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What My High School Experiences Taught Me About Brand Awareness

Giulianno Lopez

Content Marketing Manager @ AdRoll

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With the seasons changing (maybe you haven’t noticed — climate change, am I right?), comes the start of a brand new school year. For many incoming high school freshmen, the world of that 4-year jungle is filled with possibilities, anxiety, and a little wonder. Looking back, I’m surprised at how instrumental that time of my life was for me, not just as a person but as a marketer. I know what many of you are thinking, 'you're trying to shoehorn a high school theme into a marketing blog post about brand awareness,’ but bear with me.

High school in and of itself has a lot of commonalities with the traditional customer journey, and especially so, at the top of the funnel. During the beginning stages of a customer’s path to convert, brand awareness is of the utmost importance — ensuring target audiences are not just aware of a brand, but also see the value that said brand and their offerings bring to their day-to-day life. Brand awareness has been on the lips of a ton of marketers, especially with the success that many direct-to-consumer (D2C) brands have had with incorporating it as a part of a comprehensive strategy.

Wait, What’s Brand Awareness Again?

Brand awareness indicates the extent to which target audiences are familiar with a business. This goes much further than ideal customer profiles (ICPs) being vaguely aware of a brand's existence — customers need to know more about a brand: values, personality, offerings, and so on. Building that rapport early on with customers goes a long way when establishing strong brand-to-customer ties.

A few years back, Squatty Potty made a splash with their out-the-box campaign that featured a video (see below) of an animated unicorn using their product. The campaign’s smashing success (almost 37 million YouTube video views and a 600% increase in sales) was attributed to their ability to leverage their irreverent brand personality in their marketing. In short, smart brand awareness tactics and strategies work! Just remember to stay true to your brand.

As a 90s kid, I was an avid watcher of the classic cartoons of that era, so I’m well aware of the importance of being yourself. You can’t build a relationship on a foundation of lies and deceit. Below, I’ll go over a few common high experiences and show how they can inform your next brand awareness campaign.

New Kid at School: No Brand Awareness

Going to a new school, even starting a new job, can be an experience many would love to forget. I can relate. During my freshman year, I went to a new school — sans friends or allies. I had a tough go of it, my first few months saw me eating lunch alone listening to my Rage Against the Machine CD on repeat. It took time for me to feel comfortable and open up. But, once I started cracking jokes in class and striking up conversations during lunch, it was all smooth sailing from there. I was free to be my normal, fun self. New brands can run into similar choppy waters.

For many new D2C businesses, getting anyone to pay attention, let alone buy from them, can be tricky. Starting with no brand awareness whatsoever requires a commitment to fighting an uphill battle, and that’s something many in the industry are willing to do. According to a report published by Altimeter, increasing brand awareness was the top priority of the senior digital marketers surveyed. Additionally, during our latest Customer Advisory Board (CAB), we found that most marketers in attendance, those representing both D2C brands and digital marketing agencies, are prioritizing brand awareness. It's safe to say that wanting to be popular is something that freshmen and new brands have in common.

Lesson Learned: Find a Fun Way to Engage Audiences

As I learned in high school, putting yourself out there doesn’t necessarily have to be a scary or difficult situation — it can be fun. For a brand, it starts with having a strong understanding of what their brand’s values and personality are and ensuring that’s communicated with target audiences. Think of creative campaign ideas that are both fun and interactive. For example, Volkswagen launched The Fun Theory Campaign, where they recorded a series of experiments to see if injecting a dose of fun in people’s lives would improve their behavior. Their top video, The Fun Theory 1 – Piano Staircase Initiative, increased the number of people who took stairs vs. elevators by 66%. To date, this video has logged over 1.3 million views on YouTube.

Homework Assignments

1. Identify what makes your brand unique and differentiates you from the competition. There are plenty of resources out there that can help you get started.

2. Create an ideal customer profile (ICP) to find out who your target audience is. This will align your marketing strategy.

3. Brainstorm different brand campaign ideas. These can be as out there as you want, but they should be tied to specific key performance indicators (KPIs) and related to your brand in some tangible way.

Falling for the Wrong Person: Not Knowing Your Audience

As a story as old as time, I met a girl and was smitten. We sat next to each in English and her birthday was on Earth Day. She was an emo girl that had a musical taste I couldn’t quite vibe with, but whatever, she was wicked smart, funny, and pretty. But, of course, she had a thing for an upperclassman, and I was a lowly sophomore. It took me awkwardly asking her out for coffee to realize that I’ve made a grave mistake: I didn’t realize I wasn’t her type. It was made painfully clear to me that I didn’t take the time to get to know her and that we weren’t a fit. In other words, I didn’t know my audience. It’s safe to say that the rest of the school year was painfully awkward in that English class. There are plenty of brands that make this mistake on a larger scale.

