In this post I’m going to explore the use of online information gathering techniques to better understand the complicated and slippery concept of brand strength, viewed through the lens of small organisations. Curiously, it may be that social media can help small organisations more than large ones. As normal, what you think you know merely suggests the next question …
Due to the length of the full article I’ll publish it in a few sections. This first part will cover the approach I use to evaluate brands.
We all know that it is a good thing to have a brand, and that the stronger the brand the better. But to evaluate brand strength meaningfully is by no means straightforward. I find that it helps to go back to basics and revisit the question ‘what is the role of a brand’? My answer is that a brand has commercial value when it can influence customers and potential customers to behave more favourably towards its products or services than they otherwise would. They may buy these in preference to comparable products from another brand, and / or they may be willing to pay a higher price than they otherwise would.
How I approach understanding brand strength
To understand how a brand does this, it helps to define what a brand is. There are many ways to answer this question, and every brand ‘guru’ seems to develop their own variant. The one I use is that developed by David Aaker. This sees a brand as a collection of attributes that people associate with its products. I like it because it is detailed, comprehensive, practical, provides a good structure for analysis, and leads directly to practical managerial decisions and actions.
There are several different types of these attributes. Not all of them exist in all markets, and even where they do their relative importance will vary markedly.
The Aaker model uses five main types of attributes:
- Firstly, those connected to the product or service itself.
- Second are those connected to the organisation that provides the product or service. These tend to be more important for services than physical products.
- Third we have symbolic attributes. These may relate to logos and designs, but can also relate to the history or heritage of the brand.
- Fourthly are brand persona attributes. These might sound flaky, but virtually all brands have them and customers find these surprisingly easy to talk about.
- And lastly there are attributes connected to the type of relationship that people feel they have with a brand. These are closely aligned with feelings of loyalty.
Having covered what a brand is, we can now answer the original question about what makes a strong one. Because what matters in each of these five groups of attributes are two questions: how important are they to customers? And how do people perceive your brand to compare to those of your competitors? A strong brand is one that most customers consider to be preferable on the relatively small number of attributes that are important to them. In turn this will generate self perceived benefits for customers. These will be a combination of functional ones, emotional ones and self expressive ones.
In the next section I’ll discuss the limitations of conventional market research techniques, especially in the context of small organisations, and what actually drives brand strength.