brand — we risk losing the prize. Once people are aware of and interested in our brand, why can’t we — or a focused part of our marketing team — slow down and move to what should be the next phase of our marketing approach: delighting and resonating with them so they care about us and stay with us?
I think it often comes down to our perfectly understandable obsession with “hitting our numbers.”
Companies need to redefine their success metrics for marketing
When you think about the success of a piece of content, what metrics are you using to judge that success?
It’s so easy to be distracted by big numbers: big impressions, big pageviews. It’s easy to assume that a piece of content with a huge number of impressions was a better piece of content, a more successful piece of content, than one with a smaller number of views but a higher number of comments.
The former piece of content screams brand awareness. This many thousand people viewed our blog post or video or landing page. This many thousand people are now aware of our brand. Big numbers like that can impress your boss and mollify — at least temporarily — concerns that all the hard work you’re putting in might not be working.
But how do those numbers translate to customer loyalty? How do those numbers translate to insights about your audience? How do those numbers translate to purchases made, conversations had, goals achieved?
Often, they don’t. Often, a splashy piece of content created for the sole purpose of generating awareness for the brand has a certain amount of panache, a one-time wow factor that stands alone. It might garner a huge number of impressions, but without converting awareness into affinity, it will soon fade into distant memory.
If you need to create high-level content that introduces prospective customers to your brand, play the long game. Explain your company, industry, or services — but then offer opportunities to engage further. Create an ongoing educational series to draw customers in rather than reach them just once. Make converting awareness to affinity an essential part of your brand awareness campaigns. Brand awareness isn’t inherently bad — in fact, it’s a necessary precursor to brand affinity — but it can’t be the end goal. Just like a restaurant owner’s goal can’t simply be getting people in the door of their restaurant. They need to actually feed them — and so do you.
And that means that sometimes the right call will be digging into content and experiences that reach a smaller number of highly engaged people. Think about it this way: would you rather have a conversion rate of 15% on a group of 150 people, or a conversion rate of 3% on a group of 500? (Spoiler: the first one.)
To make that shift, though, you need to understand that the numbers you’re analyzing will look slightly different. And that probably means you need to have a conversation about why you’re pursuing brand affinity with your boss. If you say you’ve found success in creating awareness-focused content in the past, I ask you this: is part of the success you’ve internalized actually the positive reaction of the powers that be? Have you pursued brand awareness not necessarily because it results in more conversions and higher sales (perhaps you can’t even measure your content’s direct relation to revenue) but because the numbers those campaigns generate garner praise from your boss — and thus some relief for you?
I think we often focus on awareness over affinity, because measuring awareness is something we know how to do. Measuring affinity is intrinsically harder. How do you quantify a level of caring? How much value do you assign to a long comment left on a blog post, or an unprompted email to a thought leader at your company? It’s so much easier to look at the cold hard numbers — X impressions, Y pageviews — and feel like we’re making progress. But that view is ultimately shortsighted. If we relax our pure “numbers” goals a bit and explore reasonable ways to measure our success, we can, in fact, have it all. By focusing on going deeper with a smaller number of customers, we’ll end up attracting more customers organically, as our loyal audience has a higher lifetime value and spreads the word about our brand to their networks.
It’s time for marketers to rewrite the rules for their content and campaigns. It’s time to redefine success, so it’s focused less on large numbers and more on deep and productive relationships. It’s time for executives to perform a reset on their teams, which are so primed to deliver the highest-possible numbers before moving onto the next attention-seeking campaign. It’s time for marketers to take the time to get to know their customers and deliver content that keeps them coming back for more.
A somewhat accidental marketer, I’m first and foremost a writer. I’ve spent a decade working with global brands to craft on-target content and streamline complex ideas into clear (and even…exciting?!) language. Now, I get to spend every day immersed in content and strategy here, as Managing Editor of Marketing Showrunners, at my company, Molly Donovan Content & Communications. I’m thrilled to be a part of this community of eager next-generation marketers and marketing showrunners.
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