Many businesses, especially those who are just starting out, take a spray and pray approach. This is when a campaign is shot out into the ether without a specific audience in mind. The hope is that by blasting it everywhere, all sorts of potential customers will become aware and, in effect, interested. The problem with this tactic is… it just doesn’t work. For one, customers crave personalized experiences from brands so dishing out generalized content won’t move the needle. According to a report by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), 71% of consumers prefer personalized ads, and 75% of them prefer a scenario with fewer, but more personalized ads.

Customers crave personalized experiences from brands so dishing out generalized content won’t move the needle.

Personalization should be a focal point of any marketing strategy or campaign since it’s tied to improving customer engagement and leads to a stronger rapport with customers. Many in the industry see the value of personalization. Everage’s recent report states that 61% of marketers leverage personalization to increase customer engagement, and 36% use it to increase lifetime value (LTV). Don’t sleep on that last stat! Smart D2C brands have been focusing a lot of their attention on increasing LTV.

There are plenty of tactics that can help with personalization, but it’s vital to learn about your target audiences beforehand. Go beyond just auditing past campaigns or analyzing vanity metrics; get out there and talk to some real people. This can be as simple as setting up a call with a customer or hosting a customer-centric event. Consumers are more likely to be receptive to a brand’s advances if they’re provided with content that resonates with them. That’s why identifying a target audience and conducting research on said audience pays dividends. The possibilities are endless.

Lesson Learned: Tailor the Experience to the Target Audience

Once a target audience has been established, it’s time to parse it down to smaller audience blocks. Audience segmentation is the practice of dicing up an audience into smaller segments based on defined parameters, such as demographics, engagement, psychometrics, behavioral patterns, and frequentative channels. This will help focus your marketing efforts and ensure that not one audience segment’s experience will be the same.

Initially, as you market to new audiences, your segmentation practices will be general by nature (i.e., reliant on demographics). As campaign results and insights roll in, you can introduce some sophistication to your segmentation strategy. For example, grouping an audience into intent blocks (e.g., cart abandoners or product page visitors).

Homework Assignments

1. Research your target audience. Why would they be in the market for your offerings? What channels do they frequent? There are plenty of tools that can help you find your target audience, so start digging.

2. Conduct an audit of past campaigns and see what did and didn’t resonate. This will help with identifying top-performing channels and inform what content should be created moving forward.

3. Build a customer journey map for each of your audience segments. Now, this will take a quite of bit a work, but your customers (and bottom line) will thank you.

Interested in getting started with customer journey mapping? Download your free template.

Not Making the Soccer Team: Getting Beat Out by Established Competitors

I always fancied myself as an athlete. I played football when I was younger and loved long-distance running, so making the soccer team should have been no sweat. Yeah, that didn’t happen. Despite multiple practice sessions with one of my high school best friends, Mario, I had no chance of challenging those who have spent over a decade playing the sport. Based on the level of competition, it would have been best to have worked on my technique for months, not weeks, before tryouts. I made the classic mistake of not doing my homework on the competition and altering my training program as a result.

For many up-and-coming D2C brands, it can be pretty easy to feel overconfident about a business model, marketing strategy, and product. However, more likely than not, there’s a competitor out there that has a comparable (if not better) product at a lower price point. Many D2C brands understand how difficult working around this can be. According to a report by Retail Systems Research (RSR), more than a majority of retailers, 58%, view keeping up with competitors’ prices as their biggest challenge.

Lesson Learned: Conduct Competitor Research

When it comes to bringing a new product to market, conducting competitor analysis is vital to the positioning of your go-to-marketing strategy. This helps inform how target audiences become aware of a brand’s new product(s) and the selling points that are advertised. Additionally, competitor research does inform search engine optimization (SEO) strategy.

Analyzing competitors' keywords, how they're being used (i.e., website headers), and how they're ranking for them will identify SEO opportunities for your brand. Targeting the right keywords has been known to improve organic search traffic — the number of new visitors that come to a website by searching a term related to a brand. This will do wonders for building FREE brand awareness.

Homework Assignments

1. Conduct basic competitor research. This ranges from messaging, target audiences, the evolution of their brand(s), differentiators, and so on. There are templates available that can help you get started.

2. Look into competitors' use of keywords. Leveraging tools like Moz, a platform that shows where websites rank for various searches, provides website analysis, and inbound link data for measuring SEO initiatives. Check out their beginner’s guide to keyword research — it’s great!

3. After completing your initial research, kickoff a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis. This will help you create a strategic road map for your business.

Commencement Speech: Final Thoughts

No marketer's journey is free of mistakes; the same can be said of my high school experience. The key is to leverage those learnings to inform future strategies and campaigns. As a former teacher once told me, "Perfection is the enemy of great." Your brand awareness campaigns and strategies will improve over time, so be patient and resilient. Just be sure not to make the same mistake twice — you're not a high school student anymore.

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