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Branding in the Age of Social: Gaining Insight Through Research

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Know where you stand, where you're going––and what all that means.

Not since the Big Bang has there been a moment's peace in the universe, so it's a given that your organization, the environments in which you operate, and your constituents are in a sea of change and uncertainty. But before you undertake a new brand or communication strategy, you need to know where you are, where you want to go, how you might get there, and what might be in the way.

Do you have a clear picture of your organization's strengths and weaknesses, and of the opportunities and threats in the marketplace? Is your position vis-à-vis your competitors clear and compelling? Does anyone else in this vast universe know or care? What brand signals echo back from the noise in the social Web?

Making smart decisions requires a mix of information: a clear and objective understanding of your offerings' value; close monitoring of how your brand is perceived; analysis of your position; empathetic sense of your markets' needs, motivations and decisions; and, of course, a clear read on your leadership's vision.

Consider what a brand is. It's more than your name, logo, and tagline. While those are valuable brand assets, your brand resides in the minds and hearts of your current and prospective customers, partners, and recommenders. It's what you promise them and what they expect of you. Your brand helps people understand how you fit in the landscape of competitive alternatives, and informs decisions.


It is an inherently intangible thing, and can be assessed somewhat indirectly—through research.

To develop a clear picture of your brand, research in four dimensions is useful: quantitative and qualitative, internal and external.

Four Dimensions of Brand-Focused Research

Quantitative research—traditional market research, polls, surveys, Web analytics, and the like—is great for measuring actions and seeing patterns. By definition, quantitative research is historical (it measures what's already happened) but it can yield powerful predictive intelligence when it's modeled well.

Qualitative research, on the other hand, could include interviews and focus groups—any format that allows people to express their ideas in open-ended prose. It's great for uncovering motivations behind actions, and is important for getting to the essence of brand-related beliefs and decisions. It can help you better understand who you are, who you might be, what might boost or impede progress, and what resonates with your target constituencies—because not everything can be modeled and predicted with statistical certainty.

You can learn a lot by looking inward, beyond executives and marketing and sales people, to experts with other perspectives: your engineers, product developers, customer service reps, and others responsible for design, delivery, and interaction with customers. They have highly sophisticated perceptions of your organization's brand value and competitive strengths and weaknesses––so listen to them.

If your offerings are broad or diversified, investigate brand qualities across lines as appropriate, and be mindful of the relationships between the parts and the whole. Xbox and Zune represent two examples of their parent company's brand (Microsoft, your father's Oldsmobile in terms of computer hardware and software), contributing different influences to their own brands with mixed results.

Looking outward, external research will help you understand who your audiences and customers are, what they care about, and how their interests align with yours. Apply the practices of both quantitative and qualitative research. It's critical that you undertake your analysis of your markets dispassionately. Take yourself out of the picture. Otherwise, you risk the mistake of assuming they are customers who know and care about you, without appreciating the breadth of alternatives available to them for allocating their time, treasure, and mindshare... including making no choice at all.

External research also helps you benchmark your brand's qualities against your competition's (including what you might not consider direct competition. For example, a movie cinema isn't necessarily competing against other cinemas: it's competing with an array of entertainment options at similar price points, and now with giant home TVs and video on demand).

What meaning does your brand have to your customers? In the minds of your markets, does it stand for innovation, or for dependability? For integrated solutions, or focused expertise? For "whiter teeth" or "tartar control"? Where's the growth opportunity, and is your brand poised to capture a significant share? Does your brand decrease (or increase) the cost of doing business in a particular niche—is it a headwind or a tailwind in a given venture?

Article Series:
Branding in the Age of Social

Your customers—your communities—have new expectations. They want to (actually!) interact with your organization. They want to know what they want to know—when they want to know it. And, as always, they want to know, and feel, how your organization and its brand align with their personal brands and values.

Achieving that alignment has always been critical to effective brand-building. But it's not enough to design a new logo, snappy tagline, brochures, and website (it never was).

Brand-building in this social age—social branding—goes beyond social, or even digital, media. It's about deliberately aligning your and your constituents' expectations and values, not just in communications but at the core of how your organization sees and organizes itself, how it behaves, and how it delivers on its core purpose.

In this article series, we'll outline the seven pieces of the social branding process and how each step can work hard to maximize the connections between not only you and your customers but also the connections between your customers and their trusted friends and peers (in other words, to maximize "social capital").

The series culminates with an online seminar in April, "7 Steps to Take Your Brand Social... and Still Be in Control," where you'll learn how to evaluate and develop your strategy for building your social brand.

Tamsen McMahon
Director of Strategic Initiatives
Sametz Blackstone Associates

Directing Research Toward Results

Making decisions about brand strategy involves looking back and looking forward, counting what can be counted, and understanding the motivational forces behind actions and results. It means complementing a critical self-study with objective observations about the behaviors of others.

When you carry out research in all of these dimensions, the intersections between them indicate where you and your communities share ground, interests, and potential.

But that doesn't mean you should undertake research with a completely blank slate, utterly open to discovery with no agenda in mind. Your research may guide your brand strategy, but your brand strategy must support your business.

When thinking about brand-focused research, consider the following:

  • What is your business strategy? What would success look like?
  • What are the related opportunities and impediments?
  • What does your brand have to mean to help you get there?
  • How do you have to operate and behave to achieve success?

In each of the four research dimensions, your objective is the same: gather intelligence that will inform brand-related decisions. Facts are not enough: You need knowledge to act. Do you understand how your strengths and weaknesses—and the dynamics of the marketplace—affect your desired position? Do you know why your customers choose you—or your competition? Do you understand why you've succeeded or failed in the past, and what potential remains bottled up within your organization? And beware analysis paralysis. While good research will provide a solid foundation for brand-building, it never provides the brand!

Done well, and conscientiously kept current, brand-focused research in these four dimensions should yield penetrating insights—information that will provide meaningful direction, guide strategic decisions, support communicators, inspire designers, and motivate your teams.


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Eric Norman is a strategist at Sametz Blackstone Associates (www.sametz.com), a Boston-based, brand-focused communications practice that integrates strategy, design, and digital media to help mission-driven organizations navigate change. Reach him via eric@sametz.com or 617-266-8577.

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