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How Brand Research Works, and Why It Matters

Two Men at Table Discussing a Project

Building a new brand, whether you’re starting from scratch or simply revamping your existing brand, is a big deal. Your brand touches every part of your business, and it can even affect how you work. And branding (or rebranding) can cost a lot in both cash and resources. So obviously, it’s important to get it right.

That means your brand can’t just be built on what feels right to you, or on a guess of what your prospective customers want. You have to know what’s actually going to be demanded of your brand once you start putting yourself out there. You need to research.

So let’s talk about how you do that—the goals you should have in mind when you set out, the kinds of brand research you should do, and what that research will give you in the end.

Why do brand research?

A different way to ask that question is “what are we trying to learn through brand research?” When we’re researching, what exactly are the end goals of the process? What are we looking for?

Elise Dorsett of New Kind frames this in an interesting way, with something they call the “brand box.” In essence, brand research needs to answer these two questions:

  1. What does your external community—your customers, clients, users, etc.—believe about your brand today? What could they value in the future?
  2. What does your internal community—your employees, your business stakeholders, the CEO, investors, etc.—believe about your brand today? What could they value in the future?

It’s pretty obvious why you’d want to know what your various internal and external audiences want from your brand in the future—after all, the whole point of branding or rebranding is to try to present precisely that. But it’s just as important that you determine where people think you stand now. There’s two reasons for that.

The first is that in order to determine what needs to change, you have to know where you are. No matter how well you know your neighborhood, you don’t reverse out of your driveway at 30 miles an hour without checking your mirrors. Whether your brand is well-trod ground or this is your first time delving in, before you set out changing everything you need to know the lay of the land. Otherwise you might end up getting rid of something everyone loves, or you might back into your mailbox. Figuratively, of course.

The other reason is because even if you think you’re an expert on your brand, you might be too close to it to be able to be honest. Let’s face it: especially if you’ve worked on a brand for years, it kind of becomes your baby. There might be things about it that you love that your customers hate, or things that you haven’t even noticed that people can’t get enough of. If you’re just operating based on your own expertise, you might make mistakes simply because you’re so used to how it is that you don’t even notice that it could be another way.

So, what kinds of research are we talking about here?

For those of us who are ten years or more out from college graduation, it’s probably been a while since we’ve done anything that could truly be called “research.” Sure, we’ve looked at online reviews for one big-ticket purchase or another, but the really in-depth work that was necessary to write that 20-page term paper is something else entirely—and that, or something even more methodical, is really what you’re going to need in order to be sure that you have all the information you need to make smart brand decisions.

So here are some steps you can take to lock down the necessary knowledge before you start tearing down your brand and building it up again.

Surveys

If you’re trying to get a bunch of information quickly, a survey is a great way to do it. Because a survey is a little more surface-level than some of the other avenues we’ll talk about, it’s especially helpful as a kickoff to the brand research process. With a survey you can get a first look at where your brand stands, and you can use your findings to guide your planning throughout the rest of your research process. Remember a little while ago when I mentioned that you might have a conception of your brand that doesn’t align with what the market thinks? This is where you can start to find that out.

Now, the fact that we’re starting with surface-level analysis doesn’t mean you can just wing it. A survey with questions that don’t go any deeper than “do you like our website” isn’t going to do any good. You need to be very strategic with what you ask, and make sure you’re getting a good feel for what people think about every part of your brand. It can’t be three multiple choice questions. It needs to cover as much ground as possible, and it needs to prompt more than just yes-or-no answers from the people you survey.

Speaking of the people you’re surveying, make sure your sample is well thought out. Don’t simply send a SurveyMonkey link to a random group of people. Choose respondents inside your organization and out, with a range of perspectives. Make sure you’re not getting the same answers over and over again because you’re asking people who all think about your brand the same way. Smart sampling is critical if you want to learn as much as possible.

