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Brand Tracking Needs to be More Strategic

Houston, we have a problem. Senior executives in our company require the consumer insights group to spend a disproportionate amount of the market research budget on a brand tracking program from which few business decisions are made. Given the resources that are invested, it’s frustrating that the brand tracker fails to even begin to grasp our brand’s raison d’être. We want to manage our brand as a strategic resource, but the brand tracker does not illuminate a path forward for how to best develop the brand and outsmart our competition. 

If you are a corporate insights professional the above may sound familiar. In conversations with Fortune 500 companies, I’ve noticed a growing discontent with brand tracking among insights professionals. Frustrations run high when it comes to earmarking resources for market research that barely moves the needle. What needs to happen is obvious to most insights professionals, but to enact change can be hard in organizations where ritualistic group-think can inhibit change. While some may advocate for a complete disbandment of brand tracking programs, there are sensible and relatively straightforward changes that can be made to ensure that a brand tracking program informs strategic brand management. 

Where brand tacking fails

The problem with legacy brand trackers is mainly related to the measurement techniques that are used and the survey length which leads to respondent fatigue and poor data quality. And as everyone in the market research industry knows, garbage in means garbage out. 

The measurement technique that makes up the bread and butter of most brand trackers is the 1932 invention by Rensis Likert. The 5-point scale is so ubiquitous that it’s rarely critically examined whether it’s the ideal measurement technique to use. When it comes to understanding what a brand means to consumers, the Likert scale can only provide data from a cognitive perspective or what in behavioral science is referred to as System 2. There is nothing wrong with this data per se, but the problem is that the data is incomplete and therefore not particularly actionable for decision making. Data collected with a Likert scale lacks the critical System 1 component that can help us understand what the respondent subconsciously thinks about the brand. To capture both System 1 and System 2 data for brand attributes and associations requires the use of a response latency technique that captures both frequency and response time at the same time. 

The second issue with legacy brand tracking programs is survey length. It’s not uncommon that brand trackers exceed 20 minutes in survey length, designed in a different era when respondents answered surveys on desktop computers. Given that respondents are predominantly on their mobile devices when answering surveys and increasingly impatient with lengthy and laborious repetitive survey questions, it’s paramount to keep the survey short, sweet and engaging. To gather as much insightful data in the shortest time possible it’s beneficial to use research techniques that let the respondent more freely express their viewpoints. This can be accomplished through projective exercises that use visual metaphors to enable the respondent to freely express their deep seated thoughts and feelings of the brand. A key benefit of this technique is that it captures both a System 1 and System 2 perspective, and the data that is captured consist of both images and text that can be quantified with AI powered text analytics. 

Brands are containers of meaning

Brands are valuable to companies because they provide consumers meaning. In a highly visual consumer culture that is saturated with brands, consumers use brands to create a sense of selfhood and to interpret their social world. It is in this sense that we should think of brands as containers of cultural meaning that are available to consumers to appropriate in order to make sense of their lives. The meaning of a brand is a constellation of things, from functional product attributes to symbolic properties that have been established through advertising that uses cultural appropriation to instill myths, symbolism and identity into the brand.

Measure more meaning(fully)

The success of consumer brands rest on the ability to provide meaning. While the functional product attributes need to meet the required jobs-to-be-done, brands are far more multidimensional. A list of attributes and associations captured through word-based 5-point Likert scale cognitive questions are incapable of capturing and representing the multi-sensorial experience of a brand. Instead of treating the brand as a shopping list of word-based attributes, we need to think of the brand as a complex entity that is represented visually as well as verbally. 

Iconic brands with strong meaning become powerful as ideological templates for consumption. This is where we start to separate the wheat from the chaff. The most successful bands manage to instill themselves into the current prevailing cultural tensions and give consumers a reason to become devoted brand lovers. 

In such an environment, where we need to understand the complexities of the cultural undercurrents, we need a brand tracking program that is designed with an eye towards understanding the symbolic properties of the brand and its competition. The symbolic properties are simply all the cultural meanings that have been appropriated by the brand that are not immediately a functional attribute inherent in the product. These properties can be a single entity or a combination of powerful myths, symbols, and consumer identities that the brand has appropriated over time. 

You may now ask yourself, how on earth can I measure the symbolic properties  of brands, a.k.a. the stuff that makes the brand the brand with a 5-point likert scale? The bad news is that you can’t but the good news is that you don’t need to. Instead, there is a growing use of behavioral science techniques available that can be used to capture the conscious as well as the subconscious visual and verbal understanding of a brand that illuminates the intangible, non-material facets of your brand. In this way, you can capture the necessary data that allows you to manage the brand strategically and set it up for transformational growth. In our blog Transformational Insights with Messy Data you can read further about using behavioral science techniques to capture data that harness the symbolic properties of brands.

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