Prophet’s David Aaker, who has dedicated his career to understanding the phenomenon of brands, stated, “Brand is typically the most important driver of customer purchase in both B2C and B2B.” Going with Aaker’s argument, it follows that the first step at assessing brand as a driver of purchase is to come to an agreement on what a brand really is. Back in the day, the idea of brand was more focused on what consumers see on the surface: a logo, a color scheme, a set of fonts, etc. But over the years the idea of brand has deepened and expanded. As the idea of brand has evolved so have the number of definitions of brand. My favorite is Seth Godin’s:
A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.
It is really interesting that Godin doesn’t mention logo or design. He doesn’t even mention product or service. His focus is on stories, memories, and expectations. Stories, memories, expectations. These are things that typically define a relationship with someone in your life. Viewed in the light of Godin’s definition, a brand is more than a product, service or logo. A brand is a relationship with a consumer.
Getting to the heart of understanding this relationship is then key then when developing and innovating brands, figuring out if an extension will work, and seeing where the value in the brand relationship is for the consumer. The trick is that you can’t just ask someone “What’s your relationship with a brand?”
So how do you get people to explain their relationships with brands if you can’t just ask them? Fortunately, there are a number of handy digital qual activities that have proven to be quite adroit at this insight task. While some of these have been used in in-person qualitative throughout the years, digital qual is an especially good medium for them for a number of reasons. First, people are in their own environments, comfortable and able to take the time to express. Also, in one project you can switch between individual interactions and group interactions. And finally, with a project that may occur over a series of days, mobile and computer based interactions can be leveraged to discover consumer external and internal experiences with brands. Here are a few digital qual activities for brand understanding:
- Spotter Diaries – One part of understanding how consumers experience brands, is to have them record when they encounter them during their days. In a spotter diary activity, consumers are asked to go through a period of time, usually a day to a week, recording their encounters with a brand. Because brands live everywhere, spotter diaries are a natural fit for mobile research. You can tune this activity to focus on different aspects of the encounter: media, product, social interactions. Because not all brands are ubiquitous, often, spotter diaries work best when broadening the ‘spotting’ to the category.
- Image Metaphor – If I may paraphrase Gerald Zaltman (who was paraphrasing Carl Jung), metaphors are the gateway to people’s subconscious thoughts and feelings. In an image metaphor activity, you ask consumers to post an image that represents the brand, and then describe why they chose that image. The output from this exercise, especially when several brands in the category are compared, is very visual and very straightforward to interpret. One tip: it’s generally good to tell participants in this activity to not post images of logos or flagship products. Often, the less literal the image, the more expressive the response will be.
- Letter Writing – This is perhaps the simplest, but most effective of all activities. In this activity, you ask consumers to write a letter to the brand expressing their feelings about the brand. One key with letter writing activities is picking the write target for the letter. If the target of the letter is the brand, then you get more abut the relationship with the brand. If target is a CEO or a specific position, you get more tactical advice.
- Eulogy – Eulogies are another great activity for understanding brand relationships. In this activity, you ask people to imagine a world without the brand, and give them the task of writing the eulogy for the brand. How do they remember it? It’s a surprisingly effective way to get people to express their feelings.
- “Can It Go There?” Discussions – While you can do the preceding activities as individual or group exercises, ‘Can it Go There?’ requires group interaction. In this activity, you present a product extension or marketing initiative and ask the group if the brand can “go there” and then explain why or why not.” This works best in generating discussion if you have people post their first response without being able to see others’ responses, and then give them the secondary task of commenting on one response they agree with and one they disagree with.
You may notice that almost all of these activities are things that people do with other people – they are activities that are used to express relationships. And that’s what makes them so powerful in the context of brand understanding.
Steve August is the founder and CEO of Revelation, a Portland-based market research software company that develops and markets Revelation | Next, a qualitative research platform.