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What is brand research?

Providing objective evidence to harness abstract concepts for leveraging brand strength and persuading customers to curry favour.

What is brand market research?

Brands are not defined just by their products or services.  A brand is made up of much more; it has its own personality (contributed to by its employees), its own mission statement, its own goals, its own ethos, even its own humour (see Innocent drinks for an example).  However, a brand’s perception is not owned by the brand itself, rather it is owned by the customer, based on how they see and feel it.

A clever brand will spend time understanding how its communications and messaging alter brand perception, and much of this is done via communication with its customers.

Brand marketing research aims to provide a form of conversation:

Figure 1: Brand Market Research Conversation Cycle

Conversation is not simply a two-way process, but also a continuous process.  Brand research enables brands to ask the questions and listen to their customers, allowing them to keep their finger on the pulse and adapt appropriately.

Brand research definition

Brand research specifically assists in the creation and curation of strong, distinctive brands.

Brand market research helps achieve competitive advantage through objective, insight based ideas and recommendations on product, service or customer service strategies. 

Marketers, planners and strategists are then able to make confident, informed judgements on the endless decisions around target markets, pricing, positioning, distribution, partnerships and so on.

And what about brand analysis? 

Brand analysis specifically focuses on understanding what drives business and brand value, hence it’s often a potentially wide sphere of activity.

Manufacturing or product driven companies will often start the value creation process from a functional or physical stand point, viewing life through the lens of ‘how can we apply what we have?’. Marketing or service driven companies will start from the opposite end of the spectrum viewing life through the lens of ‘what do customers want, how can we deliver it?’.  Traditional marketing text books tend to favour the former approach, but a surge of more customer-centric activities are currently taking place in the real world.

Inevitably both outlooks will meet in the middle somewhere, talking of brand identity, value or equity. Most organisations want to overcome the barriers of negative perceptions or leverage the positives they have, whether it’s for survival or ambitious growth. Or they might simply want to keep checking they’re projecting an authentic, consistent image and manage risks.

What’s the difference between a brand audit and brand analysis?

The comprehensive, systematic and independent review of a brand can also be called a brand audit and typically has the aim of assessing the equity of a brand. Brand audits shouldn’t be confused with marketing audits though.  The latter tends to be an internally focused exercise, while a brand audit is more externally, customer focused, even if it incorporates the review of financial metrics too.

The analysis itself is the process of developing appropriate strategies, evaluations and metrics for managing and measuring a brand’s success.

Fundamentally each brand analysis or audit exercise needs its own objectives (e.g. to drive loyalty vs change positioning etc.) and can choose to use the scope (e.g. current vs non customers) and emphasis that best suit it.

Brand analysis is most commonly executed once a brand is established. Although marketing research can of course be used to inform brand values from the off.

What is a brand association, attribute or perception?

We’ve already come across a number of interchangeable or similar terms used in the world of marketing and brands, so it’s probably worth having a look at what some commonly used branding stages and phrases mean.

Marketing termDefinition
Brand identityHow an organization seeks to identify itself.  It represents how the brand wants to be perceived in the market, as communicated through its branding (such as logos and colours), service and marketing strategies.
Brand attributeThe portrayal of an organisation’s brand characteristics.  Attributes may be personality specific or derived from the brand’s products or features.  Brand attributes help in creating brand identity.  They can be both tangible and intangible features of a brand. Tangible features might include visual or semantic assets that make up the visual vocabulary or the messaging of the brand.  Intangible aspects might be customer relevance, preference, recognition, loyalty or brand promise.
Brand associationImages and symbols readily identified with a brand or a brand benefit, but they’re not specifically a reason to buy.  Brands typically aim to have elements of differentiation that are not replicable by competitors.  Brands tend to manipulate the brand associations which result in customers’ perception of the brand. Favourable brand associations are thought to drive preference.
Brand awarenessThe degrees to which customers associate the brand with the specific product or service. Brand awareness includes both ;Brand recognition (i.e. customers can clearly remember hearing or noticing the brand) and Brand recall (i.e. customers can state the specific brand when the product category, buying scenario or need state is mentioned).  Brand awareness is generally considered indicative of its competitive market performance.
Brand visibilityAlso a form of brand awareness. However, it is more related to desirability and specific share of mind, market, wallet, sponsors etc.  For example, one can be aware of something and not want it or need it. Visibility speaks of it ‘being out there’, being seen, or aspiring to have it
Brand perceptionBrand perception resides with the customer, and is not determined by the brand. Regardless of an organisation’s message, it’s what people are thinking and saying about the brand that defines it within the market. Perceptions are based on experiences and hearsay.
Brand imageAlso known as brand perception.
Brand considerationConsideration is defined as the percentage of potential purchasers who would consider the brand for a given purchase occasion.  A commonly used KPI or tracking metric.
Brand penetrationPenetration is defined as the percentage of potential purchasers in a market who go on to buy a particular brand in a given year.
Brand positioningAn activity owned by the brand to ensure all brand activity has a common aim; is guided, directed and delivered by the brand’s benefits/reasons to buy.  It should focus on all points of contact with the customer.
Brand promiseIt articulates an idea that goes beyond the rational benefits and  seeks to underline the (progression, regression or reparation) value received from the product or service. It’s not a slogan or advertising headline, nor public statement.   A brand promise is a natural extension of the building blocks of an organisation strategy: mission, vision, and values with its customers at its heart.
Brand loyaltyThe extent to which a customer consistently buys the same brand within a product category and potentially fears purchasing a product/service from another brand which they do not trust.  A way of validating the appropriateness of brand positioning.
Brand advocacyCustomers doing your marketing for you. People who love the brand will continue to support the organisation and promote their services or products to new customers organically, so reducing the need to spend on advertising or other paid for marketing initiatives. Often considered the highest level of brand loyalty.
Brand equityThe value of having a well-known brand.  A well-known brand name may simply be able to generate extra revenue from the association with its brand recognition.  Sometimes expressed in accounting terms.


