It is time to move the performance goalposts

Have marketers got the true measure of brand performance in today’s rapidly evolving market? A new mechanism may have the answer, says Alan Mitchell

In a world where consumers are much more sceptical and informed, the costs of traditional marketing communications are rising, choice is endless and often confusing, and where distribution and communication channels are transforming, can we continue to rely on the same diagnostic measures for successful brand building?

Sales measures are superbly accurate, but they only tell you how well you have done, not how well you are likely to do in the future. Measures such as spontaneous and prompted recall closely link brand building with traditional marketing communications – perhaps too closely.

Two measures that take a broader view are WPP Group’s Brandz and Young & Rubicam’s Brand Asset Valuator (BAV), both of which are established on the back of extensive consumer research and many case histories. Brandz measures a brand’s health by how effective it is in carrying customers up the ladder from basic “presence” (awareness and usage) through relevance, performance and advantage to “bonding”. The greater the number of consumers you can steer to the bonding level the better. BAV, meanwhile, assesses a brand’s strength and stature on the basis of the four pillars of differentiation, relevance, esteem and knowledge.

But a brand depends as much on retaining existing customers as on attracting new ones, and the ability to do this is driven as much by the customer’s overall experience of the brand as by advertising or other paid-for messages. So perhaps we need a shift in emphasis: from the brand per se, to the relationship. Enter Wunderman’s new Brand Experience Scorecard (BES).

A spin-off from Y&R’s BAV, the BES focuses solely on the brand’s users rather than consumers generally. The result of a two-year research programme involving more than 10,000 consumers, and the input of Harvard Business School’s relationship marketing guru Susan Fournier and brand equity/integrated marketing supremo Kevin Lane Keller, the BES measures users’ verdicts on the brand by three attributes which reflect “what consumers see as the three most important factors creating commitment to a brand”. These are: performance – the degree to which the brand meets needs better than alternatives; treatment – how positively customers feel about their interactions with the brand; and community – the degree to which consumers of the brand identify with other brand users.

Performance-related criteria include attributes such as “meets my needs completely”, “is the best option available”, and “is the sort of brand I would recommend to a friend”. Treatment criteria include whether the brand “adapts to my needs”, “goes out of its way for me”, and “resolves conflicts well”. Community includes whether consumers “feel like they belong in a club with other users” and “identify with other users”.

Clearly, some brands are likely to do better on some criteria than others. BES research in the UK by Harrison Troughton Wunderman (HTW) shows that BMW, Sony, Amazon, Lego and Asda lead the pack on the performance front. Asda, Lloyds TSB, Virgin Mobile, Virgin and Thomas Cook top the treatment scores. And Volvo, Virgin, Virgin Mobile, Marlboro and Tesco lead on the community front.

But the “ideal” brand performs well on all three criteria – and is rewarded with greater loyalty and better margins. Researching the UK market, for instance, HTW managing partner Martin Troughton divided each brand’s customer base into three broad categories: instrumental users who simply buy the brand because it’s there or because it’s the cheapest on display; those who actually prefer the brand; and those who feel positively committed towards the brand (in other words, where the brand does well on all three criteria of performance, treatment and community). Overall, 40 per cent of UK consumers were identified as mere users and 34 per cent as having clear brand preferences, leaving 26 per cent as true brand loyalists. Willingness to pay a premium rises from eight per cent among mere users to 20 per cent among committed users.

The test of this new measure, however, will be its usability. One strength of the BES is that each measurement criterion points directly to different arenas of marketing activity, argues Troughton. Performance points to product and service development, positioning and delivery. Treatment is the area of customer relationship management, channel strategy and customer service. Community is the realm of events, sponsorship, clubs and loyalty schemes.

Take Land Rover. The big difference between mere users of Land Rover and those who prefer it is not so much about perception of the vehicle’s performance, but about how they are treated by the brand. Troughton speculates that it depends on whether the customer has taken part in Land Rover’s off-road, brand-experience programme. Practical roll-out of the programme is not yet complete, but Land Rover’s “treatment” score seems to rocket among those who have had the experience.

Walkers shows its strength in other ways. First, the brand is doing very well in the performance stakes. Nearly half its buyers definitely prefer Walkers to other crisp brands. But intriguingly, among those who really feel committed to the brand there is a significant number (around a third) who also rate it highly on community. Delving back into the research data, Troughton thinks he know why: these are mums who are involved in Walkers’ Books for Schools programme.

Pepsi, on the other hand, lags Coca-Cola on the crucial issue of performance. Coke is perceived to taste better, it seems. Time for a return of the taste test?

But do we need yet another measurement mechanism? Naturally, there’s an element of agency positioning here. Touting a new proprietary tool is a good way of opening client doors. Also, it’s also not absolutely clear that this data genuinely reflects consumers’ actual experience of the brand, as opposed to their general perceptions. Nevertheless, argues Keller, new measures become necessary as marketers realise the need to shift their focus – say, from advertising messaging to relationship building or customer experience. The value of the Brand Experience Scorecard lies in its “diagnosticity. It points to different actions,” Keller suggests. And when it comes to brand experience, different actions are just what’s needed.

Alan Mitchell, asmitchell@aol.com

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