The brand impressions that really count

Staff in all areas of a business have a role to play in shaping how people view a brand but not all perceptions are positive, finds new research.

“The number of ways that consumers have their perceptions of brands influenced has never been broader,” says GfK head of brand and customer experience Iain Stanfield, who carried out the research. “Traditionally brand management has been closely aligned with the marketing department, but now we see that staff in all areas of a business have a role to play in shaping how consumers view the brand – whether they are in customer service, retail, billing or technical roles.”  

This means the breadth of marketing channels has also increased, making it even more important that companies understand what the key sources of influence are and how they are performing on these.

Stanfield analysed consumer perceptions of two specific sectors – utilities and mobile networks – through an online survey of 2,000 people (1,000 for each sector) in May 2013. 

For each point of experience that a respondent has with a brand, they were asked to rate them on a grid in terms of “memorability” (strong to weak) and impression (negative to positive). From that,
a ConX (Consumer Experience) score is calculated as either a positive value or a negative.

Most revealing is the sheer breadth of experiences that consumers can have with a brand. This includes the marketers’ comfort zone of print advertising, event sponsorship and TV advertising, as well as broader touchpoints such as website visits, loyalty schemes, news coverage and even paying bills. 

One company “remarkably” generated an extremely positive impression when it came to paying a bill, Stanfield says. “No-one likes paying bills, but E.on customers are very positive about the experience when paying online or by phone.”

When it comes to the amount of the bill, it seems that EDF performs best, with a ConX score of 12, compared with E.on (4) and npower with -4. In fact, npower struggled across the board, with ‘receiving a bill’ also polarising opinion (-3), while news coverage has a generally negative impact on brand perception (-13). 

This is where the timing of the survey might have played a part, Stanfield admits. In April, npower admitted to the energy and climate change select committee that it had paid almost no corporation tax for three years. The argument blew up again at the beginning of May – the month GfK conducted its research.

Energy companies have, as Stanfield puts it, “had a bit of a torrid time recently”. Newspapers like a bad news story and the energy companies appear to have provided their fair share with rising bills, soaring profits and fines for mis-selling of certain products. It is also interesting to note British Gas’s scores (-7 when it comes to news stories), says Stanfield, given that “during a scandal it’s the market leader that often has to take it on the chin for the rest of the sector”. EDF, notably, has come out with a positive score (10).

Stanfield says the research shows how a customer’s experience does touch on a number of broader marketing and communications disciplines, in this case PR. 

For the mobile companies, news stories do not rank among the most important touchpoints. Interestingly, across all the mobile network brands, the touchpoints that are the most important in driving brand consideration are ‘text messaging’, ‘visits to the website’, ‘receiving a bill’ and ‘topping up credit’.

Take Tesco Mobile, which achieves a ConX score of 37 for topping up, with loyalty schemes (30), special offers (27) and ‘recommendations’ (26) not far behind. These are all way above TV ads (7), online ads (13) and website visits (14).

“Tesco Mobile isn’t particularly forceful [with its advertising], but it manages to leverage brand value from the parent brand to its advantage,” says Stanfield. “If you get loyalty right and special offers right, then they can easily power marketing by word of mouth,” he adds.

Virgin Mobile
Virgin Media received positive impact scores and the company says it stays true to the brand attributes across properties

The other brand that manages to feed off its wider family is Virgin Mobile. Stanfield refers to Virgin as a “true brand” that stands for something and maintains a point of view that can translate across different markets. 

The results reflect this, with Virgin Mobile enjoying a broad range of influences on how people perceive it; 13 important touchpoints
in all, compared with GiffGaff, which at the other end of the scale has four. Of course, the latter is a much smaller brand and, as such, has focused its efforts. This focused approach is working, with the company registering positive ConX scores
for online ads (37), special offers (28) and TV
ads (20). Its more recent foray into sponsorship of TV shows on Channel 4 and E4 is also producing positive interactions (19).

O2 relies less on sponsoring TV programmes and more on event sponsorship (28). However, loyalty and customer-reward schemes are where it really excels, even outscoring Tesco and its mighty Clubcard (47 compared with 30). 

It is hardly surprising that O2 is looking to strengthen this position, having just announced an extension to its Priority Sports loyalty initiative beyond rugby tournaments involving the England Rugby Union team, which it sponsors, and a partnership with Nike. The company has also signed deals with Halfords, Oakley and Olympic gold medallist cyclist Victoria Pendleton.

Stanfield says it is possible to overlay financial data to determine how investment in a given customer experience touchpoint is manifesting itself – something many brands would find useful in a world where marketers are expected to deliver big, lasting impressions with small, and often diminishing, budgets. This is where it is useful to consider the wider array of consumer touchpoints, Stanfield says.

“Look at the utility companies, for instance. British Gas is obviously doing something right when it comes to reading people’s meters (with a ConX 24 score) and likewise E.on when customers pay their bills (26). If they have invested in these areas then it’s paying off, just like an investment in traditional marketing can.

“What brands mustn’t forget, however, is that these wider touchpoints are all part of the customers’ experience and communication with them. As such, they
have an impact on traditional marketing.”

Marketers’ response

Anthony Ainsworth

Anthony Ainsworth
Sales and marketing director, E.on

As shown by this research, we’ve spent a huge amount of time and effort examining our products, services and processes to ensure that we’re delivering the best possible experience for our customers, regardless of how they choose to deal with us. 

We’ve made significant improvements in a number of areas, such as simplifying our range of tariffs and making it easy for customers to choose our best deal, as well as offering current customers our best deals and rewarding them for their loyalty. Energy plays a vital role in our everyday lives and it’s crucial that we listen to our customers and continue to explore innovative ways of meeting their needs. 


Graeme Oxby

Graeme Oxby
Executive director home phone, Virgin Media

Our strategy for mobile is to target our cable customers, giving us a competitive advantage as our brand is already a part of our audience’s everyday lives. We’ll be boosting this strategy by complementing our existing broadcast ads with a TV campaign specifically targeting our cable customers with exclusive deals. 

We’re obviously pleased to see such a broad range of positive brand impact scores, especially for recommendations from family and friends, showing strong customer satisfaction. Our strong event sponsorship and social media scores also point to the power of the Virgin Media brand with properties such as V Festival and our commitment to social media. 

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