Interviews

In terms of what you’re doing with an interview and how you’re doing it, there isn’t a ton of difference from a survey. You still need to be very strategic with what you’re asking, and make sure you're avoiding yes-or-no answers as much as possible. You still need to make sure you’re talking to the right people, both inside and outside your organization, in order to get a variety of differing perspectives.

There are a few ways that an interview can get you in a little deeper than a survey, though. One is pretty obvious—you’re just more likely to get more content in a conversation than you are in a written survey. Talking’s easier than writing—for most people, anyway—so once you get your interviewee talking, you’re probably going to find they have a lot more to say than they would have if they were typing instead. It’s more natural, it’s more comfortable, and it’s more enjoyable.

That also means that an interview can go in unexpected directions—another benefit over the survey. You might ask a question that leads to an answer that shocks you. In an interview, you can immediately change your line of questioning based on that answer. You can follow up to get more information about it, or you can cut out things you’d have otherwise asked that, for whatever reason, are no longer relevant. You aren’t locked in to a predetermined list of questions like you are in a survey. It’s an interactive process that you can steer in whatever direction you like.

On the other hand, interviews are a bit more intensive than a survey. That’s a good thing for the above reasons, but it can also be a hindrance. Since interviews take more time and effort, especially if you’re doing them in person and need to account for travel time, you might not be able to get everyone you’d like to participate to do so. It’s hard to work with busy schedules, and the more in-demand a person is—and, maybe, the more interested you are in what they might have to say—the more likely it is that you’re going to struggle to make things work. You have to try, though—the possible benefits are too great.

Focus groups

Or, “the best of both worlds.” You can get a lot of the benefits of a survey and of an interview in one place if you run a focus group. The conversation can range freely, and be steered in one direction or another by your interviewer based on what people say and how they interact. You can also get the perspectives of a number of different people in a relatively short period of time, like in a survey.

The unique thing that a focus group brings to the table is that your various interviewees can interact. This could be positive—something one person says could spark an idea in someone else’s head, and that could take the conversation in an interesting direction you would have otherwise missed out on. But it’s up to your interviewer to make sure the conversation doesn’t descend into groupthink, and that nobody dominates the conversation too much.

Digital analysis

There’s two “faces” to this, which are related but not entirely identical. One is that, as we’ll talk about in some more detail in the next section, you should be examining the existing digital marketing of your competitors as well as your own. Dig into what exists, what’s working, what could be improved, and what’s missing.

But aside from your competitive analysis and your own audit, there’s a deeper level—you can use the tools built to examine keyword opportunities to identify the competition. You might actually not know everyone you’re competing against off the top of your head, or you may be wrong about some competitors you think you have. But when you can identify the keywords you rank for or should be trying to rank for, you can see who else is showing up. Some may be competitors you weren’t expecting; others may be businesses you thought you were competing with, but it turns out you’re actually outpacing them. This is critical because unlike a lot of what you’re doing here, it’s totally objective—you’ve got data telling you who you are and aren’t going up against, and it’s not going to lie.

It would be a good idea, by the way, to make sure you’re having experts do this. It doesn’t do a lot of good to pull awesome data if you can’t make heads or tails of it. Have a smart digital marketer do this research, and be sure you actually know what you’re looking at.

What are we getting out of all this research?

The point of this process is to be able to make smart decisions about your brand. But you really can’t do that with simple raw data. The data you gathered needs to be synthesized and analyzed in order to get you to the answers you need. So here’s how you’re going to do that—the outputs of your research.

Competitive analysis

This answers the questions of “who are my brand’s competitors?” and “what are they doing in the market?” The determination of who you’re competing with can come from a variety of sources. You’ll get some of this from your surveys and interviews, as the people you talk to identify brands in your space that they admire, and brands that they think could do better. One of the most useful outcomes of a digital marketing investigation will be that, using traffic numbers and keyword relationships, you can objectively analyze who is competing with you for attention online and who isn’t—and it can often surprise you.

