Brand Awareness is Basically a Meaningless Metric. Here’s Why.

“Kmart has plenty of awareness, so what?”

-Purple Cow by Seth Godin

I hear the term “brand awareness” all the time, but to be honest, I don’t really know what it means.

On its surface, it’s somewhat obvious: it’s the amount of people who know about your brand.

But that simple, stupid Google search definition doesn’t do it for me.

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I have more questions:

  • Which people?
  • Is “brand awareness” a relative metric that you need to compare to others to make sense like IQ, or is it an absolute metric like average order value?
  • How do you determine their awareness? Is it based on recall, recognition, something else? What does “awareness” actually mean?

From a common sense perspective, of course brand awareness as a concept matters, if we’re defining it as “knowing about your brand” (though that seems properly circular to me – of course you need to “know” a brand before you buy it).

What perplexes me is the metric known as brand awareness. When it comes to measurement, I know what conversion rate means. I can explain how it is logged and what its significance is. Heck, I can even talk about bounce rates with enough clarity to know they don’t really matter.

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If I’m putting in the effort to measure and analyze a metric (even taking action on it), then I want to get crystal clear what the metric actually means, both as a construct and as a practical consideration for business decisions. “Brand awareness” suffers from a lack of clarity to me.

So is brand awareness one of those important things that isn’t measurable (these things do exist!)? Or is there an actual way to measure it, and it’s just very ambiguous how to do it?

And if we measure it, can we do anything with it, or is just a “nice to know” kind of metric?

I went down a rabbit hole and read a lot of academic papers as well as shitty blog posts that rank well on Google [1], and asked a lot of respectable marketers, to try to figure out.

What is Brand Awareness?

Brand awareness is a measure of a brand’s relative cognitive representation in a given category in relation to its competitors.

That’s it. It’s measured by how many people, when asked, know your brand.

Now, you can measure this a few different ways (which we’ll get into).

You can measure it actively by asking people to pick which brands they have heard of from a list. You can ask actively by asking them to tell you which brands they’ve heard of. You can pull brand awareness from passively available data on search, analytics, and social.

Brand awareness is not:

  • Brand equity
  • Brand preference
  • Brand loyalty
  • Corporate identity
  • Brand engagement

All of those things are distinct measures, though all normally fall roughly under the brand marketing department.

Of all the above, the two that are most commonly confused with brand awareness are brand equity and brand loyalty.

Brand equity is basically the value of your brand in relation to other brands in your space. It’s why people will pay a bunch of money for Apple products, and it’s why a posh wine will actually subjectively taste better to an unsuspecting wine drinker.

Brand loyalty is the tendency for customers to keep buying from a brand instead of switching to a competitor. I like to frame that one in the inverse, actually, and instead look at it as the unwillingness of a customer to switch to another brand despite attractive feature parity or pricing.

Mind share (or share of voice or consumer awareness) is a similar term to brand awareness. There are legitimately too many jargon-y terms in this space, so it’s no wonder so many people are confused about it all means.

In any case, someone needs to be aware of your brand before it becomes valuable, and it needs to become valuable before they’re loyal to it.

Let’s talk about measuring that brand awareness.

How to Measure Brand Awareness

The way you measure this depends on your industry as well as your market.

If you’re P&G advertising general consumer packaged goods, brand recall surveys aren’t the worst thing in the world. [2]

If you’re selling live chat software, it’s probably a horrible way to measure brand awareness, unless your surveys are incredibly well-targeted as well as conducted longitudinally and in relation to a similar cohort of competitors (after all, the context is what matters with these surveys, not a generic metric).

In my opinion, how you measure brand awareness should have two main criteria:

  1. It should be sampled from those who are actually in your target market
  2. It should be actionable. Knowing your number should help you make better decisions.

I’ll outline all the ways people measure brand awareness below, and I’ll explain why most of them aren’t actually measuring what we think of as “brand awareness” at all.

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The metrics below aren’t inherently good or bad, but the important thing is to have the discussion internally of what the metric actually means to your business before you conduct the campaign.

If everyone thinks it’s something different, it’s a bad metric, and if you’re post-hoc storytelling, than you’re causing collateral damage to your company’s culture.

