Defining Your Brand Identity: Researching the Current Situation in Your Industry


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We live in an age of disruption—a time of Brexit abroad, of social and political change here at home. For marketers, it’s a time ripe with both opportunities and challenges as marketing continues its own transformation amidst all the turbulence.

In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of customer experience – an area where marketing will move increasingly to the forefront. In fact, 75% of polled marketers expect to be responsible for the end-to-end customer experience over the next three to five years, according to a report from The Economist sponsored by Marketo.

But taking the reins of that lifecycle experience won’t prove easy. The path to purchase is now “more akin to a scavenger hunt” than a linear progression as consumers engage brands across a growing number of channels, devices, and geographies. Never has it been more crucial for marketers to engage prospects and customers in the right ways, right where they are. Or more crucial for marketers to keep close tabs on the landscape of their industry as interactions between brands and customers continue to evolve.

This is especially true when it comes to major branding initiatives. Whether the project involves updating a venerable brand or consolidating a brand after a series of mergers or acquisitions, you’ve got to assess your starting point in order to find the best path forward. A marketing agency can serve as an objective third party in this endeavor—examining an industry with fresh eyes and without the hindrance of internal office politics.

As a former newspaper reporter, I greatly enjoy learning about new companies and industries and collaborating with my colleagues to craft the best recommendations for Element Three clients. In this post, I’m going to share my approach to researching a client’s industry and the macroeconomic factors that affect it; customers and their buying behavior; and where a client appears to be positioned in relation to its peers.

We at E3 refer to this online research as the “Current Situation,” and it serves as a beginning part of our branding process by helping us gain a deep understanding of an industry and the complexities that a client faces in order to reach—much less delight—their customers.

Ready? Let’s walk through this important part of E3’s approach to client research.

1. Find your starting point. And leave your assumptions at the door.

Industry research should be an objective process. While you might have some preconceived notions or work experience in a particular industry, you might find your assumptions to be outdated or even inaccurate.

A researcher should approach any new project with an open mind and an earnest desire to understand exactly what’s going on in that space. Every project is different, and what you find just might surprise you. Hopefully, you’re going to discover some informational gems that shed considerable light on the best path forward.

You can start the research process by:

  • Making a list of the major industry trends of which you’re already aware, and
  • Reviewing trade association research or industry analyst reports to which your company already has access.

For me, industry research starts with a thorough look at any relevant documents that the client has submitted in our discovery process. I’ll also read about specific issues of concern that we’ve gleaned from our initial discussions with company stakeholders.

2. Locate authoritative sources with broad Google searches.

After reviewing these initial inputs, it’s time to start the online research. It’s best to begin with basic, broader Google searches, and then get more specific as you identify trends and seek supplemental research.

As much as possible, locate and read authoritative sources, such as:

  • Gartner
  • Forrester
  • Nielsen
  • Harvard Business Review
  • McKinsey & Company

In researching the auto auction business, I started with some basic searches like “auto auction trends 2016.” Then I skimmed the results on the first few search engine results pages (SERPs), and clicked through to results from trusted sources like the Detroit Free Press, WardsAuto, and Automotive News.

If a search result appears helpful, I’ll read through it, and then paste the URL link into a blank Google document where I compile my research. I’ll highlight links of particular interest, and often copy and paste important passages beneath the links.

For example:
Trust in automation technology is very much age dependent, as younger consumers have a notably higher level of confidence in the technology than their older counterparts, according to the J.D. Power 2016 U.S. Tech Choice Study, SM released today. Trust in automation technology is a critical step toward the future of automated vehicles.

This makes it easy to skim back through a lengthy document and quickly locate important sources.

3. Tailor your searches based on previous learning.

After performing some broad searches to get the lay of the land, you can dig deeper by looking through other sources specifically mentioned in these initial sources. For example, a Detroit Free Press article might mention some recent research from J.D. Power and Associates, the Center for Automotive Research, or AutoPacific that’s worth reading directly.

These additional sources can help you identify other specific searches such as “rise of U.S. certified pre-owned sales 2016.” In some cases, you can include a specific source as part of the search query, such as “rise of U.S. certified pre-owned sales 2016 Detroit News.”

You can also tailor some searches to understand how companies in your industry are being affected by trends. For example, you can search something like “[name of competitor] [name of trend] 2016” to find any news coverage of that competitor relating to that particular trend.

This will answer questions like:

  • How are the client and their competitors portrayed in the press and industry publications?
  • How are these companies taking advantage of emerging opportunities? Who are viewed as the innovators, and who seem to be the laggards?
  • What disruptors are coming into this space?

As your searches get more specific, you can continue to add to your research document by copying and pasting from these new information sources. You should also go back and make sure that you’ve explored all of the major themes uncovered in your initial inputs.

4. Synthesize the research.

After you’ve performed all this online research, skim through your Google document to start synthesizing the major themes that have emerged. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Which themes keep coming to the forefront?
  • What seems to be the most surprising?
  • Where are there areas of disagreement among experts?
  • How is technology affecting buyer behavior?
  • How does this trend relate to the customer? To my company? To competitors? To startups?
  • What developments, like federal regulations or international trade agreements, affect this industry?
  • What new areas of opportunity seem to be developing?
  • Where is the greatest uncertainty? Where are the potential threats?
  • How does the client seem to be positioned?
  • How do competitors seem to be positioned?

This process should help you determine 6-8 high-level themes.

5. Summarize the main findings.

You’ve synthesized the research. Now it’s time to summarize what you’ve learned by creating an outline and writing a draft of your research document. Make sure that your findings are easy to digest and can be easily paired with any additional research that your team is conducting.

In writing the Current Situation, I’m detailing just a fraction of what I’ve learned about the client’s industry landscape. However, the entire body of research will inform our team as we complete other aspects of our customized Brand Plan research, which can include:

  • Executive, Customer, and Stakeholder Interviews
  • Communications Audit
  • Competitive Audit
  • Employee, Customer, and Industry Expert Surveys

Conclusion: Branding begins with knowing your starting point

When it comes time to update your brand, you can handle it internally or hire an agency to serve as your strategic partner in the process. If you go the internal route, though, it can be hard not to see what you expect to see.

No matter what industry you’re in, the right agency can provide you with a fresh and objective look at the state of your brand—and make strategic recommendations for the best path forward. Just make sure you hire an agency that’s experienced and focused on results.

Derek Smith Team Photo at Element Three
Derek Smith's skills as a reporter serve him well as a writer—and if you need a coach for your soccer team, he's got you covered. He's worked as a content strategist as well as a copywriter, so he's always thinking about the why behind every word and every piece of every campaign.

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