Brand tracking: try it and you’ll never look back

Interesting times for me at the moment. One of my longest standing clients has just hired a marketing director from a big FMCG company and I am helping to “settle her in” to the new role.

Specifically, the chief executive has asked me to take her through our brand tracking system. For the past five years we have used the same system, very successfully we think, to monitor our brand health and direct next year’s marketing strategy and spend.

Despite my obvious pride in the approach, my new marketing director was clearly underwhelmed when I first explained the approach to her. I sensed it was mostly a problem of scale. We only track once a year, sampling 400 consumers and spending well under £20,000 – small beer compared to the big budgets of FMCG. And yet, the more we use the tracking research, the more she is coming round to the approach. Last week she even told me she was now “converted” and encouraged me to write this column.

So what’s the secret?

First off, there is no point doing brand tracking until you have a clear target segment and an agreed brand positioning. Use more general market research to inform these decisions before you start the repetitive, quantitative business of brand tracking.

Only do the tracking once a year. Its purpose is to assess the state of the brand and guide your approach for the year ahead. Unless you have more than one planning cycle each year, a single comprehensive survey will suffice.

Time the track to take place so that you have six to eight weeks to get the data back in time for an annual brand strategy session. That session should take place about a month before your finance department does the budgets. If you let the finance boys set your sales targets and marketing spend each year you are a moron. Use your tracking to take charge.

You will need a research agency to recruit your sample and execute the survey for you. A good research partner is essential but do not let a market researcher design the tracking survey for you. I have yet to meet any researcher who understands the ‘whys’ of brand tracking, just the ‘hows’. Work backwards from your strategy and design the survey your way. Only then bring in the agency to help draft and execute it.

A decent survey will never need to exceed 25 questions if you know what you are doing. Researchers will tell you that you can exceed that number but they are wrong. Have you ever filled out a survey with more than 25 questions? Properly? Me neither.

When you track a brand, you are really only looking for awareness and then, if a respondent is aware, how strongly they associate your brand with the things you want them to associate with it and, equally crucially, the things that you don’t. Bad brand tracking is easy to spot because it only measures the good stuff. Decent tracking usually has eight to ten attributes and about half of them are negative ones.

Never ask consumers to assess the importance of different attributes. They don’t know the answer and it’s a huge waste of questions. Ask them to rate your brand on the attributes and then rate a competitor against the same list. Ask for preference and Net Promoter data too. Then correlate these two variables with the attributes to get unspoken importance ratings in a more efficient and accurate manner.

Use the tracking in a two day annual brand planning meeting. Day one is just a review of what you have learned from the data. There is not enough of that in marketing. Day two, come up with the strategy based on the insights. Don’t get sucked into tactical bullshit at this stage and keep your ad agencies away. Just look at the tracking and decide what you want the scores to look like next year. Try and focus on just one or two objectives – nothing signals a naive brand manager than one with seven or eight strategic objectives. Strategy means choices. Make some.

Finally, use the tracking data to pay bonuses on whether marketers achieved their stated objectives from last year’s planning meeting.

The beautiful thing about tracking is that it’s a cycle that never ends and, once you start using tracking to inform brand strategy, you never want it to stop.

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