What’s more important, understanding the tangible or intangible elements of a brand?

While many brand attributes are tangible such as the name, logo, features, customer touchpoints etc. it’s how they come together to create psychological triggers or stimulus that create the brand value. On the way to doing this many intangible assets or situations are created.

It can be argued that these intangible brand elements such as relevance to the customer, preference, recognition, loyalty or brand promise are the most important as they drive brand reputation and perception. 

Tangible assets are more readily identified in general, and by the brand owners specifically.  However, external expertise can be invaluable in defining and evaluating the intangible aspects, particularly when reviewing the less familiar territories of non-customers or new geographies.

The importance of brand perception

Given that brand perception is owned by the customer (or conscious non-customer) and not the brand, it’s pertinent to make an effort to appreciate what’s going on there. Brands rarely exist in isolation, so measuring the brand perception of your competitors can help you understand where strengths and weaknesses lie.

Brand perception is how consumers think, feel, and respond to a brand as a result of their interactions and experiences with it. A brand experience can encompass everything from talking to a family member, reading online reviews, to seeing a magazine advertisement. Gossip and reputation is a very powerful thing, the University of Chicago even have a study to prove the correlation.

Once a brand has an understanding of their own perception, they can drive changes in brand positioning, leading to increased brand loyalty and a more relevant brand identity and improved brand equity.

Figure 2: The importance of brand perception visualised

Understanding and measuring brand perception

We can either view brand perceptions in terms of:

1. Brand sentiment:

  • Positive: due to positive experience with the brand it has become a preferred choice for the consumer
  • Negative: negative experiences have led to negative perceptions, which in turn leads to an avoidance or dislike of the brand itself
  • Neutral: the consumer has not had an emotional experience or response to the brand, and thus feelings are indifferent

 or in terms of

2. Brand visualisation maps:

Brand perception mapping identifies the closest competition and their differentiating factors. It also measures positive and negative brand perceptions and associations. More details about the consumer or B2B brand maps can be found here.

When reviewing the perception maps (or any feedback for that matter) it’s important to be open to the definition of the attributes identified, as what a phrase means to you may be completely different to customers.   Download Brand Map Explainer

Figure 3: You just haven’t seen life from my side. (Original source unknown)

There is a growing social science movement concerning the interpretation and use of signs and symbols within marketing called Semiotics.  As a brief introduction you might want to think of it as three main layers of brand meaning, starting from the outside and working in. Each layer infiltrates the ones inside it and can influence or be influenced by the others.

  1. Cultural Meaning: This is the broad context in which customers come to appreciate what a brand stands for and respond to it, either influencing or responding to popular culture, for example
  2. Community Meaning: This doesn’t just denote a local community, but any group of associated people: colleagues, family, people who support the same club or pursue the same hobbies and interests. Corporate culture can be a manifestation of this.
  3. Individual Meaning: This is probably far more motivating than the collective meaning and it drives the growth in personalisation. A few small differences can be notable enough for someone to choose the brand and pay a premium. That meaningful difference may be something so small or immaterial that even the person purchasing the brand doesn’t fully acknowledge it.

Why it’s important to focus on the relevant audience

It’s not just about what people are saying and thinking about the brand, but also who is saying it. Established, new, lost or potential customers, old or young will all have a different perspective.

Make sure you understand who your audience is, or could be, both in terms of demographics and drivers when scoping brand analysis.

Brand research methods

There’s a variety of ways to measure the relationship between brand name and specific concepts. They fall into two main techniques: scaling and sorting:

  1. Scaling techniques which determine if there is an association between a brand and an attribute, together with the strength of that relationship e.g.:
    • Customer surveys, which might include perception maps
    • Customer SATisfaction surveys
    • Net Promotor Scores (NPS)
    • Product surveys
    • Social media listening
  2. Sorting techniques allow firms just to know if there is an association e.g.:
    • Website traffic
    • Google analytics

How to do brand analysis

Although the customer holds the balance of power in terms of perception, brands can take steps to leverage brand perception more effectively. Here are six steps to follow when assessing, measuring and adapting brand perception:

  1. Identify the right project objectives and metrics for measuring brand perception in your target audience
  2. Understand internal brand perceptions within the organisation and how they may be translating externally
  3. Learn more about customers and the customer experience through tailored research
  4. Understand perceptions through each stage of the customer journey: awareness, trial, consideration, purchase, favourite, and loyalty
  5. Compare performance and brand perceptions in the competitive space to better position strategies
  6. Learn to adapt to changes in brand perception when they arise by frequently assessing brand performance and allocating marketing spend more effectively

And of course you could think truly long term and integrate marketing research, investment, market and financial metrics into a single insightful model to track performance over time and against competitors.Download Brand Map Explainer

In conclusion…

“We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.” – Anais Nin

Perception is reality.  Consumer purchasing decisions are significantly impacted by perceptions of brands and their competitors.  It’s no good sticking your head in the sand, or a finger in the air – strategic and well thought out analysis is required to ensure brands are on top of their game.

Undertaking brand analysis is a key tool in the armour of managing your brand positioning. You can be left behind quickly when you’re not part of the conversation.

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