Blogs & Comment

Search and social marketing is useless without brand awareness

Sure, you can get 6.4 million search clicks for the price of one Super Bowl ad. But branding matters online too

Screenshots of Chiat/Day’s “1984” Apple Macintosh ad

Screenshots of Chiat/Day’s iconic 1984 Super Bowl Apple Macintosh ad. Even for search-ad evangelists like Google, the importance of brand awareness is starting to sink in.

Maybe you’ve heard this one. A little off-colour, it involves an old bull and a young bull comparing strategies for romantic conquest. The young bull’s preferred approach depends on haste and surprise, and promises unreliable and limited results, despite his enthusiasm. The old bull’s is predicated on patience and theatre, and the punchline leaves us confident that his results are going to be more satisfying. I have to confess, I didn’t actually get the joke myself until well into adult life, but I can be slow about these things. Still, its truth as a marketing parable really only resonates after a bit of experience: The less interest there already is for what you’re trying to sell, the more expensive and uncertain your effort will be.

Young bulls are everywhere in the marketing game, now as ever. A streak of conceit runs through this business that causes some practitioners to believe they can produce a customer out of thin air at will if they just get the bait right. They snort the word “awareness” as a euphemism for wasted opportunity and believe the only distinction between a good ad and a bad one is whether it triggers behaviour. The idea that selling something is a seduction that starts with getting noticed is anathema to this deterministic view of things. Why, groused the editor of one digital marketing publication prior to last winter’s Super Bowl, would you ever buy a 30-second spot in a football game when the same money would get you 6.4 million search ad clicks?

He might have considered asking Google. Even the search giant, whose US$60-billion business was putatively built on impulsive clicks, has acquired a new reverence for awareness as the essential precondition for successful marketing. The term “customer journey” has begun to populate the company’s training material for marketers who are using its advertising products. “Any display ad seen by a consumer can have an impact on her buying behaviour, even when she doesn’t click,” they counsel. “The customer journey does not always occur on a single screen.” In other words, people aren’t going to search for things in which they’re not first interested. And just because they aren’t doing anything about it yet doesn’t mean your marketing isn’t working.

Not even Google’s religious conversion sways the determinists, mind you. Seeking to satisfy a hunger that stretches as far back in time as advertising itself, an entire industry has sprung up around “attribution,” companies that purport to be able to figure out which ads should get credit for a sale and which should not. One such firm, Datalogix, was acquired last year by Oracle for a rumoured high nine figures, a tidy sum for a black-box process that, at the end of the day, can essentially only correlate interest and purchase behaviour. The Skinnerian view of marketing still has its adherents, and they are apparently legion.

The rest of us, though, have to contend with the law of nature: You can’t sell until you’ve persuaded, you can’t persuade until you have interest, and you can’t achieve interest until you’ve attracted attention. If marketers stay in one job long enough, experience eventually teaches them that the next quarter’s results are going to depend not on what they do but on what they’ve already done. The near-term growth potential of a brand’s business is almost entirely circumscribed by the number of people out there in the world who are already somewhat familiar with it and at least a little intrigued.

Unappreciated as it is, awareness is still a pretty valuable thing and anything but a missed chance to sell. It means people discovered your brand when they were at their most unbiased. It frames your product as a promise rather than an argument. And it’s the phase in the buying process where the craft of marketing is at its most potent, its most creative and its most respectful of the consumer. The truth is, if you’re not creating demand, you’re not really marketing. Anyone can sprint headlong into the herd and hope to land a customer. It takes a pro to stroll in and land them all.