Once you know for certain who you’re up against, it’s time to audit what they’re doing. That means everything—their digital marketing, their creative, their website and any microsites they own, their traditional ads (print, billboards, etc.)...if you were able to get your hands on it during your initial research process, you need to include it here; if you weren’t, it’s important enough to dive back in.

Why does this matter? Well, for one thing it’s just important to know the lay of the land in your industry. You don’t necessarily have to follow the crowd, but at least know what the norms and trends are. Standing out can be good, but the old axiom that “any press is good press” isn’t really true. If the reason you stand out is because you’re the worst in your industry, that’s (obviously) not helpful to your brand.

But knowing the lay of the land doesn’t just show you what your industry is doing. It also shows you what they aren’t doing. That can indicate things your brand should avoid, but perhaps more importantly it’ll show you the places where you have an opportunity to fill a gap in the market. There might be something that your other research is showing you your audience is searching for that you’re now seeing isn’t being provided. Step into that vacuum, and you could be a runaway hit.

Communications audit

You’ve dug into what your competitors are doing; now it’s time to turn your attention towards yourself. As much as you might have put your competitors under the microscope, your own marketing deserves as much scrutiny or more. Like you did with those competitors, you need to look at everything from print to digital, creative to technical.

Your goal is to look for patterns. This is especially important if you’ve never gone through a branding exercise before, but even if you’re cognizant already of how important brand is, you need to be vigilant here. Your brand is what you do repeatedly. If everything you produce has its own color scheme, that’s not really a brand. If you’re writing dry and dull copy in some places and then you get personable and fun elsewhere, that’s not really a brand. See what’s matching up, and see what isn’t. See what’s working, and figure out what isn’t. Be brutally honest with yourself about all of it—protecting hurt feelings won’t get you anywhere here. You have to know the truth.

Brand perception, awareness, and associations

When you go back through everyone you talked to—in surveys, interviews, focus groups, or wherever—what did they think of your brand? Did they already know who you are, or did you have to educate them? What, if anything, did they know about you and what you stand for? Do they think of you as a luxury brand, or an economy brand, or something in between? What other brands do they associate you with, and who do they see you as unrelated to or opposed to?

Here’s why you care. This is a massive process. We’ve said that before—branding and rebranding cost money and time, and it’s important here as in any major undertaking that you’re sure before you start that you’re doing it right. That’s the point of the whole research process, but especially here. You might think you’re seen as a high-quality luxury brand, and if you just jump right into creating new brand assets, that’s the paradigm you’ll create from. But what if you’re the only one who thinks that? What if your customers are buying from you because of simple name recognition, and you try to lean into “luxury” by changing your name? What if you develop a new tagline or color scheme that evokes high class, but the people you’re selling to are looking for something quick and easy or rugged and tough instead?

Like I said earlier—until you ask, you can’t know what parts of your brand are a hit and which are a snooze. The people you talk to are going to show you where you are and where you should be going. If you get started without them, without knowing as much as you can, your changes (or lack thereof) could lead to you steering your brand right off a cliff.

Your brand never stops

Brand research is not a one-time thing. Industries change and evolve. Your business hires new people and develops new offerings, and so it changes. Marketing itself changes quickly and often. All of this means that no matter how deep a dive you do during any brand research project, there’s always going to be more to learn—and if you haven’t recently examined your brand, you probably should, because all that change could mean your brand’s out of date or even obsolete.

No matter where your brand stands today—whether you’re happy with it or it’s clear to you that it needs an upgrade—it’s a good idea to make the time and secure the necessary resources to execute a brand research project. Because a healthy brand is critical, and the only way to have one is to know it like the back of your hand.

 

Thomas Wachtel Team Photo at Element Three

Thomas fills a few roles at E3—writer, editor, and resident European soccer expert—but his chief responsibility is content creation. When he's not crafting thoughtful content for the Element Three blog, he's captaining our kickball team, watching the Mets, or talking up Indianapolis to anyone who will listen.