Is Your Brand Living Rent-Free in Consumers' Minds?

Why you should be including mental availability in your brand metrics

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If you’re engaged in brand building, you’ve probably wrestled with the selection of metrics to measure advertising’s impact on your objectives. Most marketers choose brand awareness to broadly measure effectiveness, but mental availability is another important metric that should be considered.

Mental availability is the propensity of a brand being noticed or coming to mind for individuals in as many buying or consumption situations as possible, fueled by a vast array of associations in consumers’ minds. Conversely, brands with very few associations come to mind in a limited number of purchase situations.

An unaided awareness

Here’s an example—I belong to a book club in my North Carolina hometown that serves Cheerwine, a regional cola brand that’s very popular in the South. Even though I like the product, the only time I think about purchasing Cheerwine is in this location and occasion. I have unaided awareness of Cheerwine, but the brand has a narrow network of associations in my mind to this single consumption situation.

By contrast, I generally think of and purchase a Diet Pepsi in nearly all other carbonated soft drink consumption situations. From memories of a Big Gulp Diet Pepsi as a study aid while I was an undergraduate in college to refreshment offered poolside on a warm summer day or even sipping it on the beach, I can think of a dozen more cues in my memory for Diet Pepsi.

As illustrated, even though I have unaided awareness for both brands, Diet Pepsi has a much wider and stronger array of brand associations in my memory than Cheerwine, and that’s why I think of and purchase it more frequently. In other words, I like Cheerwine, but Diet Pepsi is living rent-free in the purchase decision portion of my brain.

Short-term sales vs. lifelong loyalty

For many brands, measuring advertising’s impact with brand awareness alone may provide a false positive gain in temporary awareness, which may drive short-term sales. But that does not ultimately translate to mental availability, which is crucial to long-term market share.

However, measuring both brand awareness and mental availability provides better visibility into both short-term brand choice and long-term brand preference.

For those marketers interested in adding mental availability to evaluate brand-building efforts, here’s how you can get started:

1: Make sure you have a free choice “pick-any” question method for performance attributes. Forcing respondents to make a binary yes/no decision results in more distinction between brands in a category.

Calculations for mental availability can easily be made for your brand and primary competitors by applying the metrics developed by Jenni Romaniuk, author of the study How Healthy Is Your Brand Health Tracker?, for mental availability, which should be calculated for both brand users and non-users (or, depending on the category, heavy users and light users):

  • Mental market share: The brand’s share of associations as a percentage of the total associations for all brands and attributes in the category
  • Associative penetration: The percentage of respondents that have at least one association with the brand
  • Association rate: Of those respondents with at least one association with the brand, the average number of associations for the brand
  • Share of mind: The brand’s share of associations with attributes as a percentage of only those respondents with at least one association with the brand

2: Measure and focus brand-building progress primarily on light or non-users. Although it may seem counterintuitive, non-user mental availability should be the primary focus of your brand-building efforts, as we know from decades of research—from Millward Brown’s The Advertised Mind to Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow—that brand growth typically comes from attracting new or light-use customers.

3: Continually analyze and assess the impact of media spend, channel, message and attention on mental availability. Studies have shown that changes in media, message and attention are often correlated with mental availability, and that mental availability is a precursor to brand sales. Over time, consider working across brand, data science, media and creative agency teams to conduct analyses to measure the relationship, combination and impact of media/message/attention on mental availability to optimize impact.