How To Avoid A ‘Brand Awareness’ Disaster

B2B Ecommerce, D2C Ecommerce, Ecommerce

There’s a new word in the performance marketing space as of late and it’s popularity has reached a high point in the early months of 2024.

The word?

Brand.

How do you make it grow? Why should you care? What does it even mean? 

These are all examples of questions that don’t typically get answered, but the message from performance marketers is clear.

You need to invest in brand awareness in 2024.

If you don’t it could literally kill your business. 

And naturally you should invest the majority of that budget into Google and Meta. 

You might be wondering why a field so entirely focused on trackable metrics has suddenly dived headfirst into the world of brand marketing.

You might also think that such a move must mean there’s been a fundamental shift in the way marketing works. And that you too need to jump headfirst into brand awareness. 

So read on if you’d like to avoid that.

What’s changed?

In a perfect world marketing trends would reflect consumer behaviour trends. But history tells us it doesn’t really work like that.

There’s been a huge shift towards brand and brand awareness within digital advertising, but it isn’t being fuelled by a change in consumerism.

Yes, we may collectively have a little less money in our pockets, but our core relationship with products and how we buy them remains the same.

What has changed is the digital ecosystem in which marketers work. We can’t track digital channels in the way we have in the past. That direct link between our activity and revenue is harder and more expensive to validate, which in turn is making the more critical thinkers amongst us consider whether we were ever actually reporting on reality.

Performance marketing is a harder sell now. Which is why you’re hearing so much about brand in 2024. And naturally this tends to hit agencies, tech and third parties much harder than it does actual brands and end consumers.

So ad platforms and performance agencies are left with a question to answer. 

“How do we keep hold of media budgets now our proposition is fundamentally weaker than before?”

The answer is ‘brand’, ‘brand marketing’, ‘brand awareness’ and all other minor variations of the same principle. AKA ‘Give us money to push the brand, build awareness, fill the top of the funnel’.

What do brands need to look out for?

This push on brand marketing by digital agencies is dangerous for a few reasons.

  1. They’re not entirely wrong – Increasing the important metrics which define brand growth are important for revenue and profitability growth. But they always have been, they just weren’t talked about by digital agencies because it wasn’t particularly important to their service offering. So yes, the headline ‘you must grow brand’ statement is correct, but the nuance is often lost.
  2. There’s a knowledge gap – Performance marketers rebranding as brand experts is a problem because the work requires different planning, implementation and reporting. And quite frankly, not many performance marketers know enough to do it properly. There’s a risk that advertisers can be lead down disastrous rabbit holes chasing concepts such as ‘awareness = success’.
  3. Ad platforms and agencies interests align – It’s no secret that this brand push is also in the interests of ad platforms like Google and Meta. They can sell more inventory, with less questions asked and they can create black-box metrics which say it’s working. This gets supplied to agencies who have an easier time selling it to clients, which ideally increases their retainer, but at the very least improves their relationship with the tech giants.

When these three things work together it can be extremely difficult for businesses to resist the narrative, so for that reason we pulled together the following guiding principles to guide your decision making.

1. All advertising must perform. All advertising must brand.

The split between performance and brand advertising is somewhat artificial. In reality, the best advertising should do both.

Brand and performance advertising both need to perform (i.e. generate revenue).

The only real distinction between the two is the timeline you’re prepared to allow for that revenue to materialise. Performance campaigns typically limit that to a cookie or attribution window, whilst Brand needs more involved measurement techniques (or none at all, depending on the agency).

All advertising must also brand.

And when we say brand, we mean it needs to create that fundamental link between the business and the product category which can be recalled at a later date. This is often referred to as salience or mental availability.

We know that 95%+ of the audience that performance campaigns reach simply aren’t ready to buy at the time they see an ad. You therefore need these campaigns to burn a brand = product category link that can be mentally recalled when someone becomes an active buyer.

All advertising needs to do both of these things, otherwise it’s just bad advertising. Slapping an ‘awareness’ or ‘brand building’ label on a campaign doesn’t negate this requirement.

Chris Nawrocki – CMO | Ecommerce Consultant

Linked in | Website

Expert Insight

“The best time invest in brand was yesterday. The second best time is today. The sad reality is it never prioritised due to the lack of instant gratification of a CPA or RoAS. So the best next thing is to get all performance-based marketing to tell a brand story as well as convert.”

