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Brand Research is not Market Research

One of my favorite online resources for trends, case studies and strategic approaches to branding is Brandchannel – hosted by Interbrand. It isn’t just a collection of the firm’s own work, but offers a real forum for discussion and third-party perspectives. There I’ve learned a thing or two about the difference between traditional market research and brand research.

Most marketers understand the power of research to quantify buyer demand for new and existing products. Standard market research surveys are very useful to determine direction in areas like pricing, packaging, technical requirements, and purchase intent. In the IT industry, I’ve found that technology vendors are great at using customer research to gage customer satisfaction with the product itself (features/functions) as a direct feedback loop to Engineering, but not so great at examining their own organizational performance to the extent it informs the customer’s total “brand experience”.

Typical market research studies are not focused on qualitative measures – such as buyer perception, product preference drivers, and the relative success of vendor marketing efforts. Brand research on the other hand aims to understand WHY customers chose the product they did – the true differentiators among competitors as the buyer perceives them – and why they would be willing to pay more for a stronger brand. Brand research is best conducted by the vendor either in one-on-one interviews with its most profitable customers (who cares why the losers bought?!), or when appropriate, in small focus groups.

So the basics of brand research answer the following questions: Why did your most profitable customers choose you? Who are the market influencers they trust to advise them? What marketing messages resonate most with them? The folks who specialize this stuff are usually domain experts, so they know enough about the market to probe deeper.

Brand research is the way to go in the following quick-hit scenarios:

  1. When a company (new brand) is first launched into an existing category
  2. When a vendor is exploring if its brand can be extended to a new product type without dilution
  3. When companies merge and need to merge their brands correctly.

Mature organizations use brand research more regularly to steward the brand itself – continually measuring the changing dynamics of customer choice and aligning the organizational behavior of executives and frontline employees behind it. In the final scenario, when a vendor’s offerings have become commoditized and the brand diluted, research can find new meaning and relevance with target customers and teach the organization how to revitalize its outdated promise.

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