Are you one of the 90% not brand tracking?

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I have just started working for a new client, a big financial services brand with a real challenge on its hands. As much as my new client’s senior management have been scoping me out, I have been doing the same to them.

Every marketer likes to claim their brand is strong and their brand management impressive when you meet them. The reality, alas, is very different and the first job of any decent brand consultant is to work out what my new client knows about brand, what they don’t know and, most important, what they don’t know they don’t know.

And it’s here that brand tracking comes in very, very handy. Over the years I have found it to be an invaluable guide to both the state of the brand and the state of the brand management at a host of client companies. So literally my first question to a new client after the non-disclosures have been signed and the introductions made is: “Well then, let’s have a look at your brand tracking.”

Brand tracking is not a complicated thing. It does not need an advanced methodology or even a large amount of money. It simply means that once a year a brand manager spends about 5% of their marketing budget assessing brand awareness, brand association and satisfaction scores for their brands among their target segments. And in ideal situations that’s exactly what happens when I meet a new client and ask them the tracking question. They rummage around for a USB disk and then beam a set of bar charts onto the wall.

In my experience, however, that’s only the case in about 10% of the situations when I meet a brand manager. Yes, you heard me right: one in ten. In the other nine cases, the brand manager looks blankly at me because they do not know what tracking means or politely informs me that their company does not “do that kind of thing”. Which of course means that they have not been managing their brand properly. And this in turns tells me straight away that the “brand manager” in question is no such thing.

Think for a second what you need to track a brand and you begin to realise why it is such a great question to assess brand managers. First you need to have a clear understanding of brand management – ie you have been trained in the discipline. Marketing isn’t “common sense” or something you just “pick up” after a degree in English. And knowing that you have to track a brand and how to create the tracking instrument might be undergraduate stuff, but only if you have the right degree in the first place.

Marketing isn’t ’common sense’ or something you just ’pick up’ after a degree in English

You also need a proper brand position before you can track your brand – because what else would you be measuring? And you have to appreciate that brand equity exists in only one location: the target market. It’s not in the logo or the sales figures or the social media data and no matter how hard you scrutinise these things they will not reveal the state your brand is in. The only place where you can assess your brand is in the thoughts and feelings of your consumers, and only good brand managers know that and act accordingly.

Add to that the need for stability and long-term consistency. Tracking a brand over several years infers that you have kept both the positioning and the research questions the same. That’s a tough ask for many marketers, who prefer to change and shift their approach each year with the influence of new agencies or “latest thinking”. Brand tracking, like strong brands, are exclusively built from long-term thinking and very little short-term fiddling.

And then there is the final killer reason why nine out of ten brand managers don’t track their brand. They cannot afford to do it. Heaven forbid they take 5% of their communications budget and spend it on working out whether the brand is actually being built from all this investment. We have an old saying in marketing: put the head on the chicken and it will run faster. Your remaining 95% marketing spend will go a lot further with some insight into what is working and what needs attention for the year ahead.

Fortunately, last week when I sat down with my new client I encountered a decent brand manager with, gasp, nine years of annual tracking data showing the impact of communication campaigns, the recession, even the new CEO on brand health. We smiled that smile of professional comfort and began to review the data together. Later my new client told me she had always assumed that every brand manager was tracking their brand – it’s the usual response from the 10% who manage brands well and have no idea the perilous manner in which the other 90% are run.

And it prompts the question how would you fare in the same situation? Is there a USB somewhere in your office with the last five years of data on how your brand is perceived? Or are you part of the ignorant majority who continue to defy the oldest statement in the marketing handbook: you cannot manage what you have not measured.

Mark Ritson is an associate professor of marketing, an award winning columnist, and a consultant to some of the world’s biggest brands

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