The Brand Health Puzzle
With so much data flowing through such a fast-paced world, how do marketers pick the right metrics to get an accurate evaluation of their brand's health?
By David Ward
Marketers now have almost an embarrassment of riches when it comes to information about both their customers and the health of their brand. Not only is there a dizzying array of tools that CMOs and their staffs can use to monitor consumer interactions with brands in near real time, but there is also an increasing number of market research and data collection companies all clamoring to do that information gathering and analysis to optimize brand health.
All this is taking place in an environment where, thanks to the rise of digital, social, and mobile platforms, consumers can experience brand messaging in ways that were unheard of only a decade ago.
"The world has changed in the way consumers interact with brands and we have to follow that," explains George Ivie, CEO and executive director at the Media Rating Council (MRC). "The emergence of consumers interacting with brands in social media communities now has significant impact on things like brand health."
While that doesn't mean the traditional metrics of profit, revenues, market share, and growth are no longer important, Ivie stresses it does mean that marketers have to be far more proactive in determining how best to gauge the health of their individual brands, and in making sure the data they're receiving on advertising and consumer engagement is reliable and standardized.
"A brand can look healthy today and then a month from now have a major problem — and that may not reflect itself in some of these financial measurements," Ivie says. "Marketers should be tracking metrics that are directly tied to consumers throughout the brand monitoring process."
3MS and the Push for Reliable Standards
Ivie and the MRC have spent much of the past few years working with organizations such as the ANA, the 4A's, and the IAB to develop standards so advertisers will have dependable ways to measure messaging and ad spends across multiple platforms.
The result is the Making Measurement Make Sense (3MS) initiative, which includes efforts to shift the industry toward viewable impressions, standards for filtering invalid traffic, and the development of digital cross-media currency standards so that digital campaigns can be evaluated in the same way ad spend on traditional platforms are measured.
Ivie says the standard for tracking consumer social interactions, which debuted last year, won't by itself enable marketers to put a value on consumer engagement on social media, but it will provide industrywide definitions as well as best practices. "We're still trying to figure out the value of social likes and shares," he says. "We still don't have a standard for that, but we're telling marketers they should be tracking and monitoring changes in this traffic and using that information as a kind of early warning system."
The long-term goal of the MRC and its partners is to establish standards that reflect the modern reality of advertising and brand management. "Advertisers don't just do TV campaigns, they do multisiloed campaigns, including digital, TV, print, and audio," Ivie says. "What we're working toward is enabling apples-to-apples assessments of the effectiveness of these campaigns across these silos. We're trying to help marketers address the age-old question of if they have one more dollar, what's the most effective way to spend it."
The Right Metrics for Gauging Brand Health
The MRC is helping to solve one part of the brand health-metrics puzzle, but for many CMOs the far bigger issue is figuring out exactly which data point, or points, can truly give an accurate reading of their brand — a challenge compounded by the reality that consumers' taste and perceptions are continually changing.
"Our metrics for brand health keep changing because customer expectations continue to increase," says Lori Acker, VP of customer engagement at National Grid, which provides natural gas and electricity in Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and also the U.K. Because it's a utility with a stable customer base, National Grid tends to put the highest value not so much on brand awareness but rather on metrics such as "trust advice" and "favorability," according to the company.
"Just like the telecom industry, our industry is transitioning with clean energy, privatization," Acker says. "We need those trust metrics so we know our customers trust that we can give them advice and tell them what's changing and how they can control their energy needs better."
National Grid relies on a brand tracker to gauge its brand health on a weekly basis. "Doing it continuously throughout the year gives us the best view," Acker explains. "And we use third-party services for the majority of our surveys because it does have the checks and balances and it does keep our information confidential — and they make sure we take an honest look at how we're doing and what we can do to make our brand stronger. That's important because our customers don't compare us to other utilities, they compare us to other services, so they want to know where our truck is and when it will get there."
The first question should always be, 'Do we have the right strategy and architecture and positioning of the brand.'"
Putting Understanding Before Metrics
As National Grid successfully demonstrates, marketers need to first understand what they want their brand to represent before they start to determine the right metrics to use.
