Why Is Brand Awareness Such a Weak Objective?

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At some point in the history of marketing and sales, the “purchase funnel” was created.

At the top of every funnel is the first step – awareness.  We then proceed down the funnel to consideration, evaluation and purchase (though the exact steps vary from model to model).

Brand Awareness Purchase Funnel
One of several versions of the “purchase funnel.”

And so some marketers began to believe that brand awareness was a reasonable objective of their efforts.  How can we stuff consumers into our imaginary funnel if we don’t start with awareness?

I see it differently.  Every time I see a creative brief with the primary objective of “awareness,” I know that time and money are about to be wasted.

Here’s why awareness is too weak an objective for your brand strategy:

The purchase funnel may not reflect reality

As British mathematician George Box said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”  The purchase funnel can be a useful model, but only to a point.

The flaw in the purchase funnel model is that it presents its steps as discrete and linear.  As if, once a given consumer reaches awareness, we must let her stew there for a while before moving her along.

This sequential process doesn’t reflect reality, at least not in all cases.  Sometimes, we may skip down the funnel with great speed.  You may come across a photo of some Caribbean overwater bungalows in your Instagram feed, and wham!  You’ve moved from “unawareness” to “evaluation” in a heartbeat.

Awareness isn’t the same as affinity

You know who has great awareness?  Martin Shkreli.  But are you buying anything he’s selling?

Brand Awareness Martin Shkreli
Great awareness, but would you buy anything he’s selling?

As a consumer, you’re aware of hundreds of brands that you have no opinion about.  Or just don’t like.  Or bought once and would never buy again.

Brand awareness isn’t that hard to achieve.  You can get it with a big budget, shock value, or simple longevity.  But if you believe the adage that people buy from those they know, like and trust, then awareness only gets you the “know.”  “Like” and “trust” are other things entirely.

Brand awareness doesn’t necessarily translate to sales

For proof, you need only look to the Super Bowl advertisers in any given year.

Let’s take the Radio Shack ad from 2014.  This is the one where Erik Estrada, Dee Snider and other ‘80s icons burst into a Radio Shack store and gleefully dismantled it.  Three years later, people still remember this ad.

Brand Awareness Radio Shack
Dismantling Radio Shack in more ways than one.

Apart from making a splash on game day, it finished in the top five of USA Today’s Super Bowl AdMeter.  So it received plenty of press and viewing after the game.

Less than five weeks after that Super Bowl, Radio Shack announced that it was closing nearly 20% of its stores – 1100 in total.  And things got worse for Radio Shack after that.

Awareness?  Plenty.  Traffic and sales?  Not so much.

If your marketing team delivered record awareness, but not a single sale, would you consider that successful?

I hope the answer is a firm “no.”  That’s why there are better objectives for your marketing investments than brand awareness.

For Best Results, Focus on Behavioral Objectives

For your marketing programs to work, they need to create behavioral change.  They need to motivate people to take action.  Some examples include:

  • Switching – Motivating a competitor’s consumer to try your brand.
  • Increasing frequency – Motivating your consumers to buy your brand more often.
  • Increasing quantity – Motivating your consumers buy more per purchase occasion.
  • Trading up – Motivating your consumers to buy a more expensive item in your line.

If you have several tools in your marketing toolbox, it’s possible to focus each on a different behavioral objective.  But each tactic should have one, and only one, primary objective.

If your marketing team or agency says they’ll deliver awareness and only awareness, find new people.  To move the sales needle, you need marketing that is strong enough to change behavior – not just attitudes.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to outpace the market and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands, including Wrigley, Valvoline and Fidelity Investments, to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He’s based near Portland, in Oregon wine country.

Copyright 2017 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.

A version of this post was published at BizJournals.com and appears here with permission.