Direct Traffic

First and foremost, if you primarily operate digitally (i.e. people come to your website to complete most important actions, rather than in-person), direct website traffic is a common indicator of brand awareness.

The logic behind this is pretty tight: the number of people who type in [yourwebsite.com] reflects the number of people who are “aware” of your brand (and they show that by remembering to type in your brand specifically).

It’s common for performance campaigns (e.g. paid ads) to have an effective on this direct traffic as well, which supports the idea that there are at least some partially untrackable second order effects to many types of campaigns.

As an aggregate metric, this is a pretty good directional indicator of brand awareness.

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(Acquisition > Channels > “Direct”)

The problem, however, lies with how direct traffic is attributed on most analytics platform.

Essentially, Google Analytics attributes traffic that it can’t otherwise attribute to “direct.” This means your numbers are likely inflated, even more so if you aren’t properly tagging campaign links, especially via channels like email and potentially social as well.

Similarly, you don’t necessarily know that everyone who comes to your site directly is a potential customer in your target market. They could be:

  • Employees (if you haven’t set up IP filters)
  • Competitors doing research
  • Current users coming to logging in (though a higher number of these isn’t a bad thing either)
  • Random voyeurs checking out your site after some press

In essence, direct traffic is like a thumb in the wind or a weather vane, but it’s not a very precise metric (and you can’t do much with the number once you know it – it’s not an actionable metric).

Track direct traffic, but don’t worry too much about its brand awareness implication or ever use it as an argument to back up a failed campaign.

Branded Search Terms

Branded search volume is like direct traffic, except instead of tracking people who directly type in your URL, you’re tracking people who search for your branded terms in Google or other search engines.

E.g. it’s the difference between someone typing in alexbirkett.com and someone searching Alex BIrkett.

In my opinion, branded search is a better way to measure brand awareness over time, specifically because there is less muddiness around attribution. You’re isolating people who are specifically searching for your brand, and you’re not including all kinds of different channels due to failed analytics attribution.

Still, it’s a very directional metric, and search volume data is often only an estimate, never truly granular. A good portion of brand searches can also be attributed to product users looking to sign in (if you’re in Saas). Of course, seeing that number go up is never a bad thing – it’s just not tracking what you think of as top of the funnel brand awareness.

I do find it to be a particularly good thermometer or gut check when doing competitive analysis though.

For instance, if you’re looking at the top email marketing software vendors, you can very quickly see how much search volume each brand gets:

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At the very least, this is actionable in that it helps you determine which competition is the biggest threat, how to position yourself in the market, and how much space you have to overcome to catch up to the biggest names in the space.

These numbers aren’t going to change in the course of a month or a quarter, and you might see a little wiggle over the course of a year. So as far as actionability goes, it’s best used as a periodic audit or marketing research tool.

If you’re tracking branded search of your own company you can just use Google Search Console and get much more accurate numbers.

Brand Owned Terms

Often when you launch a campaign, it is with a new “brand owned term.”

This could be an advertising tag line, or it could be a new industry framework, such that you find frequently used in B2B.

For the former, think something like “Got Milk?” and for the latter, something like “Inbound Marketing” or “Skyscraper Technique.”

I like these because, rather than the amorphous concept of your entire brand or company, brand owned terms hone in on a specific idea or campaign.

My rule of thumb is that the narrower the scope of a metric, the more useful it is as a predictive or decision making tool.

You can’t do much with the idea that X number of people search “HubSpot,” but you can infer a lot about the effectiveness of an ad campaign if people start searching for the phrase, “grow better.”

The problem with brand owned terms is that, unlike your actual company name/brand, the volume for these phrases tends to be unnervingly low.

It’s like when social media managers pick a hashtag and start using it all the time, only to analyze several months later and discover that, lo and behold, barely anyone else used the hashtag.

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We get trapped in our own bubbles as marketers, so we assume that everyone in the world is talking about “conversational marketing” or the “skyscraper technique.”

However, in the broader world, these campaigns tend not to make a big splash.

