What is brand awareness?

A brand is the sum of the associations your customers make about your company. It comes from the tradition, in cattle ranching, of permanently searing a unique logo into the hindquarters of one’s livestock to identify them as one’s own and deter theft.

If a rancher became known for livestock with particular qualities, then his “brand” would become a symbol for those qualities, a sort of visual shorthand. And just like a symbol, if these associations were consistent and strongly felt, a rancher’s brand could—for better or worse—come to represent the livestock and even the rancher’s personality and style.

This all still applies in marketing. And if you’re interested, we’ve written a whole article about building a strong brand foundation. Yet a newer term has crept into our vocabulary: brand awareness, or the degree to which consumers are familiar with the specific associations a business desires.

“Brand awareness is the degree to which consumers are familiar with the specific associations a business desires.”

Brand awareness has also come to refer to a category of marketing activities that includes any tactic or channel used to promote those desired associations. Which, to be perfectly honest, is just about every traditional marketing tactic or channel since most of marketing’s aim is to increase awareness.

Content marketing
Direct marketing
Event marketing
Merchandising and POP marketing
Social media marketing
Print/digital collateral, merch, and signage

The only distinction we’ll make here is a subtle one: traditional marketing may be said to promote products and services, whereas brand awareness is the promotion of the associations people make concerning those products and services.

In other words, brand awareness is less about selling specific things, and more about selling the feelings and ideas you want people to have about those things. And it’s about getting more people to have the same ideas and feelings.

The two most common approaches to brand awareness

The same tactics that apply in traditional marketing also work for brand awareness. So … which should you use?

Well, it depends on your marketing budget, goals, staff resources, and the nature of your business. But where we most often see business owners throwing up their hands in frustration is in the struggle to parse conflicting opinions and advice. (A self-serving note here: that’s precisely where a good marketing agency can help!).

Rather than tell you which tactics are best, let’s take a look at the bigger picture. Then we can share some trends we think are good, some we think aren’t as helpful, and some whose benefits heavily depend on your situation and context.

In our experience, there are two ways small business owners tend to approach marketing.

The first is trial-and-error. Business owners and entrepreneurs are a pretty resourceful lot; they minimize the error by doing research and/or getting good advice. They often find one marketing tactic that works for them—usually because it’s easy to do and translates to measurable gains—and they stick with that. This isn’t a bad approach, per se. But it doesn’t mean that this method is increasing the company’s brand awareness (in fact, if it isn’t, you’ll see diminishing returns with the same expenditure of effort).

The second method is the customer lifecycle approach.

This graph—and there are many others like it online—demonstrates how people arrive at purchase decisions. The cycle may be said to begin with a person’s awareness of your company or product, and then they’ll do a little digging—read some reviews you’ve posted, skim a blog post, maybe happen upon some well-placed ads—before they decide to buy. Once they’ve become a customer, your marketing goal is to retain them. You remind them of their positive experience, offer incentives for returning, and keep your brand in front of them with more advertising.

This approach isn’t bad either, and it’s a whole lot more nuanced than trial-and-error. If you live in this world the way we do, you quickly find that this is how most marketing agencies still explain brand awareness.

The trick, we think, is to remember two things: (1) that cycles are circles, with no beginning or end, and (2) that awareness is involved in each stage.

The first part means that there’s no clear starting point for capturing customers, or for bringing them into your sales funnel. We’re not saying the “funnel” doesn’t exist; just that customers are people and not inanimate objects. We all think and have moods and bodies and lives independent of any one brand. We change our minds. We change our habits (sometimes).

The funnel exists, and so does the lifecycle, but they are recursive. People bounce around them and spend differing amounts of time in different parts of them. They make purchase decisions when they need to and/or are ready to. And if they don’t, they won’t likely return. All a business can do is represent its products and services accurately, consistently, and frequently, and make sure they’re getting in front of the right people.

“The trick is to remember two things: (1) that cycles are circles, with no beginning or end, and (2) that awareness is involved in each stage.”

The best marketing tactics for brand awareness

To determine which tactics will generate the most brand awareness for your business, you’ll want to know your goals, audience, budget, and strategy. Some of these are easier to know than others; your marketing agency can help you narrow your focus.

Get help with your homework

  • Goals are broad, big-picture statements of achievable, observable, primary, and desired outcomes. Goals are a destination; they are a description of what results will look like. They may or may not identify a specific, measurable target. They are different from objectives, which we define as statements of specific intentions based on goals and strategies.
  • Audience refers to your core customers. A marketing agency will help you create personas that embody the needs and values of your target audience to better understand and engage them. Audiences do overlap and change over time, especially in the wake of major social or economic events. If you haven’t updated your personas in the last few years, consult with your agency partner about whether a refresh is in order.
  • Your budget is entirely your own. As a rule of thumb, most small businesses should be investing about ten percent of revenue on marketing. Growth-minded businesses will generally want to invest a bit more heavily: about fifteen to twenty percent might be earmarked for marketing during high-growth periods.
  • Your strategy is how you approach a goal or objective. It’s your stance, your area of focus, and the way you choose to tackle your objectives. Devise a strategy with your agency. To do otherwise may put you at a disadvantage, as you’ll need to get agency buy-in before you can expect them to implement a strategy (this isn’t automatic just because you’re paying for their services).

Together these elements will point you and your agency toward the specific tactics best suited to raise awareness of your brand among your intended customers.

They may point toward a paid social media campaign or an organic social media campaign. They may suggest a series of lead nurture emails or they may suggest targeted digital ads. It depends on a lot of factors. A rock-climbing outfitter might get a lot of mileage out of branded carabiner clips and sponsorship of a major environmental stewardship organization. A tech firm specializing in preventive healthcare might do better with a multichannel content marketing campaign.

