Brand diagnosis is the brand manager’s first job, so prioritise it

Marketers have lost sight of proper research into what drives brand successes and challenges, distracted by the lure of woolly ‘insight’.

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‘Tis February and a virtual professor’s gaze turns towards April and the start of his online courses. Specifically, he gazes forlornly at module three of his Mini MBA in Brand Management, because there is the usual sparsity of material on the topic of brand diagnosis.

I have curated wonderful optional materials around positioning, architecture, targeting, distinctive assets and the rest of the course. But there is never enough out there on how a brand manager does proper research on their brand each year to assess their success, learn from the past, work out the issues, set new benchmarks and ultimately start the process of brand planning from the right place.

And that’s weird because diagnosis is a massive part of the job – assuming, of course, you know what you’re doing. Rewind almost a century to a Cincinnati office and the invention of brand management with the famous McElroy Memo, and the primacy and centrality of research is undisputed. Literally the very first sentence that proposed what a brand manager should be started with the instruction to “Study carefully” the success and troubles of the brand. The memo went on to recommend examining the reasons using “field studies” and whatever else came to hand back then.

On the afternoon that brand management was invented, diagnosis was its first precept.

And it’s a prescription that remains in place to this day. If you understand that a brand exists in the head and the heart of the target consumer, then without research you have nothing to manage. At least once a year – and there is a strong argument that it should be just the once – a brand manager heads into the field to look at secondary, qualitative and quantitative data, to assess the health of their brand and build the foundations for the upcoming year’s strategy.

There will always be the tactified masses, who think branding is all about fonts and followers and who don’t realise the need for data. And, similarly, those who make wonderful and completely nonsensical explanations for not having consumer data that is less than 12 months old about their brand. I get that. I expect it. Like a hangover on Bank Holiday Monday. But, even among those who know what they are doing, across the very best marketing podcasts, across the assigned readings of the top business schools and in the presentations of leading marketers, the topic of brand research simply does not feature enough.

Normally, if I get asked to appear on a marketing podcast I develop a limp, slip into a clever disguise and dive into the nearest hedgerow. Anything to avoid the deadly boring duty. But the lack of material on brand research got so bad a few years ago I rang up Alan Hart, who runs one of the better marketing podcasts, Marketing Today, and essentially bullied him into doing an episode about brand diagnosis, starring me, so I could use it on my course.

Fetishisation of ‘insight’

Part of the problem is that we have this wanky, watered-down version of brand diagnosis called ‘insight’. If you are of a certain age and worked in agencies at a certain time, you still bang on about The Insight all the time. It’s as if the clouds parted, a bright perfect ray of light shone from the heavens for a moment and suddenly you knew everything about the market, what your strategy needed to be and most of your tactics. Boom!

But as Martin Weigel, head of strategy at Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam, has repeatedly told the industry, this “fetishisation” of insight oversimplifies the challenge of research, understates the complexity of getting to grips with the current state the brand is in, and overcompensates for agency teams who don’t want to do the hard yards to get to grips with their client’s brand.

But, if insight is too superficial and fleeting, brands can also err in the other direction and go too deep and extensive. When a well-trained marketer takes the reins of a new brand, the first 12 months are tricky. They’ve usually inherited an existing plan (if it even exists) and all the tactics associated with it. So they play cuckoo and keep their predecessor’s plan warm.

But while they are doing all of that, they should also be embarking on a major bit of brand diagnosis. Existing secondary data and buyer profiles blend with extensive ethnographic and other qualitative methods. A decent brand manager also goes back in time and studies founders, archives and anything else that can shed light on the origin and trajectory of the brand. All that information then produces the mother of all surveys, in which the new brand manager attempts to plot out the picture of their brand in the context of the category and all the various competitors.

Even among those who know what they are doing, the topic of brand research simply does not feature enough.

But that research expedition is very much a one-off – a starting point in which the new brand manager works out segmentation, targeting and positioning that is unlikely to change in the coming years. Then they set objectives and brief tactics for the year ahead, and off they go.

From now on, an annual brand tracker or brand health survey serves to update the manager and their team on the state of the brand, the progress of the plan and then the new benchmarks and objectives for the year ahead. To put it more simply, there is a difference between that initial first-year mapping exercise and the subsequent compass work that charts the brand’s progress as the years progress.

For that, it’s crucial that brand managers don’t overcook things. There are only two things that need to be broadly measured when you track a brand.

First, the perceptions of the brand on the associations that matter. I say that because too often brands measure far too many attributes, or generic ones that aren’t of any relevance. Keep it tight and measure your brand versus the competition on the most important metrics.

Second, you need a funnel. Yeah, I know everyone that does not actually do brand management criticises funnels. Let them. You need one. But, again, not a generic one with awareness leading to consideration to preference and purchase. Use your qual data to work out the four or five key stages in the buyer’s journey. Get granular with the stages and expect it to require combining some external survey data with your internal metrics. That’s always a good sign.

Measuring these things together, just once a year, has a number of advantages. It avoids the time and cost implications of over-measuring stuff. If you have an annual plan, you can generally rely on an annual tracker to feed that planning process. Just time the survey late enough to measure most of the current year but early enough to allow you to play for the one that comes next.

Measuring everything in the same survey also means you can leave the world of simplistic, stated data and enter the more interesting world of derived relationships. Consumers have no clue what the most important drivers of their purchase are. You can ask them. And they will tell you. They will even rank them from one to 10. But these lists are unlikely to bear any resemblance to the actual reasons that consumers do and don’t buy your brand. But measure the right handful of attributes over in question 8 and then measure a decent custom funnel, which includes a ‘purchase frequently’ stage in question 18e, and you can look at the unspoken relationship between the two.

As the great marketing professor Koen Pauwels has noted, brand perceptions drive purchase (the more premium it is the more I want it). And purchase drives brand perceptions (I own it so it must be premium). But most of the time it’s perceptions that pre-empt purchase. Knowing which perceptions is a crucial part of the brand management process.

Hopeful signs

While this year, once again, I will struggle for good content on brand diagnosis, there are signals that things are changing. Specifically, two very interesting developments.

First, the publication of Better Brand Health by the distinguished academic Jenni Romaniuk offers the first proper new insight into brand tracking in a very long time. It’s a practical book – perhaps too much so for the brand archetype-loving world of modern marketing – but contained within its pages are some incredibly applied, useful and advanced lessons in how to measure your brand. I’m halfway through but I strongly recommend it.

Second, there is the recent, rather triumphant capital raising by research company Tracksuit. The small Kiwi firm has developed a reputation for offering low-priced, panel-based brand research and is now tracking more than 1,300 brands in the UK, US and ANZ. I actually invested in the company, because I think it fills a gap between solo managers building their own custom surveys and the big multinational research firms, who (at least in my experience) can significantly over-complicate things. A simple, accessible way to track a brand is a wonderful thing. And my bet is that the company will become a big deal in the years ahead.

Ultimately, the focus of branding is still drawn far too much towards tactics and then, to some degree, to strategy. With the exception of Romaniuk and Tracksuit, the whole industry ignores the job of understanding the health of a brand, and using that knowledge to drive strategy and then tactics. More brand managers need to become more adept at brand diagnosis. And I need more good content on the topic. At least I have a column I can use this year.