So unless your brand and your campaigns are truly mainstream, the amount of search data you’ll have on your brand owned terms will probably be very low, and highly variable, and thus very difficult to extract value from.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t track them; they correlate highly with brand search terms as well. And if you’re going to work on making an idea stick, you should track how often people use the term and search it organically.

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Brand Recall/Recognition Surveys

Ironically, brand recall surveys are probably one of the only methods on this list that actually measure what we consider “brand awareness,” and they’re probably the least useful for 99%+ of brands.

Brand recall surveys are the tried and true method for the large and consumer facing and the Fortune 500.

How do you determine whether you have a greater brand awareness than Pepsi if you’re Coca-Cola? Get a big enough sample of participants, and ask them which brands they know.

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The problems with this method are many. Of course, for startups, the level of granularity required in your population sampling would be almost impossible. You can probably find a representative sample if you’re selling deodorant, but not if you’re selling sleep tracking rings or conversion optimization courses.

Alex McEachern put it well in a Smile.io article:

“Many articles out there focus on attempting to measure brand awareness, but I will save you the trouble and tell you that most methods aren’t actually measuring it all. They rely on surveying customers and anonymously asking if they can recall seeing your brand before, which is actually just brand recall.”

Keep in mind, also, that just because I can recall that Spectrum is indeed an internet service provider, doesn’t mean I pay them for their services (regrettably, I’m an AT&T customer). I can name Pepsi in under a second, but I haven’t had a Pepsi in probably a decade.

Social Media Mentions

A super popular method is to look at how many brand mentions you have on social media.

I hate this method.

First off, it’s very difficult to determine the relative importance of a given social media mention using only quantitative metrics. So what does it mean to say 5,000 people have mentioned your brand in the last month? The context could be quite different if you had launched a new product versus your CEO had a scandal.

There is, of course, sentiment analysis, which aims to quantify to some extent the sentiment, or emotional directive, of your social media engagement.

Not only does this have construct validity problems (we’re not quite sure what constitutes a positive or a negative sentiment, realistically), but it might have external validity problems, too (i.e. what people say on Twitter probably doesn’t have a ton of relation to what people say or do in the real world).

Also, who gives a shit if lots of people are talking about you on social media if you’re not selling products? I know that’s not the most academic or polite way to put it, but I’ve not seen concrete evidence that there is even a relationship between the two variables (social engagement and sales).

So the question here is, do you want to be rich or do you want to be famous? [3] If you want to run a business, measure business metrics. If you want to be an influencer, measure your social media mentions.

“Impressions”

This one is the worst. If you think “impressions” equal brand awareness, you’re wrong.

“Impressions” as a standalone metric are used to justify failed marketing campaigns.

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As Daniel Hochuli wrote:

“Ask yourself this question – How much ‘brand awareness’ impact did the last post that you didn’t engage with, have on you?

Do you even remember the last paid post that appeared in your feed? My guess is not, but you can bet that the marketer behind it is telling their superior that you do remember and is counting your ‘impression’.”

Real Estate for Categorical Search Terms

As I’ve mentioned, my ideal brand awareness gauge is both narrow and actionable. By that I mean that your sample exclusively includes your target market and you can actually do something about the number you get.

This metric is something we came up with at HubSpot to track our brand awareness for core product search keywords. This method is most useful for companies using search as an acquisition channel, but I think it’s a good gauge of how the market views you anyway.

Take a transactional or comparison product keyword with some significant search volume, like “best form builder,” and see how many sites that rank for the term mention your brand.

Out of the top 20 websites that rank for “best form builder,” for example, HubSpot is mentioned on 5 of them (or 25% of them):

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Note: this data is calculated using a homebrew tool I built with R and hosted with Shiny. Email me if you’re interested and I’ll show you how I built it.

You can easily manually get this data if you only have one or two keywords, or you could hack together a crawl of the top 20 pages using Screaming Frog and Excel.

Again, this is especially impactful for those making their money with search, because you can impact the number. Not mentioned on many of the sites that rank? Start partnering up, producing content, and finding a damn way to appear on them! It’s where (potential) customers are looking to find solutions just like yours.

