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Ask Americans to name the first soft drink that comes to mind, and most say Coca-Cola. Ask Americans what company they think of first when they think about auto insurance, and you’ll get many different answers (Allstate, Farmer’s, Geico, Liberty Mutual, Nationwide, Progressive, and more). Fast food? McDonalds gets named a lot, and so do Burger King, Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A, KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and so on. Companies know they have a competitive advantage when theirs is the first brand to come to mind because consumers are making a direct category-product connection that means increased sales and market share. Furthermore, studies done by Nielsen and others show that top-of-mind awareness is the #1 driver of purchase intent and consumers are more likely to recall brands that they purchase on a regular basis.

The first thing that people think of in any category like soft drinks/auto insurance/fast food or any other is called top-of-mind-awareness

But they usually think of others, too, so we follow that first question with another: “What other (soft drinks/insurance companies/fast food chains) come to mind?” People search their memories for connections, some naming many more brands, some only a few.

The term for what-other-things-do-you-think-of is unaided recall

Recall is defined as bringing back from memory a fact, event, or situation, especially so as to recount it to others. The key word is unaided, because no clues or hints are given. When yours is one of the brands that comes to mind easily, without any prompting, you have an advantage over those whose names are lost, forgotten, or never known. Top-of-mind-awareness and unaided recall are meaningful measurements companies use to see where they stand in comparison to their competitors. You will sometimes hear this referred to as share of mind.

The important part about unaided recall is that people are remembering on their own – with no clues, hints, or prompting

The brand or product people remember second is better than the one they remember third, and so on. But being remembered fourth or fifth is better than not being remembered at all. Brands with the highest awareness and recall scores are the ones that advertise most heavily because hearing their names and seeing their commercials over and over pound their names into our brains.

There is a third measurement of consumer awareness you should avoid like the plague

It’s called aided recall. Here, people are shown or read laundry lists of names or phrases and asked which of these (tablet computers/frozen foods/golf club manufacturers) they have heard of. Most of us are familiar with this type of question from the endless online surveys companies shove at us.

Most of us do not know aided recall is a misnomer

Recalling means retrieving from memory. When presented with a list, people aren’t recalling anything. They’re only answering a yes/no question, the kind most of us give little thought to. When you see or hear the term “aided recall,” you should think of it as what it really is: a measurement where people claim to recognize items from a list. In a curious twist, what they call the aided recall score for your brand is actually a measurement of the people who have forgotten you.

People like to appear knowledgeable

So much so that there are three ways they will claim knowledge they don’t actually have. When prompted from lists, people will say yes to items and terms and brands that:

  • They think they should know.
  • Sound only vaguely familiar.
  • They never heard of before.

The huge difference between claiming to know a thing and demonstrating you actually do know that thing should be quite obvious to even the most casual reader.

Aided recall is a meaningless measurement that is used to deliberately inflate awareness and recall statistics

When unscrupulous marketing or advertising or research people want to show a big number, they trot out a statistic called Total Recall. It is the sum of three different scores:

  1. Top-of-mind awareness (excellent).
  2. Unaided recall (good).
  3. Aided recall (used to jack up the numbers). 

Whenever you are shown a total recall score, you are being manipulated by someone exploiting a flawed measurement

Don’t ever think total recall numbers are accurate reflections of reality, because they most certainly are not. An unknown percentage of aided recalls will always be false because:

  • People often say they recall something when they don’t.
  • Some are recalling something else and confusing it with what’s on the list.
  • Just saying yes is easier than having to expend effort thinking.

If that’s not enough to change your mind about aided recall, know this: over and over, studies show that large numbers of people claim to be aware of companies, brands, and products that don’t even exist.

Ignore aided recall scores because they are voodoo statistics

Those who include aided recall scores in reports and presentations are deliberately inflating numbers to distort outcomes. Do not allow yourself to be manipulated. There is no fudging in unaided recall – the brands people spontaneously produce from memory are the brands they remember. Think of aided recall as the brands they don’t remember.

Top-of-mind awareness typically requires a long-term investment

There are hundreds of sites online that will tell you how to increase your brand’s top-of-mind awareness by following their advice. A quick search turned up 5 ways, 18 ways, 7 ways, 12 ways, 13 ways, and 20 ways to increase TMA.

A better place to start is at the beginning, with a wisely-chosen name for your brand or product. When choosing a name, most business don’t bother seeking advice. They are unaware that naming a new brand should adhere to three key principles, says Sanjay Sood, a professor of marketing at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.

  1. “One is that you want it to be memorable. That can be a letter effect, like in the brands Xerox and Kodak, using two x’s, two k’s, those are very memorable.
  2. Then you want it to be meaningful. So if you do something like Cheez-It, then it describes the product and it’s meaningful in that context.
  3. And the last one, which is becoming really important today, is that you want it to be legally protectable.” This was the thinking behind Esso’s changing their name to Exxon, a word that would be legally protectable around the world.

Memorability is easiest to achieve when you know a bit about language and perception 

The ‘K’ sound is believed to be easy to remember because it makes people laugh and feel good (Kleenex, Kellogg’s, KFC, Krispy-Kreme, Kit Kat). Here is a scene from Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, a film about the reunion of two vaudeville comics.

“Fifty-seven years in this business, you learn a few things. You know what words are funny and what words are not funny. Words with ‘K’ sounds in them are funny. Cupcake is funny. Tomato is not funny. Lettuce is not funny. Cookie is funny. Cucumber is funny. Cleveland is funny. Maryland is not funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny.”

Xerox, Tampax, Windex

The letter X in a brand name is nearly as good as the letter K. Top of the heap status goes to products whose name is used as a verb, such as “Xerox this” means “make a copy of this” and “FedEx this” means “send this overnight.”


The power of one of the great memorable brand names is enhanced by how they use negative space in their logo. Note the white space between the E and the x forms an arrow, suggesting movement and reinforcing the idea of speedy delivery at a subliminal level. Your eyes saw it and your brain recorded it. That’s what subliminal is – below the threshold of consciousness.

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