When and How Should Researchers Challenge Internal Brand Perceptions?

Chris Martin

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    To understand the role that insights professionals should play in evolving brand perceptions, it’s first important to have a clear and concrete definition of a brand. The only problem is, that’s a fickle thing to come by. In fact, the definition of a brand is still the subject of much academic (and industry) debate. However, by examining this debate, we can draw some key conclusions not only about the factors that make up a brand - but how researchers can exert a positive influence over them.

    So, let’s take a deeper look at the meaning of the term “brand.” As many marketers will eagerly recount, brands were first used as a way for cattle farmers to identify their livestock. From these humble beginnings, branding started to be applied to packaged goods. Why? To differentiate these goods. As transportation improved, early consumers started to be given choice. No longer was there single supplier of any given product. Now products competed for attention.

    The Complexities of Branding

    It might seem natural to take this evolution to its natural conclusion and state that branding is the collection of marks, symbols and words that differentiate one product from another. But as the practice of branding became more evolved, its nature became more subjective. One brand can mean different things to different people; even different things to the same person at a different time. Brands are about feelings, and represent the sum of all experiences a person has with it. Perhaps most importantly, brands are an accumulation of meaning.

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    What is a brand? Though academic and professional debate still surrounds the question - a brand can loosely be described as an accumulation of meaning.

    If it sounds like we don’t know enough about our relationship with brands, it’s probably because we don’t. Despite their man-made existence, we still don’t quite understand what makes up a brand, or even makes one good. Lists of the best global brands are often dominated by the most well know. And yet, conventional marketing wisdom tells us that the most well-known brands are not always the best. Reach is not everything – though we still gravitate towards its simplicity.

    The Importance of Internal Perceptions

    At this point, you’d be forgiven for wondering how this abstract debate has any impact on the day-to-day role of market research. But, I’d argue the connection is clear. The lack of clear definition of a brand means that it is shaped by the collective will of those who work with it. Sure, experiences are individual and perceptions are subjective. But it is the people who work behind the brand who bring those experiences, those design elements, those products to life. Therefore, the closest thing there is to a brand truth is the collective internal agreement about what a brand is.

    And that’s a scary thought (at least to a marketer). Because it means that they aren’t truly in control of the brand. If a core tenant of your brand is honesty, but on-the-ground staff aren’t delivering that promise because they don’t believe it; then consumers, in turn, won’t believe in it. And in turn, that means it won’t be a part of your brand.

    Because of this chain of events, the amalgamation of feelings that forms consumer brand perceptions is heavily influenced by collective internal brand perceptions. It’s a topic that is barely broached by research, but can deliver significant strategic value.

    Two Key Questions: When and How

    Before any internal branding project is launched – there are two key questions to ask. When is the right time? And how can the results drive change? There’s no strict formula or simple answers to either of these quandaries. But there are some broad approaches that can be explored. Which is right for your brand is a circumstantial decision. In general, internal brand perception research should be carried out:

    • On an annual recurring basis. This approach is ideal for high-performing brands where internal perceptions generally match projected ideals. It helps retain alignment and make positive evolutions that take influence from external factors.
    • When a clear problem is presented. There are often signs that employee perceptions of a brand have strayed from expectations, and research should be conducted into how such situations can be resolved. Problems can present in many ways, possibly even in other research – but are often predicated by falling performance in revenue and staff satisfaction.
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    Insights professionals should both regularly review internal brand perceptions and scope projects when specific problems present themselves.

    Once a problem, or review framework, has been established – the next step is to run research tasks. These should be conducted with internal participants that represent a diverse cross-section of the workforce. Tasks might include, surveys, focus groups, in-depth interviews, diaries or data gathering. They should preserve anonymity where possible and remain sensitive to the fact that there may be a strong conformity or social desirability bias present. It is important to gather, as much as possible, both qualitative and quantitative data on their perceptions of the brand that they work behind – and their real, lived experiences that drive attitudes.

    Influence and Change

    The hardest step comes last. Once the data has been gathered, it’s time to present it to internal stakeholders; to marketing and executive teams capable of driving change. The challenge here arises from the ephemeral and amorphous nature of branding. How do you make the case for significant branding and employee initiatives when the subject itself is so difficult to talk about in certain terms?

    Over the past year, my team and I have been experimenting with creative methods of presenting data. One runaway success has been presenting insight as art. While counter-intuitive at first, the project has been especially helpful in approaching the topic of branding. Both brand and art are driven by feelings and emotion. In that way, creative methods of presenting data work particularly well for abstract topics as they elicit feeling and have a capacity to create empathy that is often lacking in written or oral reporting methods.

    Although this is a particularly extreme example, creative and abstract presentation methods are highly effective at stimulating conversation and engaging stakeholders in this complex topic. For a breakdown of how to create impactful visuals that demonstrate branding perceptions and dissonance, take a read of the in-depth guide here.

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