Your mileage may vary

A few words about trends. They’re not necessarily good or bad. Trends in marketing reflect larger socioeconomic shifts, but at the granular level relevant to your business, they are essentially useless. Let your well-researched strategy be your guide.

For example, there are entire agencies dedicated to digital marketing. And just as everything to a hammer looks like a nail, these agencies will naturally tend to steer you toward digital marketing solutions to capture your audience’s attention.

But if your core customer persona is over 65, outdoorsy, and somewhat of a hippie, you might get noticed more with a combination of branded merchandise—think compostable travel cups!—and a mailed postcard. Similarly, recent college grads in need of financial and career advice might respond more to a series of informative videos and an always-on social media presence.

The trick here is to find a marketing agency that won’t just help you with the brand awareness campaign, but who can also help execute the growth strategy underpinning your campaign.

So ignore those who say “advertising is dead,” or “social media is everything.” And don’t ignore any tactic that aligns with your goals, audience, budget, and strategy. Video and other content get a lot of bang for your buck; so do email and blogs. And so do print collateral and branded promotional merchandise.

B2B and B2C considerations

Some agencies specialize in B2B or B2C work. Sands Costner does both, since we specialize in the stages of business growth, regardless of the client’s market.

Key differences

There are some key differences between marketing to consumers and marketing to other businesses.

  • Businesses tend to have more longevity as customers; individuals are more frequently one-time customers
  • Businesses tend to make purchase decisions based more on logic and reasoning compared to individuals, who tend to make purchase decisions based more on emotion, though neither is exclusive to one mode, and some segments see the reverse
  • Credibility is equally valued by all types of consumers, though how credibility is manifested varies widely
  • Individual consumers of a given product or service interact with one another more frequently than do business consumers
  • B2B marketing often involves appealing to multiple stakeholders; B2C requires appealing to individuals
  • B2B frequently sees greater demand for post-purchase support services that in turn drive loyalty, whereas B2C sees loyalty driven by an initial experience with the product or service

Both B2B and B2C marketing activities can be mapped onto the sales funnel model, moving gradually (or quickly!) from awareness to engagement to trust and intent and eventually loyalty.

Still, it’s important to remember that people behave differently within the funnel. It’s equally important for B2B companies to realize that their consumers are people first, and exhibit similar behaviors.

Anticipating those behaviors depends largely on how well you’ve researched your market segmentation and customer personas.

All of these considerations point to a need for careful thought and research into consumer personas and market segmentation. This is something your marketing agency should be good at.

Strategic factors

Another helpful tool, particularly when crafting personas, is the idea of strategic factors. Framed always from the stakeholder’s perspective, strategic factors are the key decision-making criteria that stakeholders use when interacting with your business.

For one segment or persona, price may be a strategic factor. For another, environmental impact may be a strategic factor. If you are selling to both groups, you can’t ignore either factor.

These are the variables you must excel at if you are to achieve a competitive advantage, and they will help guide you to an effective brand awareness strategy. (Hey, that’s why they’re called strategic factors!)

Putting your marketing agency to good use

Not only can your agency help you come up with an appropriate brand awareness strategy, but they can and should help you do the research and discovery necessary to segment your audience, build personas, and evaluate their customer journeys.

Diagnostics and evaluation

A good agency will be skilled at assessing your core brand identity and determining if there are any gaps or weaknesses that need to be addressed. This may sound self-serving, but any well-reputed, credible agency will have ample case studies to demonstrate its effectiveness.

Marketing automation

Brand awareness is a category of marketing activities that can and should be always on. Your agency is there to help get it up and running and keep it running. In the case of email drip campaigns, content marketing, and social media, your agency can help you build a meaningful publication calendar and a pipeline of content that is valuable to your specific audience.

Feedback and quality assurance

Your marketing agency can and should collect feedback from your customers. Whether in the form of surveys, polls, web analytics, focus groups, paid consumer research, or other metrics, your agency will be collecting and analyzing information that will directly help you target your ideal audience, saving money, increasing sales, and honing your brand. It’s the opposite of big data—it’s little data. It’s been going on for centuries, and it’s still important.

Refuel in flight

A good growth-oriented marketing agency can help you rebrand, redesign, and relaunch without slowing your roll. They’ll have the staff to work—possibly simultaneously—on creative campaigns and strategic planning.

In other words, you can simultaneously be nurturing leads at the top of your consumer funnel, promoting awareness and credibility at the middle of the funnel, and using email and website user experience (UX) design to nudge folks at the bottom of the funnel.

Individuals in your funnel are not stationary and do not move constantly in the same direction; they bounce around, mull over purchase decisions, get distracted, and second-guess themselves. So part of your always-on brand awareness strategy may be to target customers with varied tactics and channels as they move around in the funnel. Unless you seriously miscalculate, this approach will only increase your customers’ familiarity with your brand and will edge them toward higher intent and loyalty.

Interested in what working with a marketing agency might be like?

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve got a lot to chew on. And depending on your interests, we can steer you to even more helpful information about marketing your small business.

Nothing beats a friendly, low-stakes conversation, however. Sands Costner is a Tacoma-based marketing agency that specializes in brand awareness and strategic growth. We’re always friendly and will never give you a hard sell: just useful information and some questions about your business.

Please send us a message or pick up the phone and call us, and we’ll be happy to find out more about your marketing or business growth needs.

About us

Sands Costner is a marketing and advertising agency that specializes in preparing small businesses for—and guiding them through—stages of major growth. We exist to help companies meet their objectives year after year through strategic planning and effective branding.

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