Do you know what you need to know?

Editor’s note: James A. Rohde is consultant and founder of James A. Rohde Consulting, a Pittsburgh research firm.

Depending on your industry, brand name can matter a lot (iPod) or a lot less (private-label cheese). But in the end the power of a brand is always important. Having a clear and consistent read on the health of our brand seems so obviously critical and yet for so many researchers it takes a distant back seat to the fire drill of the moment. Many of us even try and “just get something” by tacking on some brand-related questions to ad hoc studies as an afterthought. So why is it that we treat something so important with such blatant disregard?

To be fair, more often than not, equity studies do not get support from the right people to allocate the necessary resources to get in the field. If this is your situation, I will unfortunately have to leave you to navigate the politics.

On the other hand, many times the study just gets too big. Once word gets out that there is going to be a brand equity study, e-mails get flooded with added questions, redundant attributes, more competitors, additional sample, etc. Depending on who these e-mails are from, they can be more or less difficult to kindly set aside. Then, before we know it, we have a 150-question survey that nobody feels comfortable putting in the field. So it sits and sits until it is forgotten altogether.

Before anybody starts writing a survey or talking about methodology, there has to be clarity on what type of brand equity study is most appropriate. It’s best to go one question at a time. First, what is your focus? Second, what is the goal? And, who is the target?

What is your focus?
Determining the focus of your equity study is typically the most difficult part (see chart). Is it your brand, your competitive set, your total industry? Having an expanded focus allows for an amazing amount of information, so it is always tempting to just go for it. However, make sure that an expanded focus is in line with your needs. Additional competitors can create a lot more work when setting up attributes and taking shortcuts can lead to incorrect conclusions and dangerous half-truths.

Your brand. While wonderful in its simplicity, this method can be anticlimactic during the first iterations. At the beginning there is nothing to compare with your results, so there is little you can say about the overall health of your brand. After all, you will only have a single data point and there is no absolute scale that can tell you if it is good or bad. However, you will be able to say which attributes have the strongest impact on brand health.

Competitive set. This can add complications if you are not careful. It is important that you choose the right competitors and that they are indeed part of your competitive set. The potential for complication comes from ensuring the proper attributes are represented. It is important that the strengths and weakness of all the considered brands are reflected. If the added brands are truly part of your competitive set, then the attributes you use should not be too different than what you would use to describe your own brand.

Using your competitive set also allows you to compare your equity against your competition right away. Being able to show quick results is sometimes enough to keep these studies alive. Warning: Remember that this is a reflection of equity from the sample you are using! We will get into sample later but, if you only look at your customers, the fact that you have stronger brand equity than your competitors is a little less exciting.

Total industry. This is a complex view of your brand compared to all the big players in your industry, including those from outside your competitive set. Remember that, when taking on this type of study, the brands should be evaluated against attributes that correspond with the whole industry not just your brand’s strengths. For a true industry-wide look, every brand should be rated or ranked among identical attributes that allow respondents to reveal each brand’s strengths and weaknesses.

The most meaningful benefit of the total industry view is that you can compare strengths and weaknesses between multiple competitive sets as well as the brands.

What is the goal?
Ad hoc.
A single ad hoc initiative or study that just focuses on your brand is extremely limiting. A single data point does not allow for any comparison so it is difficult if not impossible to accurately read the overall health of your brand. However, when you measure your brand against competitors, an ad hoc study gives you a snapshot of the market through the eyes of the consumer. This type of study allows the researcher to determine competitive sets, key benefits and weaknesses among key brands and/or competitive sets.

Tracking. A tracking study is great in that it will allow you to measure the impact of major trends and company decisions on the health of the brand. The more frequently you are able to administer the study, the more precise you can be. Warning: Brand equity is a slow-moving target so fielding a study every week will likely just give you a lot of work with few answers.

Understanding your business cycle is key when determining the frequency of your tracking study. Many times, a study fielded as little as one to two times a year is perfectly adequate. However, if you are measuring the results of a specific initiative, or work with a brand that services a different type of consumer every quarter, then a more frequent cadence is in order.

Who is the target?
Your customers.
It is perfectly acceptable to speak with just your customers. After all, they are typically the most convenient to reach and are more likely to yield a better response rate. Just remember that this will have to be considered in the results. This will give you a biased view of the market but if your goal is simply to understand your existing customers, it is not a bad thing to see the market through their eyes.

Non-customers. Looking specifically at non-customers gives you a chance to see what keeps people away from your brand. This is also useful when looking at consumers who have permanently left your brand for a competitor.

Custom segments. If your brand has developed a segmentation strategy, using your segment identifiers will allow you to see just how different your segments are from one another! However, in order for this information to be useful, the segments should not be compared when looking at just your brand.

The reasoning here is that the equity scores are not all that telling from one segment to the next. Without competition to compare the scores, you are unable to specify if low equity is the result of poor brand performance or lower involvement with the category. More spending does not necessarily mean higher involvement.

For example, when working with Segment X and Segment Y, we find that Segment X has a lower equity score for my brand than Segment Y. With no other information we may say that there is room to improve marketing or communication for Segment Y so that it can be as good as Segment X. However, because we do not have any other brands to take into consideration, we do not know what a high score for Segment Y should look like.

If my brand is Apple, and Segment X represents college students and Segment Y represents the parents of those students, we may expect parents to naturally have a lower equity score. However, all we can show is that the two segments have different levels of involvement with Apple. We are unable to identify if this is specific to Apple or a pattern that exists within our competitive set or the whole industry. Therefore it is very difficult to turn the finding into something actionable.

Alignment with the goals

In the end, making sure that you have alignment with the goals and expectations of an equity study will allow for a more successful and hopefully more frequent brand evaluation. If you would like to contribute to the discussion, please contact me. I would love to get other points of view! | Q