Awareness in Advertising: Why Are There So Many Types & Which Ones Actually Matter?

This is a fun question to ask someone: what brands are you aware of?

Try asking it the next time you’re with a good friend who won’t judge you for being a weirdo. It will be impossible for them to list all of the brands they “know” because there are too many brands in their brain to recall at once. The human brain doesn’t work like computer menu; we can’t pull all things from memory instantly and with the same clarity.

If instead you asked “what drink brands are you aware of,” they will probably get a little closer to being able answering the question fully but will still be unable to list every drink brand they “know.” That’s because they’ll have a specific set of memories to draw upon to answer that question, allowing them to go deeper into a clearer set of brand choices — drinks.

If instead you asked “what drink brands are you aware of,” they will probably get a little closer to being able answering the question fully but will still be unable to list every drink brand they “know.”

Now if you asked “what orange juice drink brands are you aware of,” they might be able to name every single orange juice brand available at their local grocery story.

Comparing the average responses to these three questions shows that awareness could be a problematic term to use without context (e.g., drink, orange juice drink) in the world of advertising research.

Awareness, without being tied to a specific cue to guide someone’s thinking, could mean anything that is in someone’s head, even if it’s the faintest memory that will never affect anything they ever do. If you ask a question the right way, you can retrieve even the most distant memory.

This is why we have so many different definitions of awareness; it basically refers to the retrieval of a specific memory, which in the world of advertising is a brand or brand’s ad. The cues that you use in awareness questionnaires to guide the retrieval of specific brand memories are hugely influential in determining the outcomes, and arguable more important than the idea of awareness itself.

And while it might seem like we have a million different awareness measures, there are three commons types that are used to measure brand and ad awareness:

Recall (a.k.a., unaided awareness, spontaneous awareness):

The percentage of your audience that can name your brand when prompted with the brand category and there is no limit to the number of brands they can name (i.e., Toyota Prius and the eco-friendly cars category).

Recognition (a.k.a., aided awareness):

The percentage of your audience that says they know your brand after being prompted with an explicit brand cue (i.e., brand name or logo).

Top of Mind Awareness:

The percentage of your audience that lists your brand first when prompted with the brand category.

These three types of awareness can be used to measure brand awareness (whether someone knows the brand) and advertising awareness (whether someone knows they saw an ad for the brand) but the academic world largely agrees that advertising awareness measures are less reliable in determining future business growth and should be avoided as primary measures for two key reasons:

  • The long-lasting emotional affects of advertising, which have been shown to have more profound affects on purchase behavior than rational messages, are processed at a lower attention level than rational messages and sometimes do not register in ad recall studies. Instead, high recall scores often signal that the viewer remembered the rational message in the ad, which has weaker affects (Heath 2005).
  • Users of a brand are twice as likely to recognize advertising than non-users, making it easy for big brands to achieve high ad recall scores and harder for smaller brands to do the same (Romaniuk et al 2004).

If we assume for now that ad awareness scores should be avoided as primary indicators of effectiveness, there is still the question of brand awareness and which of the three types are most useful to advertisers.

In 1995, a group of business professors led by Gilles Laurent set out to compare the relationship between the these three types of awareness measures to see if there was a relationship between them and whether one was closer linked to advertising effectiveness and therefore a better option for advertisers to use.

Their hypothesis was that the three standard awareness measures were built on two universal things; a fixed level of brand salience (how prominent the brand is in someone’s mind) and the difficulty of retrieving that thing based on the specificity of the cue.

In other words, they believed that using a brand’s logo to prompt the right answer (brand recognition) will be a lot easier than using the brand’s category to prompt the right answer (brand recall) but the brand should have the same amount of salience in that person’s mind, regardless of the question.

The final report supported the original hypothesis that the three measures were linked, and it included a formula where one measure could be used to project the others, because the salience of a brand was constant and only the difficulty of retrieval changed.

A 2004 replication of Laurent’s study, led by Jenni Romaniuk and Byron Sharp, countered some of the findings in Laurent’s paper, while supporting the general idea that all awareness is built salience and the cognitive difficulty of retrieving a specific memory based on the cue given to someone.

Their major counter point was that the awareness measures weren’t built on a single, static construct of brand salience and that it wasn’t always possible to project one awareness score from another because of this.

In trying to replicate Laurent’s study, Romaniuk and team showed that a brand’s prominence in the mind is determined by “brand awareness” across a variety of different cues — not just the category. There are many more cues than just a brand logo (recognition) and category (recall) that drive this prominence. The things that influence your buying behavior could also include who you’re with, what you need, how you need it, and why you need it. Asking people to recall the first 3 brands that come to mind when thinking about something refreshing on a hot day will give a different answer than if they’re asked to do the same for all “fruit drinks.”

Which leads me back to the second question at the top of this post — what definition of awareness actually matters?

Traditional marketing theory will tell you that recognition is more important for low-involvement CPG brands because people will always “see” the brand at the point of purchase, and that recall is more important for brands that are not visible at the point of purchase, like insurance, because they need to spontaneously recall a set of brands without any brand cues (Romaniuk et al 2004).

But the problem with choosing one is that it limits the number of brand cues we can measure against, when we know there are more than just two cues that affect the human mind during real-life buying situations — even when all brands are visually presented in front of us. And that they vary greatly depending on the person, time and place.

The electrolyte replacement brand Pedialyte is a great example of how awareness can vary depending on the cue. In 2015, Pedialyte began openly marketing their product as a hangover cure for adults because they saw adults buying it after rowdy nights, despite the fact that it was originally designed for dehydrated babies and children.

A real Pedialyte ad targeting hungover adults.

How do you measure top of mind awareness or brand recall, which both rely on the category as a cue, when you’re product is a hangover cure in one world and a baby drink in another? And if you try to do that by splitting your brand into two categories, how do you know you’re not leaving out other category entry points that could drive purchase, like dehydrated people at raves? Should Pedialyte ask people what electrolyte replacement brands they can think of? Do people know what that even means?

A better way that Pedialyte can think of “awareness” and the role it plays in in the purchase decision is to consider all the cues around dehydration and combine them into one “mental share” score that is more indicative of the way people bring a brand to mind.

The following model, created by Romaniuk and Sharp (2014), is one of the few modern models available to measure mental share and is a good starting point for thinking about how “awareness” plays a role in your brand’s health.

The word awareness isn’t actually used in this model because of how broadly it can be interpreted, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t play a big role in the way the model works.

In this model, awareness is a tool to frame all the different ways your brand can come into someone’s mind with different real-life purchase cues. It is not the final measurement itself.

And you don’t need to throw away your old measures of brand awareness to think this way. Brand recall is just one of the cues that combine to create a brand’s mental availability — the category itself as a cue.

By looking at a broader list of cues driving purchase behavior in addition to brand recall, you can offer an additive perspective by showing how “aware” people are of a brand through a more natural set of real-world situations.Like what you just read? Subscribe to our email list for more.

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Heath. (2005). Measuring Affective Advertising: The Implications of Low Attention Processing on Recall
Laurent, G., Kapferer, J.N. and Roussel, F. (1995): The Underlying Structure of Brand Awareness Scores
Romaniuk, Sharp, Paech & Driesener (2004): Brand and Advertising Awareness: A Replication and Extension of a Known Empirical Generalisation
Romaniuk, Sharp (2014): How Brands Grow: Part 2: Emerging Markets, Services, Durables, New and Luxury Brands.