Even if you’re not using SEO to acquire customers, though, it’s a good temperature check for how important publishers think your brand is for a product category.

For example, here’s how often “casper” appears on the top 20 for “best mattresses”:

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This data (like a lot of data) is even richer used comparatively. If you know how often your competitors are mentioned, it puts a good benchmark on the line for you to aim for.

Review websites

Review websites like G2 don’t only measure awareness. They also measure sentiment and show feature comparisons.

So they’re a bit more comprehensive, but they can still give a great indicator of where you stand in the market.

What I like about these sites: they’re 3rd party entities and they include qualitative data like the sentiment of your reviews. They also compare you to competitors, so you don’t just get an isolated number that you don’t know what to do with.

The big problem with most of these sites, though, is that most either operate on a CPC or an affiliate model, so they’re uncomfortably similar to bullshit extortion sites like Yelp is to small businesses.

The big exception is G2, which is an amazing resource for software buyers and businesses alike. If I were you, I’d keep a close eye on my G2 ratings:

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You seem skeptical, Alex. Is there anything valuable about brand awareness?

It all depends on our definition of the term. My beef is that we aren’t defining what we mean when we say brand awareness, so we’ve got a veritable tornado of different metrics that all serve only to obfuscate the customer journey, rather than to illuminate it.

I’ll repeat what I said above. Brand awareness metrics should adhere to two principles:

  1. They should sample only those in your target market, the narrower it is defined, the better.
  2. They should be actionable. Trivia is fun, but it has no place in business.

An addendum is that a great metric has context, both within the market and over a time-series. You should be able to stack your brand awareness against other competitors and you should be able to see if you are gaining or losing over time.

Also, maybe we shouldn’t expect metrics to solve every aspect of business decision making for us.

You’ve Just Gotta Believe!

In fact, I think one of the major problems in our data-driven age is when we try to apply science to problems of art.

In other words, if we can’t measure something, trying to do so is mostly wasted effort and storytelling to make ourselves feel good about being “data-driven.” It reminds me of little kids wearing suits and playing house – adorable but a naive facsimile of the real world.

Not all marketing can or should be driven or supported by data.

What can be, should be (particularly experiments and actions that have fast enough feedback cycles and predictive validity). In areas of uncertainty, however, we should be comfortable enough to take some risks and capture some of that elusive optionality.

There’s also always going to be an intangible aspect as to “why” people actually buy from you.

It’s the emotional, the unconscious, the hidden. Whether that’s driven by your company mission, the customer experience and service experienced, or because of the premium and luxurious look of your brand logo, it falls under the bucket of the emotional for me.

At HubSpot, we often talk about “winning hearts and winning minds,” where winning minds is the logical and the quantitative, the stuff we can attribute and track.

Winning hearts, then, constitutes things like being thought leaders, pushing interesting ideas into the ether, and inspiring people. You could bucket this into “brand awareness” if you’d like, but I think that term is overly myopic and doesn’t describe the depth and talent that goes into winning hearts.

So really, just eat the humble pie and realize you’ll never be able to attribute every marketing touchpoint to an end sale, and be okay with that.

Clearly brand messaging and awareness level campaigns have an impact, let’s just not play house and pretend that a failed webinar was actually not a failure because it had a lot of impressions or whatever post-hoc justification we use.

Structurally, I like to frame as an 80/20 rule, which I’ve borrowed from Mayur Gupta:

“Do your growth efforts and performance spend benefit from a strong brand (efficiency and/or effectiveness or organic growth)? Are you able to measure and correlate?

Think about the 80–20 rule when it comes to budget distribution — if you can spend 80% of your marketing dollars on everything that is measurable and can be optimized to get to the “OUTCOMEs”, you can spend 20% however you want. Because 100% of marketing will NEVER be measurable (there is no need).”

Also, don’t do brand marketing if you’re a startup.

Final thoughts on brand awareness

“Brand awareness” is a term used loosely and blithely to describe top of the funnel marketing activities, but in reality, many of the methods we use for tracking it actually measure distinct things entirely.

