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Why Cava’s bid for brand awareness means prioritizing streaming ads

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Some brands are throwing more ad dollars behind storytelling campaigns and brand awareness channels as marketers fight for attention in today’s busy digital marketplace. Fast-casual restaurant chain Cava is one of them — it’s been in growth mode over the past year and is leaning into streaming ads in an effort to boost brand awareness.

Putting more marketing spend toward brand awareness efforts is seemingly one of marketers’ latest obsessions. Increasingly, marketers are shifting the focus back to brand building and awareness marketing tactics, as the digital advertising marketplace becomes saturated with competition and riddled with data privacy initiatives and rising CPMs.

Cava, which went public last June, is only the latest example of that shift, with Orangetheory Fitness and direct-to-consumer home brand Parachute also providing examples of brands that have made the move to prioritize brand building efforts. In Cava’s case, it’s leaned into a digital-first strategy, focusing on platform-based advertising on YouTube, Meta and TikTok and prioritizing streaming platforms including YouTube TV, Roku and Hulu.

However, as it looks to boost brand awareness, Cava has made it a point to become less reliant on digital media’s usual suspects, like TikTok and Instagram, and instead try different media channels. To support this shift, the restaurant chain partnered with its new media agency Levelwing in January and recently hired an in-house senior manager to lead the brand’s media buying strategy.

“We have a healthy balance of what we call a test budget, so we can test into different platforms,” said Andy Rebhun, Cava’s chief experience officer. “I would argue that before we had these two additions to the team, we were very much focused on re-hitting platforms that we were successful in, but not as much trying new things.” (Rebhun did not disclose specific ad spend or budget figures.)

Historically, the restaurant brand has been reliant on word-of-mouth-style marketing, employing tactics such as catering for weddings, baby showers and even Major League Baseball teams. Last month, Cava had a viral moment when influencer Cody Premer, who has more than 4 million TikTok followers, shared a post featuring the brand, which racked up 3.7 million likes.

So far, its push into connected TV has had a minimal impact on Cava’s media spend, per Rebhun, who said the percentage increase of its spend on CTV is in the single digits. Cava reduced its year-over-year media spend by 98% to less than $25,000 last year, per Vivvix, a MediaRadar company. That figure is in comparison to the $933,000 the company spent on media in 2022.

Cava’s focus on CTV and streaming ads makes sense, especially for a brand looking to boost awareness with a limited budget, according to Yvonne Williams, vp of media at digital agency Code3. The channel offers better measurement capabilities than linear television at a fraction of the cost, she said in an email. And CTV is a growing space with no signs of slowing down, she added.

“CTV as a tactic continues to grow due to its ability to drive brand build via scale reach/awareness but can also be a greater component of full funnel strategy due to its evolution of retail media connectivity,” Williams said.

The broad reach of CTV has been a big selling point for Cava, in addition to the channel’s ability to track performance and retarget audiences.

“I would argue that our biggest advantage on that is really just the personalization of the messaging and making sure that the type of consumer that we’re trying to attract, we have the ability to convert, but then also giving more broad awareness of the concept,” said Rebhun.

CTV is the fastest-growing major ad channel in the U.S., according to eMarketer. It’s forecast that the channel will take in nearly $30.10 billion in ad dollars this year, up from a projected $25 billion last year. CTV’s growth is expected to continue because of its status as a media channel that marries the reach of linear television with the performance of digital advertising, per agency executives.

Notably, there are more ad-supported players in the space, like Amazon Prime and Netflix. Retail media’s growth spurt has also spilled over into streaming through shoppable ad opportunities. While the ad options are seemingly endless, that can be a good and bad thing, agency execs say.

“The main challenge is around fragmentation in that space. It’s difficult to have true insight into audience penetration or impression frequency when you’re reaching users across multiple CTV platforms,” Jack Connor, head of client services at independent ad agency Geletka+, said in an email to Digiday.

And where there’s fragmentation, there are measurement issues — something the CTV landscape has been grappling with through its growth. Specifically, working across various platforms and devices makes it difficult to standardize measurements, per Williams.

“One significant challenge is measurement standardization,” she said. “Ad fraud and viewability remain concerns due to the fragmented nature of CTV.” 

Still, CTV will continue to be part of the media mix for Cava when it makes sense for the brand, especially as it continues its growth plan, said Rebhun. The restaurant chain currently has more than 320 locations in 24 states, including Washington, D.C.

“As we continue to build out our real estate portfolio in cities across the U.S., there’s going to be times where it makes more sense to continue to utilize CTV for that broader brand awareness initiative,” he said.

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