"The first question should always be, 'Do we have the right strategy and architecture and positioning of the brand,'" says Mark McNeilly, professor of the practice of marketing and organization behavior at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School, as well as a faculty member focused on brand development at the ANA School of Marketing. "You need to have that framework in place so that once the brand health metrics come in, you can determine if you've positioned your brand correctly or whether the strategy is right or wrong or if your marketing mix is right."
Donna Bembenek, VP of marketing communications at the YMCA of the USA, echoes that, noting that understanding your brand goals has to come well before metrics are in place. "In terms of doing the research, you have to be careful to choose the right methodology and ask the right questions to get the insights you need," she says. "Awareness is the first step in measuring. At the most basic level, do people know you exist? From there, you need to determine the general public's perception of you and whether they have affinity for what you do."
While there are more than enough quantitative metrics that marketers can access, Bembenek notes those numbers alone won't always tell the brand health story. "Quantitative brand metrics only get us so far — they tell us what but not necessarily why," she says. "To get a deeper understanding it's important to supplement our quantitative studies with qualitative research, as well as to have regular conversations with the people we serve."
Because it's so well established, the YMCA doesn't necessarily concern itself strictly with brand awareness, Bembenek says. "Our focus is more on perception metrics related to our overall goal of increasing the public's perception of the Y as a nonprofit charitable organization worthy of support," she adds. "Brand health is no exact science, but by incorporating as many of the tools at our disposal as possible, we get a better picture of what is working and what is not and how to strategically adjust accordingly."
When it comes to brand metrics, more is not always better."
The Goldilocks Solution for Brand Health Metrics
When marketers do make mistakes with brand health metrics, it's generally a result of migrating to the extremes — either trying to incorporate far too many metrics or obsessively focusing on only one or two data points to tell the whole brand story.
In recent years, the temptation for many companies, as well as third-party researchers, is to try to determine that one single metric that can best describe brand health. This has led to an almost faddish interest in concepts like Net Promoter Score (NPS), which asks customers on a zero to 10 score how likely they are to recommend the brand to others.
Jesse Purewal, a San Francisco-based associate partner at Prophet, a global brand and marketing consultancy, says single metrics like NPS do have value. "The idea that you can distill something down to one metric is both intellectually appealing and organizationally empowering," he says. "And that isn't wrong, but it is more a focus on the what rather than the why behind a brand's health."
Because there are so many complexities that occur in the marketing and branding of a business, Purewal says marketers need a scorecard filled with only the metrics that matter. "Most marketers realize they don't have the time or the dollars to look at everything, so our perspective is to look at fewer things and go deeper," he says. "In particular we like our clients to consider brand relevance as the key determinant of what growth will occur over the time — both revenue and profit growth."
Chris Murphy, EVP and chief client officer at Millward Brown North America, recommends brand health be determined from concise surveys of consumers across multiple platforms and devices, so that, for instance, a vocal minority on social media or a mobile platform does not skew results.
"If I can ask five questions of consumers I can get a very strong measurement on how healthy a brand is," he says. "We learned that if a brand is meaningful, different, and salient, that brand is much more likely to be selected in the here and now, command a price premium, and is more likely to grow."
Murphy also suggests brand managers need to balance short-term metrics and decision making when it comes to brand health. "Marketers do have access to so many more data inputs than they used to, and there are signals that can be followed day-to-day that can be quite informative in terms of the management of your marketing," he says. "But you don't want to focus too much on that alone, so a diet that mixes short-term metrics and long-term metrics is the way to go."
Ivie agrees that when it comes to brand metrics, more is not always better. "I don't think gathering all the data you can is the most efficient thing you can do because you can get buried and paralyzed," he says. "I think the best thing you can do is determine the useful metrics that you want to track as brand-value indicators and stick with those metrics over time."
5 Tips for Getting an Accurate Gauge of Brand Health
- Have a strategic plan. Take time to understand the brand goals and strategies before gathering and analyzing data.
- Use short- and long-term metrics. Short-term metrics can show how the creative and the media mix are performing, while longer-term metrics can track broader brand performance trends.
- Combine first- and third-party data gathering and analytics — and make sure outside brand tracking is being done by accredited companies.
- Benchmark, using best-in-class practices to measure against past brand performance and the competition.
- There is no silver-bullet, so focus on the six to 10 metrics that best measure your individual brand's health.
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