Unlock the power of brands

Companies are increasingly communicating their values to customers and staff through branding, a process that has given market research influence beyond the marketing function. By Alicia Clegg

Not so long ago, branding was something that companies left to their ad agencies. Not any more. One after another, corporations are joining the scramble to portray themselves as clean, green and socially responsible. Each new declaration says something about the way in which the power balance between brands and the public is shifting. Consumers – or at least some consumers – are no longer content to lap up the stories that corporate propagandists pump out. Increasingly, the public demands to know about brand dealings beyond spotlight of publicity.

For brand owners the rise of ethical consumerism, coupled with the name and shame tactics of activists, creates all kinds of ructions. One of the most pressing concerns is knowing what research to conduct in a world in which brand reputation depends as much on the actions of engineers or sub-contractors in far-flung labour markets, as on the ingenuity and imagination of marketers at corporate HQ.

One industry figure with well developed views on reputation management is Christopher Satterthwaite, chief executive of communications specialists Chime Group, which has a portfolio including PR agency Bell Pottinger and Opinion Leader Research. His prescription for avoiding damage to reputation is for companies to involve their employees in deciding what the brand stands for, and how brand values translate into action.

In the transparent “Web-enabled” world of the 21st century, as in the Garden of Eden, says Satterthwaite, “everyone is naked.” In other words, without a sense of brand ownership and an instinctive understanding among staff of how the brand should behave, someone, somewhere, in the organisation is likely to poorly represent the brand.

Walking the walk
Preaching that brands are as much about people, as products, is the stock-in-trade of enlightened PR. What is interesting about Chime, however, is that it tries to put its words into practice. Inspired by a research approach – using facilitated group discussions and electronic polling – which he saw Opinion Leader employ at the Department of Work and Pensions, Satterthwaite last year invited Opinion Leader to take charge of the group’s senior management conference. The result, he reports, was almost 200 ideas, which are being turned into programmes to help Chime achieve its ambitions.

Satterthwaite is not the only chief executive putting the skills of his research team to corporate use. Charlotte Cornish, managing director of research agency FDS International and a spokesperson for the Market Research Society, spent a decade outside the agency world. She admits to being surprised at the kudos that market research picked up during her period of absence. “Cost reduction didn’t deliver the return on investment that companies expected,” she reflects. “Out of that realisation, I believe, has come a real concern to understand customers.”

Spreading the word
A recent paper by Tim Williams, chairman of the Independent Consultants Group, confirms that managers from a non-marketing background are waking up to the value of research. Drawing on interviews conducted online with 248 participants, Williams found evidence of functions such as sales, finance and IT making use of research. The survey suggests a healthy future for market research, with users rating it the most useful source of information after personal experience.

No one factor can take credit for the ground that market research has gained, rather a mix of factors have come together. On the sales side, stiffer competition, coupled with the build-up of market power in the hands of supermarkets, has spurred brand-owners to delve into the psychology of shoppers. As an example of this, Williams points to the investment that packaged goods companies are making in virtual reality technologies.

Spotting trends
Also of note is the appetite that managers in operational functions, such as call centres and employee recruitment, have acquired for research. Says Williams: “What we are seeing is research being used as an early warning system; a way of picking up on issues that really need to be addressed.”

However, it is not only the heads of customer-facing divisions who have their ears to the ground. Even finance departments, the traditional bête noire of budget-hungry market researchers, are turning into trend-spotters. To quote an unnamed finance director in the Opinion Leader research: “From the City’s perspective a brand is much better than a non-brand business. It helps you talk about trends…health, indulgence, convenience, going green.”

The reinvention of financial directors as champions of the corporate brand has the ring of a marketer’s dream come true. But, the diffusion of brand literacy beyond the marketing department sows the seeds of a new turf war. In a world in which the head of every function is talking brands, to whom should the market research team report: to the marketing director or the chief executive?

ICG chairman Williams wants to see market research let loose from the aprons strings of marketing. Williams argues that the needs of the wider organisation would best be served by making the market research department a free-standing consultancy, reporting directly to the chief executive. And there are other arguments for allowing market research to take a step up the corporate ladder and deal directly with the decision makers. “It’s certainly the case that market research doesn’t always get the ear of senior managers,” says Williams. “It’s better to report in at the top.” But does market research have to disown its marketing roots to grow in stature?

Simon Baines, head of consumer insight at the Nationwide Building Society, reports to the head of marketing. Not too surprisingly he defends the status quo, arguing that marketing and market research are natural bedfellows. “Customer insight pulls everything together that we understand about customers.” While marketing, for its part, he adds “is predicated on understanding customers.”

Time will tell whether market research departments will evolve into free-standing in-house consultancies. What is certainly the case, however, is that market research has the power to change companies for the better. To realise this goal, however, market research professionals, whether inside or outside the bailiwick of marketing, need to bang on doors and make their voices heard.

Breaking down barriers
Davina O’Donoghue, founding partner of Evo Research, urges market researchers working client-side to become the catalyst that dissolves business silos. As an example of what is possible, she describes how the customer insight director, of one of her blue chip clients, runs a quarterly forum in which the top managers of the company get to hear what their customers have to say about the business. For maximum impact the event takes place on the evening before the main board meeting. “It’s a great way to kindle discussion and get senior people from different parts of the business focused on the issues that matter,” she says.

Market research skills help companies understand their customers and can also help managers in internal functions, such as IT or human resources, understand the operational challenges that front-line colleagues have to battle against.

Cornish says: “IT directors are often desperate to involve other departments in specifying the company’s systems.” But because of the long-range nature of major IT deployments, IT directors are required to make investment decisions based upon assumptions about what the market will look like in two, five, even ten years. Marketing and sales directors, for their part, are typically bound up with tactical issues and meeting short-term targets.

Therein lies an opening for the market research team, says Cornish, who spots an opportunity to bridge the workplace divide. She cites a project that she worked on at the Future Foundation, in which the IT director of MyTravel held a series of research-based workshops to help other board members visualise their future business needs, and feed into the company’s long-range IT strategy.

Creating a feel-good brand is all about giving consumers what they want in the way that they want it. Delivering the overall package hinges on knowledge of the customer; knowledge that is shared by the company and not entombed in the marketing department.

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