Brand Familiarity and Preference – The Ongoing Struggle


You can’t really open up a business magazine these days without coming across something about brand. Books are written about it, websites are created around it, the reading list is endless because the study of a brand seems to be what marketing is all about: creating it, enhancing it, using it to generate revenue. An entire vocabulary has been spawned within the world of brand itself (i.e., brand extensions, brand cannibalization, just think of any word and put “brand” in front or behind it and it will probably make sense – like, brand sense or brand liability, get the idea?).

What brand really boils down to, however, is familiarity and preference for a thing. Do we know about the thing? Do we prefer it? In the old days, they called “brand” “image,” and sometimes people will confuse the issue further and say “brand image” as a single thing. But, they are really talking about things, how familiar we are with them, and if we prefer them or something else.

Like Pepsi. Pepsi is a brand, but you should use it properly in front of another word, “cola.” In fact, one of the rules of “brand” is that you should never use it as a noun; otherwise, it loses its “meaning” (i.e., Kleenex is a brand, but through use, it has become “the thing.”).

If you go to the Pepsi website — — you’d be hard-pressed to believe that Pepsi is a type of cola. Over the years, their marketing machine has been changing the “thing” Pepsi is to something other than cola, which is reflected on its website (fun).

Nevertheless, Pepsi is a drink, and while many people know it, are familiar with it, not all of us prefer it. So the brand battle (see how you can easily attach the word to other words) is always about making people familiar with a thing, and then developing a preference for the thing.

Accountability Information Management, Inc. (AIM) like many other organizations will study brands for our clients, and for ourselves. Back in 2003, for example, ELECTRICAL WHOLESALING published our article, “Your Very Own Brand” which argued a distributor’s brand is probably more important than the manufacturer’s. In that piece we compared a brand to cattle in the old West, an analogy that works very well.

Probably the biggest and most referenced brand study in the business is the BrandZ™ study, a quantitative brand equity tool built on Millward Brown BrandDynamics™ methodology. Started in 1998 and repeated annually by Millward Brown on behalf of WPP, the world’s largest agency (with more than 150 companies within the WPP Group –each is a distinctive brand in its own right), their study serves as the benchmark of what brand valuations should be. But, the 147 page report gives you a good foundation on seeing how brands are qualitatively measured.

Social media is changing this, along with everything else. Because of the explosion of communications via these social media channels, iconic brands like Pepsi are suddenly faced with upstart challengers that can appear out of nowhere and threaten their very existence, which is preference. The rules haven’t changed, really: get a good product, give it exposure and marketing, and the audiences will create itself (or not) around that brand. Today, because of Internet and social media, new brands proliferate. Just as in television, when there were only three broadcasters, today’s cable has hundreds of stations (and if you add in the Internet ala YouTube, thousands!), brands have exploded with possibilities.

Yet the rules of branding remain simple, despite all the expert testimony going around. Brand preference has always been driven by exposure, which in turn is driven by familiarity. That’s it: expose it, get people familiar, and they will prefer or not prefer. The difference today because of social media is that exposure can be exponential (i.e., we don’t need one or two of the networks to create exposure, we just need channels like Twitter or Facebook).

And, a “brand” doesn’t have to be a thing anymore; it can be a person. This has always been the case, but people either didn’t know about it, understand it, or talk about. The easiest way to understand this concept of people as a brand is a columnist in a newspaper. The newspaper itself is a brand; a columnist in that newspaper develops a following and is a brand through exposure. Can the columnist as a brand exist outside the newspaper? Of course. Can the newspaper exist without the columnist? Of course. But by gaining “followers,” each “brand” gains strength (i.e., is the President a person, or a brand?).

The essence of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and the rest is that they bridge the gap between the person and the brand. It is “followers” or the public who give individuals/brands within those channels preference. And because of social media and the ability of Internet e-commerce, a new brand can be born quickly. Of course, it can die as quickly, too.

Therein lies the problem for all marketers: how do you measure a brand when the ruler keeps changing? Answer: you can’t. But since you have to start somewhere, AIM offers this advice: focus on brand familiarity and preference measurements, but understand the basic tenant: you can be familiar, but not prefer, or you can be familiar and prefer, but you can’t prefer what you are not familiar with.

And because of the Internet, we get familiar with a lot of things – individually. That’s why the markets have splintered, and will continue to split dramatically. Sub-groups, of sub-groups, creating clicks and clubs, likes. It’s overwhelming sometimes to try to figure it out when the rulers change, isn’t it?

When we do brand research, therefore, we realize that the familiarity and preference of a brand is largely governed by the target audience within which the brand operates. Rarely are there universal brands (i.e., is Facebook a brand, or a channel, and if a brand, what does that mean?). Gaga has 27-million followers on her Twitter account, for example, which is 8% of the U.S. population, but less than 1% of the global population. You can go to here and watch the world population grow before your eyes. Pepsi’s and Gaga’s clients are, perhaps, the world, but both of these brands demonstrate the essence of understanding familiarity and preference. Believe it or not, there are people who are unfamiliar with these brands, people who are familiar and prefer, and people who are familiar and do not prefer, but none who prefer if they don’t know they exist.

AIM is often retained by companies to study a brand’s awareness among various audiences, and as you would suspect, that awareness (and as a result the preference of the brand) will vary depending on who you ask. “Valuations” as we all saw in the Facebook IPO can play tricks on us.

Pepsi, for example, has powerful brands including “22 billion-dollar brands,” double the number of brands it had 11 years ago. And, even though they claim that one billion times a day, in 200 countries they provide people with authentic foods and beverages, they still fight Coke for market share each day. Their struggle is the same struggle of ANY brand, large or small: that is, to build familiarity and then preference. In truth, you build these things at the expense of your competition (you can only drink so much cola).

Havard Business Review has an excellent piece on Under Armour, a brand that was invented in 1996. In that article (“On Learning to Leverage Celebrity Endorsements”, May, 2012), Kevin Plank, Under Armour’s founder, talks about celebrity endorsements, but inadvertently tells the story of brand preference from familiarity. When he writes, “When is it worthwhile to give away your product, and when do you stand your ground and demand a fair price?” he is explaining, indirectly, the story of brand building. “Follow the money” is not an off-the-cuff business remark, but the actual story of building a brand: it costs money – a lot of money – to build preference, because you need money for exposure to build familiarity.

But, that doesn’t change the fact that advice on brand and branding is never difficult to find these days on the Internet:

  • Marketers should use gender and age demographics to reach influencers and showcase brands in the best light.
  • Steve Rosenstock says battle of store brand vs. name brand is much less about value and price than before.
  • The key to Macy’s success was that Facebook was used as a way to extend its brand building efforts.

However, despite all this good advice, it boils down to understanding the concepts of familiarity and preference. Furthermore, the measurement of these concepts MUST be done on an audience by audience basis (sorry, I know we live in a global world, but who has time to talk with a billion people?).