A Crash Course in Brand Lift

Do you have to pay for it? How do you measure it? We asked experts.
Mae Rice
October 13, 2020
Updated: July 8, 2021
Mae Rice
October 13, 2020
Updated: July 8, 2021

In the spring of 2015, the Mad Men finale aired, and — five-year-old spoiler alert — the final minute didn’t feature any of the characters fans had grown to know and love. No Don, no Peggy, no climactic kiss or big promotion.

Instead, the critically acclaimed show about advertising ended with a real ad: Coca-Cola’s 1971 “Hilltop” TV ad, in which a group of fresh-faced young people from around the world sing that they’d like to buy the world a Coke.

“It’s the real thing,” they chorus.

The archival ad’s appearance in Mad Men created major brand lift for Coca-Cola, Forbes reported.

What is brand lift?

A positive shift in how prospective customers perceive your brand, typically measured via survey, that doesn’t immediately translate into an action or sale. Marketers may quantify brand lift using a variety of metrics, including brand awareness, brand perception, intent to buy and more. 

But what does brand lift mean for Coca-Cola?

“Coke has universal brand recognition,” Lindsay Fordham, senior director of audience products at Lucid, told Built In.

It’s so dominant in its sector that Pepsi’s 2019 Super Bowl ad started with a woman ordering ... a Coke.

It’s hard to lift brand awareness — familiarity with a brand’s values, imagery and products — higher than 100 percent. But brand lift can signal a rise in other top-of-funnel metrics too.

For Coca-Cola, the brand lift following its Mad Men feature brought about an increase in what Amobee Brand Intelligence calls “consumption” — digital views of Coca-Cola’s name and brand across more than 600,000 top websites, including social media sites.

The night the Mad Men finale aired, online consumption of Coca-Cola’s brand spiked to nearly 10 times its normal levels. The company got about two weeks’ worth of typical consumption in less than a day, Amobee reported.

This towering spike is just one of many possible manifestations of brand lift, which contains multitudes.

But that doesn’t mean it’s uncontroversial.

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101 brand lift
Image: Shutterstock

Brand Lift 101: Is It a Waste of Money?

It can be. But it can also be free.


Digital marketing consultant Melanie Balke works primarily with small and medium-sized businesses, and her clients rarely want to talk about brand lift. When it comes to marketing, they don’t care how many people saw their ad, or how many people remembered it a week later, she explained. They care about ROI and sales.

To them, upper-funnel brand lift metrics often look like vanity metrics.

This wasn’t always the case. Back in the era of Mad Men and “Hilltop,” almost every ad was a brand lift play. Even 20 years ago, Balke said, “if a TV ad was running, unless it was an infomercial, there was no direct response.” Marketers focused their advertising primarily on brand lift and brand awareness.

In some industries, like the auto industry, they still do. People buy cars so rarely that “by the time a consumer is ready to purchase, priming is super important,” Fordham said. When a customer knows a car brand off the top of their head, that will “lead them down a more actionable funnel.”

But in 2020, overall ad spend has shifted toward lower-funnel, higher-ROI activity: direct-response ads and performance marketing. In 2019, more than 50 cents of every dollar spent on digital advertising went to Google and Facebook, which focus on conversions with hyper-precise targeting and straightforward calls to action like “Shop now!”

That same year, spending on digital ads overtook spending on traditional ads in the United States, according to eMarketer.

Even TV ads, once difficult to track, have become more like Google and Facebook ads. Tools from companies like Roku let advertisers retarget people with web ads for a product after they see a TV ad for it; soon, Roku devices may allow for in-TV conversions.

In this context, most marketers don’t have to focus on brand lift metrics indirectly tethered to revenue — it’s a choice, and one many of Balke’s clients frown upon.

Balke herself still sees the value in brand lift, though. It fills the top of the sales funnel, and grows the population a company can later target and convert with performance marketing. It’s a key to longevity.

“Your brand will always outlast anything else you do in your company,” she said.

By comparison, performance marketing can feel like a hamster wheel.

“You may just be finding easy prospects and converting them off your ads,” Fordham said, but “it’s much much harder to build a new base of consumers.”

