Brand building is the aim of marketing. A big component of marketing is communications, the purpose of which is to attract customers to our brand and to persuade them to support it. Historically, that has been accomplished primarily through advertising media–print, then radio and TV, and now digital. And while smart, goal oriented creative has been the star; working diligently behind the scenes is smart, goal-oriented media strategy and planning.
Media is a science; part sociology, part statistical analysis, part economics, part behavioral science, and some might say, part intuition. In spite of the advancements in technology, measurements and analysis, a constantly shifting media landscape and media consumption trends, media strategy seems to always come down to the use of two things: Reach and frequency.
Reach is the depth or penetration of your targeted consumer (B2C) or customer purchaser or decision-maker (B2B) base, quantified in numbers and/or percentages via a media vehicle and over a set campaign period. Effective reach delivers the maximum number of targeted individuals for exposure to the brand message. Efficient reach does so economically, often expressed in a cost per thousand (CPM), CPL (cost per lead) and CPS (cost per sale).
Frequency is the number of exposures to the brand message obtained for the target via a media vehicle(s) over a set campaign period. Reach delivers the audience while frequency repeatedly exposes the audience to the brand message, offer, promotion, etc. How many exposures is enough (or too much) is often the question, since there is obvious budgetary waste for buying too many ads with diminishing effectiveness.
Repetition Is The Glue
A side note here about the scientific behavioral underpinning to frequency. Author and memory expert Carmen Simon points out the benefit to brands as “binding content to the source”: “Ensure that you’re presenting frequently enough to help someone’s brain bind the content and the source.” In other words, repetition is the glue that binds your message to your brand … and not to someone else’s.
In his article “Advertising Frequency Theory: Circa 1885,” Derrick Daye provides the 20 steps or exposures an ad must take to garner purchase intent as seen through the eyes of an 1800’s marketer. One-hundred and thirty-five years later it seems much of the observation holds true.
A little online search will reveal that “frequency” in 2020 is still a very hot topic. Consider these examples that attempt to provide advertisers guidance:
- As we advised here on Branding Strategy Insider, in “Reach Versus Frequency In Advertising”: “Many will say that it is more efficient to focus on reach (versus frequency) because there are diminishing returns with each new ad exposure. … However, if your funds are limited and your audience is highly targeted, you would do better to focus on a reach schedule of 3+, seeking out media with significant audience overlap. For brand building purposes … focus on advertising frequency targeted at … opinion leaders and “hard core” users.”
- Jeff Neff reported in AdAge, “What’s the frequency? Advertisers deal with conflicting data”:
- Facebook research indicated one to two exposures per week over 10 weeks as an ideal average for packaged-goods
- For TV, an emotional connection is created after one or two viewings, a “reasoned, cognitive response” after 3 to 10 times, and a deeper emotional connection after 10 viewings
- Many subscribe to the “Rule of 7” in order to fully resonate with the target audience
- The “Frequency of Three” for radio spots for effective recall has been touted
- News America.com states in its piece “How Do We Determine the Optimum Mix of Reach vs. Frequency,” 5–9 exposures “are deemed to be the optimal level for driving brand awareness” and 10+ exposures “are deemed the most optimal level for driving purchase intent.”
- The advertising ratings service Nielsen found in a 2017 study that digital ads needed between 5 to 9 exposures to improve branding and increase consumer acceptance.
And there are no doubt many more frequency guidelines. Careful performance tracking by any number of measurements will reveal, over time, what works for your brand. It’s never clear-cut because there are so many influences (both those can control and those you can’t) that will have a bearing on performance.
It seems there is no simple answer to the question “how many times do we run this ad?” Every situation is different. There are, however a few insights we can draw from the research:
Media Usage Habits Have Logical Frequency Implications
According to Jeff Rosenblum’s article “From Friction to Empathy: A New Brand Building Model” up to 89% of TV ads are ignored, not necessarily because of DVRs, but because people fiddle with their smart phones during the commercial breaks. Greater frequency for TV to combat commercial avoidance would be indicated.
Cross-Platform Measurement Should Be Used To Manage Frequency
Jeff quotes P&G Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard’s observation that with so much message duplication between digital and TV, cross-platform measurement could “drive out a lot of waste.” It should also be noted that P&G has recently instituted “Frequency Capping” to purposely limit the number of times their ads are exposed online and increase their long-term effectiveness.
Wear-Out Of Ads Is A Real Outcome Of Frequency
Frequency tracks a typical bell-curve of effectiveness: first ineffective reach, then effective, then ineffective. If you’ve ever been part of a DR (direct response) campaign, you’ve seen the results first-hand. At some point frequency will suck the lead-generating life out of a TV spot and will need to be rested, replaced or refreshed with a new offer or approach to regain its potency.
The Case For Reach-Only
Reach can be used with little or no frequency for well- established brands with little competition and delivering a simple message. By employing reach only, marketers are striving for maximum impact from memorable creative, delivered at just the right time and in just the right venue. It can then be leveraged by some other means through publicity, PR, direct mail, etc.
For example, the gut-wrenchingly powerful “Daisy” ad created by DDB and Tony Schwartz for Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 presidential campaign aired only once (on The NBC Monday Night Movie) and has been considered by historians as making the difference between he and Barry Goldwater, a candidate Johnson contended could not be trusted with nuclear weapons.
Equally noteworthy 20 years later is Chiat Day’s “1984” spot that launched the Apple Macintosh personal computer and ran only once during Super Bowl XVIII. Both the “Daisy” and “1984” spots were powerfully creative, compelling and socially and culturally disruptive. Both spots also had tremendous reach, but of course, no frequency was factored in.
However, not all reach-only strategies guarantee a successful outcome. In 2015, Starbucks asked customers to #RaceTogether by using a supplement in partnership with USA Today to stimulate a conversation about race relations. No other media was used and no frequency was employed. Unfortunately for Starbucks and CEO Howard Schultz, all it succeeded in doing was to stimulate a lot of criticism for the poorly conceived and misguided brand initiative. The campaign died almost instantly.
Regardless, the success of one-time, high-impact ads have spawned a purposeful one-time reach strategy that combines a “proclamation” or “statement” message to communicate policy changes, mergers, brand launches, positions and product introductions. For example, full-page ads in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal (as well as other major market newspapers) may run all at once on the same day. Media selections are based on their journalistic reputation and reach within their respective markets. This one-time placement strategy is designed to create “shock and awe” with follow up news coverage, PR and direct mail campaigns to follow. B2B advertisers may also use a similar strategy to launch a new product line or technological advancement by a limited or one-time reach placement that dominates its industry by the dominance of its circulation.
Impact On Brand Strategy
As marketers we know that brands must be supported in order to remain relevant and growing. But we also know that we face a number of challenges, such as the sheer number of messages competing for our customer’s attention. We must provide consistent and repeated reminders of the value of our brand on an emotional level so that when our customer is in the market, we’ll be top of mind. Otherwise, we risk indifference at best, or replacement by a competitor at worst. Strong and compelling creative advertising that differentiates is essential, but an effective media strategy with a strong understanding of reach and frequency is a must.
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