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Behind the Wheel: In Car Shopping, Not All Brand Awareness is Created Equal

3 minute read | October 2018

Uncovering New Insights About the Automotive Path to Purchase

Not all paths to purchase are created equal, and some paths are more easily traversed, shorter and fraught with less risk. Consumers don’t approach every buying decision they make in the same way.

Buying pasta, for example, is a much different transaction than buying a house. When we’re talking about buying a car, arguably the second-largest purchase most consumers make, there are two surprising insights auto marketers should consider: Being top-of-mind with car buyers has significantly greater impact on the purchase decision than basic awareness, and car shoppers double the number of brands in their considered set during the path to purchase. Nielsen came to this conclusion by asking more than 220,000 prospective car buyers since 2012 about their car-buying journey and analysis their responses.

Research from Nielsen’s Auto Marketing Report 2018 reveals that when it comes to automotive brand building, quality of awareness is more important than quantity. Brands with high unaided awareness—that is, brands that are more top-of-mind—have a serious edge over all others before the consumer ever sets foot inside a dealership.

According to the report, consumers with unaided brand awareness account for only 23% of total awareness, yet they generate 90% of purchase intent. In fact, shoppers with unaided awareness have 10X the purchase intent as those with aided awareness.

Another key insight from the report is that car shopping is not a linear process of elimination. Perhaps counter to what you might expect, report finds show that car shoppers consider more brands—not fewer—the closer they get to making a purchase. Auto shoppers start out on the path to purchase by considering two to three brands on average. However, the research found that by the time they’re ready to buy, they typically have five brands under consideration—nearly twice as many as they started with.

Interestingly, the report also found that as auto intenders consider more brands, they develop tunnel vision and focus on researching and evaluating only the vehicles that have made their expanded shortlist. The research concluded that it’s not that they lack interest in other brands, rather it’s a case of “selective indifference” to brands outside their consideration set.

In the end, the fact that shoppers are considering more brands as time goes by can be an encouraging signal for auto marketers. It suggests that car shoppers are open to considering additional brands even while having a top of mind brand that carries a natural advantage.

The report also highlights the role of different media channels on the path to purchase. Automotive brands should leverage a coordinated mix of broad reach and targeted media, with careful consideration of the synergies between channels. At its most basic, this means using radio and TV for brand building throughout the path to purchase—especially at the outset—and combining these efforts with digital (including social), mobile, direct mail and even in-theater advertising to encourage purchase consideration.

This year’s report makes it clear that auto marketers need to build deeper connections with consumers and balance brand building (for top-of-mind awareness) with customer acquisition tactics to encourage purchase decisions late in the buying process. It takes a more media agnostic, customer-first marketing approach to build these connections long before prospects are actively in the market for a new vehicle.

For additional insights, download the Nielsen Auto Marketing Report 2018.


The insights in this article and the related paper are based on online surveys conducted by Nielsen every quarter since 2012 to understand the behavior of car buyers in the U.S. This is not a longitudinal survey.

Survey Administration and Sample

  • We survey people ages 18+ who are planning to purchase a car in the next two years, using new car purchasers’ demographics as the benchmark for sample composition.
  • To date, more than 220,000 interviews have been completed with prospective auto buyers as part of this research.
  • Approximately 9,000 new respondents are recruited every quarter. Their answers are statistically weighted so that we may compare results from quarter to quarter.
  • The margin of error follows a bell curve distribution, with a maximum value of  +/- 2.2 percentage points at 1,980 survey completes.

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