So for small clients with shoestring budgets, Balke sometimes recommends her clients infuse brand storytelling into their direct-response ads.

“You can do a conversion-optimized ad [with] a brand focus,” she said.

Companies can also tell their brand stories through unpaid channels, she noted — on their websites, say, or via email. (Or, if they’re extremely lucky, via free placement in a TV show.)

But “realistically, most [smaller business] don’t have the money to spend just for people to be aware, without getting a return,” she said. The present-day bottom line is simply, as marketers love to say, “top of mind.”

And for a long-time, brand lift was the opposite of a present-day metric: not only did it take a long time to pay off in sales, it took a long time to measure at all.

That’s changing though.


201 brand lift
Image: Shutterstock

Brand Lift 201: How Is It Measured?

Through surveys — and, increasingly, in real time.


In June, Lucid rolled out a new tool for measuring brand lift in real time: Impact Measurement.

It solved a problem Brett Schnittlich, Lucid’s president, had encountered earlier in his career.

“I ran an advertising agency for a portion of my life,” he told Built In. “One of the challenges always was [that] advertising effectiveness was a look back.”

That was thanks to a slow, relatively analog survey process, in which market research firms worked with brokers to survey two large samples of people who “looked like America,” as Schnittlich put it. One group had seen a given ad or piece of brand-relevant content; the other hadn’t.

These thousands of people would respond to a 15-20 question survey about the brand and its product category. Marketers could compare the two groups’ responses, and isolate the ad in question’s impact on their views, but there was a catch: finalized survey results usually only materialized after the ad campaign had ended.

The internet changed that, though. Digital surveys are easy to administer; both Facebook and Google offer relatively real-time brand awareness survey results to their advertisers.

Lucid was well-positioned to launch a product that could monitor real-time brand lift beyond the “walled gardens” of Facebook and Google’s YouTube. The company’s core platform functions as a kind of “Uber in the survey-taking world,” Schnittlich said; it connects brands that want to administer market research surveys with high-traffic sites, like digital media outlets and rewards sites, that can show surveys to massive flows of people.

This speeds up the market research process. So long as marketers embed Lucid tracking pixels in their ads, they can easily differentiate survey responses from those who have and haven’t seen a specific ad.

(The arrangement also helps the sites administering the surveys monetize their traffic; they get paid a few cents per survey administered.)

Lucid’s tool, much like other real-time brand lift tools from Nielsen and Survata, allows for the type of “in-flight” optimization processes common in lower-funnel marketing campaigns — except with upper-funnel efforts. Marketers can, for instance, see in real time which media channels are driving the most brand lift, and shift investment toward them “while the campaign is in motion,” Fordham noted.

They can also figure out which of their various creative options drive more lift, and invest more money in those, Schnittlich added.

One thing Lucid customers still can’t quite wrap their head around, according to Fordham, is the same thing that Balke’s clients struggle with: How does brand lift impact sales?

Like Balke, Fordham doesn’t think the two are totally separate. One brand lift metric that links directly to sales, for instance, is intent to buy; it typically correlates with actual sales in predictable ways, she said, and it’s been especially useful for consumer-packaged goods brands that sell through grocery stores.

“[They] don’t have access to the point of sale,” Fordham explained, but “things like [intent to buy] can be used as proxies” for sales forecasting.

The connection between sales and other common brand lift metrics, though, like brand awareness or brand perception, feels murkier.

“Every brand is looking for a magic formula, like ‘If I drive awareness by 10 points, [it’s] going to lead to this much sales, or this many downloads.’”

“Every brand is looking for a magic formula, like ‘If I drive awareness by 10 points, [it’s] going to lead to this much sales, or this many downloads,’” she said.

Lucid is researching that now, sifting through its data for emerging trends.

For now, though, its dashboard offers speedy measurement of brand lift and brand perceptions, letting users check in daily on shifts in their brands’ status.

“It’s really important to have a real-time pulse on how people are perceiving your brand,” Fordham said. “People are getting information about your brand from a lot of different sources.”

It’s not just from marketing departments. Prospective customers also learn about brands from tweets about customer service issues, review sites like Yelp, memes, press coverage — and, on occasion, zeitgeisty TV shows like Mad Men.

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