Campaigns without directly attributable conversions can be impactful. That’s why smart companies and growth teams bucket their actions into a portfolio like Mayur Gupta suggests – 80% trackable spend, 20% however you want. 100% of marketing will never be measurable.

Yes, you have to be aware of a product in order to try it (which is somewhat of a tautology), but brand awareness may also be an emergent property of doing a bunch of other things really well.

In the words of Bob Hoffman, “Well, I’m afraid I have a very old guy opinion. You want customers raving about your brand? Sell them a good fucking product.”

[1] The “SEO-ification” Test

First off, when I started researching the topic of brand awareness to see what others think of it, it immediately struck me that every search result was carefully formulated to rank for the term “brand awareness.” In search results like this, you’ll notice a few common themes:

  1. First, almost all of the content is relatively similar. Sure, titles are a bit different, and maybe one is longer than the other. But for the most part, reading 6 articles in one of these search results doesn’t give you 6x the value of reading one; it doesn’t even give you 20% more value. It’s basically like reading the same one over and over again.
  2. Second, all the content is kind of…vague. I can’t find the word for how I want to describe this content; the closest thing I can do is borrow Benji Hyam’s “mirage content” concept. It looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, but for some reason, it’s just not a duck. There’s no substance, and you can tell the author is just rehashing others’ information.

Terms with search results don’t mean that the term itself isn’t to be trusted. For example, “conversion optimization” has been super SEO-ified, but obviously, conversion optimization (the real definition) is a legitimate practice. It’s just that the stew has been poisoned by know-nothing opportunists (ie lazy marketers).

Similarly, brand awareness could be a tangible and important concept. But with search results like these, it’s wildly difficult to figure out what exactly that concept is.

[2] Who Do We Deify?

Another heuristic I’ve come up with when researching marketing topics is what the example landscape looks like. In other words, in a random blog post, which companies and case studies are chosen, how diverse are the examples, and what does that mean for the generalizability of a topic?

In “brand awareness,” everyone seems to talk about Coca-Cola, Apple, and P&G products.

This would seem, then, that “brand awareness” as a concept either mostly relates to or mostly benefits large consumer brands. There are few, if any, case studies are “brand awareness” with regards to quiet but successful B2B software brands.

[3] Fame vs Fortune

Matthew Fenton wrote a great essay on brand awareness (I’m mostly saying that because I agree with all of it, and it is very cynical about the objective). I love this quote:

“You know who has great awareness? Martin Shkreli. So too does Travis Kalanick. They’ve both found themselves in the headlines throughout the year — but does mean you’re going to be doing business with them?

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.”

In this sense, “brand awareness” is noise that actually clouds the signal of what actually matters – customers and how much they like you and your business.

If you want to be well-known, maybe your brand should start a TikTok account or something.

Alex Birkett
Alex Birkett is a Growth Marketer and Content Strategist based in Austin, Texas. He's a proud UW-Madison graduate and enjoys craft beer, lifting weights, and sailing.

3 Responses to “Brand Awareness is Basically a Meaningless Metric. Here’s Why.

  • Nice post, one caveat on the branded search topic:

    I think its important to not only look at branded search volume, but rather branded search clicks. If, for example, a high share of your brand search ends up landing on google news, wikipedia, or other non-owned properties the brand search metric may be more indicative of looky-loos than true branded interest,

  • Hi Alex, This post includes tons of valuable data to build brand awareness on a website. Through social media platforms, we can target the right audience and quality traffic. Thanks for sharing valuable tips to build brand awareness I could go and implement to improve our product with your tips.

  • Great article! One comment re. Direct traffic in Google Analytics: even if all your campaigns are tracked correctly Google Analytics still undervalues Direct traffic by an enormous amount because of its last non-direct click attribution model. So if a user comes to your site directly after having been to the site previously using another channel, the direct click goes to the other channel. The impact of this is enormous in terms of attributing traffic and revenue to marketing channels.

    If I may add to the conversation, I actually wrote a somewhat related blogpost about measuring the value of display advertising campaigns last year: https://engage-digital.eu/2018/03/03/how-much-do-your-display-advertising-campaigns-really-contribute-to-conversion/. Perhaps you’ll find it of interest.