By David Ward
Even with all the tools and analytics most marketers now have at their fingertips, measuring brand affinity will always be an imperfect science because marketers really only get a complete understanding of a consumer's mind at the point of sale.
"When it comes time to make a purchase, customers have to decide between your brand and the competition," explains Brian Lischer, founder and CEO of the San Diego-based branding agency Ignyte. "If they choose your brand, you've crafted the right brand perception."
That's why even sophisticated branding metrics such as marketing mix analysis, brand asset evaluation, and other meaningful brand measurements have to be augmented with data from sales and other parts of the organization to determine exactly how the public perceives a branded product or service.
Jill Baskin, CMO at the Hershey Co., which was recently named one of the most beloved brands in America by Morning Consult, says her teams use quantitative tracking data to help gauge brand perceptions. "But my most important data are ROI and share," she says. "I believe that sell-through at full price is your best metric of strong brand affinity."
While other CMOs may have different go-to metrics to measure consumer opinion, many marketing teams struggle to see their brands through the eyes of the average consumer. In today's market, where the buying public is inundated with brand messages, influencer recommendations, formal and informal reviews, social media chatter, and other product information, marketing teams must develop consumer perception metric strategies that help track any changes in the public's attitude toward their brands over the medium and long term.
The Right Perception, the Right Audience
Because consumers ultimately express brand affinity with their wallets, the first thing every marketer should do is use their perception research to better understand those consumers who are most likely to buy their product or service.
It can be all well and good for a consumer to say that an aspirational, luxury brand fits their lifestyle, but if they're not likely to be able to afford that high-end car, jewelry piece, or exotic vacation, that positive perception won't do the makers of those products much good. The consumer who likes the brand well enough to spend $20 on, say, a Ferrari hat is far different for the car maker than the one willing to buy a $250,000 488 GTB.
"One of the major parts of my job is to help our clients trip over the truth."
— Matt Weiss, president of strategic growth at Huge
"Brand perception can be a really helpful metric to track, but in isolation it doesn't actually mean all that much and can even be a mad metric to track if you don't have a highly segmentable base of respondents," explains Daniel Michalczyk, founder and CEO of Cleria, the Oslo, Norway- and New York-based market research firm that uses technology to automate the research process.
Cleria has an overall global survey pool of 1.3 million consumers and Michalczyk says he often recommends that marketers segment their brand perception research into four distinct groups: those familiar with the brand but who are not purchasers, those who are purchasers but are not brand loyal, those who are loyal but are not brand ambassadors, and finally, avid brand ambassadors.
Determining which brand perceptions actually lead to conversions later on is essential for brands, Michalczyk says, adding that by doing so, marketers can home in on the perceptions that resonate at the top of the purchase funnel and use that to move larger numbers of consumers toward the bottom of the funnel.
Matt Weiss, president of strategic growth for Brooklyn-based experience agency Huge, notes that formal customer research surveys do have a role, but cautions they can leave marketers with a false sense of security in today's fast-moving market unless the brand is also using other tools to get more real-time consumer perception data. "You can get that through real-time social listening and through data and analytics tools that allow you to not only understand the sentiment of the brand in the marketplace, but also how campaigns are operating in the marketplace in real time," he says.
Clare Hines, group strategy director at Huge, adds that launching a new campaign and expecting the results to show up in a brand's next formal perception survey can actually end up being a distraction, especially if those metrics don't change right away. That's why she recommends focusing far more on social media metrics at the beginning of any new change in brand messaging. "Social listening can give some early indicators of how your brand is perceived as a result of a new campaign," Hines says.
As for what marketers should focus on when it comes to consumer perception, the market research firm Morning Consult publishes an annual list of America's Most Beloved Brands based on more than 400,000 consumer surveys that points to some key indicators.
Morning Consult bases its rankings on an index that factors in four aspects of how respondents rate brands: favorability, trust, community impact, and consumers' likeliness to promote the brand.
Morning Consult VP of Content Jeff Cartwright says that when it comes to brand perception, marketers need to keep in mind that some of the metrics used for broad overall consumer perception may not accurately reflect how specific generations are experiencing and perceiving brands.
"Generation Z are just now starting to enter the workforce and they're already changing the relationship between brands and the consumers, especially in terms of reach and engagement," he says, suggesting that, going forward, brands may need a different approach for some of their perception metrics to account for these generational splits.
The Timing of Brand Perception Measurements
With so much real-time data and analytics at their fingertips, marketers can sometimes forget that overall consumer perceptions often shift fairly slowly, especially for well-known brands.
"A startup company in a dynamic industry should probably be tracking a wider range of perception metrics much more frequently than a mature, established enterprise operating in a more predictable competitive landscape," says Lischer of Ignyte.
Baskin of the Hershey Co. voices a similar sentiment: "For big, stable brands like ours, brand metrics tend to see little fluctuation. Every six months is fine. We track ROI by quarter and sometimes monthly or weekly depending on if a product is in launch mode or not."
"We always tell clients that they are the worst people to assess the outside perception of their brand."
— Daniel Michalczyk, founder and CEO of Cleria
But those consumer perception surveys do have to have consistency in their timing, so any changes can be quickly addressed.
The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has been generating a brand-health tracker on a quarterly basis since 2014 with detailed analytics from both consumer and commercial customer perspectives that directly correlate to its four core business functions: shipping, mailing, retail, and digital.
"The quarterly report is a great resource to help us further understand our customers' needs and expectations, as well as give us insights into how we stack up with our competitors," explains USPS Marketing VP Steven Monteith. "We measure customer consideration to determine factors that drive them to keep us top-of-mind when they make a decision."
The USPS, which also ranks high on Morning Consult's list of 2019 most beloved brands, augments those reports with focus group testing to determine whether its efforts to serve its customers are sufficient or can be improved. The insights it gains help the company develop and track organizational goals.
"Good measures equal good trust," Monteith says. "When people are looking at brands, products, or services, it is about the experience and trust — and we want to make sure customers know they can trust us."
Lies, Damn Lies, and Consumer Perception Metrics
When it comes to brand perception, in many ways the CMO and the rest of the internal marketing department are probably at a disadvantage.
"We always tell clients that they are the worst people to assess the outside perception of their brand," explains Cleria's Michalczyk. "They live their brand day in and day out and see every piece of advertisement and creative, so they are exposed to their own Kool Aid more than anyone else on the planet."
"Everyone has blind spots, especially when you live, breathe, and eat the brand 24/7," adds Weiss of Huge, noting that one of the biggest challenges of any outside agency is convincing the CMO or brand manager how the market and consumer perception has moved in relation to their product or service. "One of the major parts of my job is to help our clients trip over the truth."
To do that, Weiss avoids turning the vast amount of complex, consumer information into convoluted strategies. "Today's CMO has one of the most difficult jobs out there, in that you're getting data points from so many different people from within the organization, externally, and from your data partners — not to mention social sentiment and all that's happening in their own channels," he says. "A good partner takes those signals and turns them into something that they can use to make decisions. And that requires simplifying."
Marketers, including the CMO, should also remember that one really easy way to get an accurate take on how consumers perceive the brand is to go out and experience their brand just as the average shopper would.
"Just make sure you get out of your marketing bubble," advises Baskin of Hershey. "Use your own products as the consumer would. Shop for them as the consumer does. Early in my career my boss told me to take home a meal kit we were thinking of selling. It had gotten good Bases (quantitative concept testing) scores. It took me over an hour to make a 'so so' dinner. When I came back to work and reported on my experience, everyone took it home and tried it. The project was killed that week. It taught me a lot about the importance of walking in the consumers' shoes."