Advertisers Need to Stop Chasing Engagement and Get Back to Focusing on Awareness

Lodge yourself in people's memory, not their social feeds

Advertising is no longer about persuasion so much as simply hoping to be noticed and remembered. Getty Images

In the early days of advertising, awareness was the name of the game.

Fifty years ago, if your brand could afford to get into television, print or radio advertising, you could dominate your category because you were one of the few brands with high top-of-mind awareness.

Most advertising was not yet about things like unique selling propositions or higher-end emotional benefits. And in a media landscape dominated by interruptive media and captive audiences, no one was talking about “brand engagement.” The job of big brands was to hammer home their brand names, again and again. Reach was guaranteed, so frequency was everything. If you owned a big brand, it was “media-driven.”

Today, despite all the industry’s talk of engagement, awareness has become king again. And there are two things that are vital about its resurgence: It is reoccurring for entirely different (and almost polar opposite) reasons, and most advertisers do not yet realize that in a world dominated by on-demand and interpersonal media, awareness should be their primary (and perhaps only) marketing objective.

Unlike the early days of electronic media, consumers are now engaged with media throughout the entire day, from the moment we wake until the moment we go to bed. When do you turn on your first screen of the day? When do you turn off your last? If you are like most people, the very first second of the day and the very last second. Most millennials sleep within arm’s length of their cellphones.

Years ago, awareness was all that really mattered due to the dearth of content and lack of advertising clutter. There were just not that many big, advertised brands to remember.

Today, awareness matters because of a preponderance of content and advertising clutter, buffeted by the usual suspects: fragmentation, social media and native advertising. People are seeing and hearing advertising messages from an almost unlimited number of products and brands all day long.

The role of advertising in our society has changed fundamentally, yet many are still playing by the same rules because clients and agencies consider “brand building” to be job No. 1 from a strategy standpoint, when it is in fact in a distant second place.

Stop thinking of advertising as a means of persuasion, because in essence it no longer is. It is now largely a means of being noticed and remembered.

It helps to stop thinking of advertising as a means of persuasion, because in essence it no longer is. It is now largely a means of being noticed and remembered. It can be used to influence purchase from the bottom up (socially), but no longer effectively used to persuade from the top down. There are exceptions, of course, but fewer than you would think.

Today’s bottom-up awareness is driven by disruption and innovation. Mature, hypercompetitive categories like cars, packaged goods, banks and telecoms are finding that their large bank of existing awareness is nothing more than “old” top-down awareness. They now need to drive awareness about what is new and innovative about their brands.

T-Mobile, for example, is one of the hardest brands to compete with in the telecom world because of its constant stream of small innovations that are providing meaningful, bottom-up, socially relevant awareness. Massively disruptive innovators like Google, Amazon and Uber have also found that they don’t need top-down paid advertising at all to generate huge bottom-up awareness. In fact, Tesla Motors has somewhat ludicrously become the most valuable car company in the world despite being one of the smallest in sales volume.

Young disruption innovators like Warby Parker, Tom’s, Blue Apron and Glossier are building impressive bottom-up banks of awareness by understanding what people value and what they share, mouth-to-mouth and mouse-to-mouse.

In this new relationship between innovation and media, advertising is akin to publicity, with its focus on influence rather than persuasion. If we can get people to notice what our brands are doing and talk to each other or share what our brands are doing—and we can do that numerous times every year—then our brands win. That’s it. Period.

In a fragmented world where content is multiplying and the number of waking hours is not, consumers have become perfect filtering machines.

Some brands get this. McDonald’s recent advertising with Mindy Kaling talking cryptically about “that place where Coke tastes so good” is memorable, surprising and sharable. So is the brand’s recent spate of infomercials for its signature crafted recipes. Sure, they help sell what is great about McDonald’s, but first and foremost, they are memorable. They break through. This is new awareness, not old “we exist” awareness.

“We exist” is important too, but even that awareness can be driven bottom-up. Brands that come up with clever Snapchat lenses get this. Does a Honey Nut Cheerios Snapchat lens give you a reason to buy the cereal? No. But in today’s crazy, busy lives, it helps them share a quick laugh and remember the brand exists. That is becoming harder and harder to do these days, especially for packaged goods.

Brands that are remembered will win; everyone else just gets filtered. What makes you remembered today is, increasingly, innovation.

Brian Sheehan is a professor of advertising at Syracuse University and is a member of our Adweek Academic Council.