2. The sales funnel isn’t as robust as marketers want it to be

When you’re being asked to sign off a big media spend for brand awareness you’ll likely get shown a funnel split between top, middle and bottom. 

You’ll be told that customers neatly drop into the top and then gradually filter through to the bottom, nurtured by ads that are handmade to appeal to where a particular customer is in the funnel.

In reality, it’s a lot messier. 

There’s little evidence that this ‘marketing funnel’ actually exists or that it can be used to practically inform what advertising messages a person should receive at a given time.

As an example, ads focused around user reviews are commonly touted as a strong ‘middle/ bottom funnel’ creative that can secure those already considering a purchase. Whereas a creative which focuses more on ‘brand’ is good for making people aware at the top of the funnel. 

Taking a step back, the review creative is likely just stronger overall because it can burn the Brand = Product Category association into the viewers memory better than a creative that just focuses on awareness.

There isn’t much valid research out there supporting the theory that different messaging at different touchpoints has a positive effect and there’s even an opposing school of thought that says consistency of messaging and creative has a more positive effect (again, relatively unsupported by good research).

So as a key takeaway, don’t get overly obsessed around where a customer is in their buying process. Remember the investment mantra, time in the market beats timing the market.

3. Investing in brand must be risk managed

Campaigns labelled as ‘Brand’ carry more financial risk than performance advertising for two main reasons.

  1. The budgets requested are usually much larger than performance marketing.
  2. The payback window is longer than you’re used to with performance focused channels.

Both of these risks are amplified massively when you introduce people into the mix that fundamentally don’t understand how advertising and brand works.

Advertising is an inherently risky endeavour, so special steps need to be taken between marketing and finance leaders to protect the finances of the business should the worst happen. 

So ask yourself…

“If this campaign completely flops over the next 6 months, how bad is the P&L going to be?”

“How long do we wait until we pull the plus?”

“What other areas of investment are losing out because of this ad spend?”

Advertising is an investment and good investing is properly risk managed. 

4. Brand campaigns don’t buy product-market fit

Always remember that advertising can’t generate growth by itself. If anything, it’s one of the weaker methods to grow a brand. 

Advertising exists to promote your product. The other 4 Ps of Marketing also need to be accounted for to find success. Do not neglect Product, Price & Place when you’re choosing where to focus your resources.

And make sure not to listen to any agency that tells you simply increasing ‘awareness’ will lead to growth. They do this because bigger spends mean bigger retainers. Awareness by itself is meaningless.

5. Attribution can be whatever you want it to be

Attribution is linked closely to the concept of brand. Naturally advertisers want to know that the budget invested into one part of the promotional mix will be spat out the other side with a decent multiplier attached to it. 

Unfortunately, true attribution is the white whale of ecommerce. Choosing a model is largely arbitrary and only really helps to provide a consistent measuring method.

‘Data driven’ attribution is touted as the solution to this, but the vast majority of brands simply don’t have the sales volume to make it effective. Lots of platforms and tech solutions will claim this isn’t the case, but all operate on a ‘black box’ model of transparency. 

Weighing this up, you should be naturally sceptical of any attribution models which paint a neat and direct link between brand campaigns and bottom line revenue.

The link between brand and revenue is a matter of fact, but the connecting lines aren’t neat or accessible in the way Google Analytics natives are used to.

Rounding up

If you take nothing else from this article, we’d like you to walk away with a healthy dose of scepticism. 

That applies to all marketing, but particularly this new wave of brand marketing. 

‘Brand’ is the current product being sold by the digital advertising industry. And like all the best grifts, it’s built on a foundation of truth. 

You do need to grow your brand to hit your financial goals. Advertising does play a part in that. 

However brand is bigger than just advertising campaigns. It’s a collection of experiences a person has of your business. One of those experiences might be an ad they see, but it’s one of many.

If you’re already gaining traction, then investing more into advertising could help you reach new heights.

But if you’re struggling to see growth already, dumping money into ‘Top of funnel’ activity will likely just burn a hole in your finances. 

If you find yourself in the latter category, then we’d recommend booking a free session with the Heur team.

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