9 Questions Every Brand Should Ask Its Customers Regularly

May 18, 2010

In my experience with organizations of various sizes and types, market research is most commonly used when the organization has a specific question to answer.  The specific question can vary significantly, but some of the more common ones deal with the appeal of a new product idea or the interest in a new positioning or in a new creative marketing message.

While it is absolutely correct to field research to help answer these specific questions, organizations would benefit from performing market research on a more regular, ongoing basis to answer some brand questions repeatedly, over time. This would help to monitor customer perceptions and behaviors consistently — not just when a specific marketing project question arises.  If organizations only complete research when they have specific initiative-based questions, they run the risks of missing shifts in customer perceptions of their brand, failing to spot new trends in how their product/service is being used, or even misdiagnosing who their customers really are.

I should note that many organizations do routinely field customer satisfaction or product/service performance surveys, and while these are very important, this isn’t the type of research to which I am referring.  I am suggesting that organizations also implement a program to regularly understand how customers are thinking about the brand, based on the collection of all of their experiences with the brand over time.

The implementation of ongoing brand research does not have to be complex or expensive.  Some organizations make a significant investment in brand tracking, and it becomes a major initiative. However, for most others, it can be as simple as fielding a few customer focus groups or interviews every six months or even distributing an online survey among their customer base regularly.  The method of research can vary depending on the size of the organization, its customer base, and the category/industry of the organization.  Most importantly this research should be done frequently (at the very least annually), consistently, the results should be reviewed and tracked over time, the organization must be willing to adapt its marketing strategies based on the results, and the questions should focus on the target customers and their brand perceptions.

With all of this in mind, for those of you interested in initiating a brand research program for your organization, I’ve developed a general list of questions for you to incorporate into your research among your target customers. Listening to how your customers respond and tracking how these responses change over time will unearth some significant opportunities for better understanding who your customers are and what motivates them, adjusting your marketing messages to your customers, and strengthening your brand in the minds of your customers.

Here is the list of 9 questions that every organization should consistently ask its customers about its brand:

  1. When you think of the brand (insert brand name here), what are the first words that come to mind?
  2. When and why did you first become a customer of the brand?
  3. Why do you continue to be a customer of the brand?
  4. Who do you consider to be competitors of the brand?
  5. How is the brand different from its competitors (in terms of being both better and worse)?
  6. How is the brand the same as its competitors?
  7. How can the customer experience of the brand be improved?
  8. Do you anticipate that you will be a customer of the brand in the future?
  9. If you were describing the brand to others, what would you say, and would you recommend it?

For those of you who already ask your target customers about their perceptions of your organization’s brand regularly, are their other general questions that you always ask?  Let me know!  I’d like to incorporate them into the list.

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Five Questions To Ask Before You Do Focus Groups

March 9, 2010

In the last few months, I have received a lot of requests to moderate customer focus groups for a variety of clients.  I am thrilled to provide the service as customer research is one of my favorite aspects of marketing.  Interestingly, I am not the only one who feels this way.  Many marketers enjoy research, especially qualitative research such as focus groups, for a variety of reasons.  These include:

  • Marketers get to leave the office and their “desk job” for a few days to view the groups
  • Marketers get the opportunity to listen to their customers talk about their brands and products
  • Marketers may receive research results quickly (they are viewing the research real-time)
  • Focus groups can be perceived as a less expensive method of research compared to other types of studies.

Unfortunately, these factors can sometimes lead marketers to “overuse” focus groups and execute them when they aren’t the appropriate tool for answering marketers’ questions.

To help my clients assess if focus groups are the correct method of research for their needs, and to ensure that the research is designed and executed most effectively, I ask my clients a series of questions at the start of each project.  My hope is that these questions are helpful to any marketing or research manager who is seeking customer insights through qualitative research.

  1. Are you trying to count something or are you looking to explore something? If you want a count, then do not do focus groups.  Focus groups are designed to help you understand how your customers think and make decisions.  Focus groups can provide ideas and feedback, but they cannot be used to provide a definite, statistically significant answer.  To take this a step further, often it is assumed that if a focus group contains eight respondents, you have a sample size of eight.  In actuality, due to group dynamics, a group of eight people is only a sample size of one (the group is the unit of measurement).
  2. What decisions will be made with the information from the research? It is very important to know how your information will be used.  For instance, if the information will be used to make a go/no go decision on a significant investment, you may want to consider if an unquantifiable technique is really the right tool.  Additionally, knowing what decisions will be made will guide the questions that must be answered in the research (see #3).
  3. What are the questions that you must answer? There should be about three to six specific questions that the research should be designed to answer.  These are the research objectives.  The marketers and researchers included in the research must be very clear on what these questions are.  If these questions are not specified in advance, it will be sheer luck if the research uncovers the answers.  An additional note:  if in a focus group there are more than six objectives, you likely have too many things you are trying to accomplish (and therefore you run the risk of not accomplishing everything adequately).  If you have more than six objectives, you should consider doing more than one set of focus groups.
  4. What do we think the answers to these questions are? Scientists test hypotheses in their research.  Marketers should do the same.  If you have a hypothesis for the answer to each research question, this will help the moderator turn to probing on why an answer in a focus group might be different from what you hypothesized.  By enabling the moderator to focus probing on why an answer is different, you will get much richer, insightful information from your groups.  With that said, once you form your hypotheses, be mindful to listen objectively to the research.  It can be tempting to selectively listen only for evidence that supports your hypotheses.  Make an effort to listen to and absorb all of the information that your focus groups provide, whether it supports your hypotheses or not.
  5. Who is the target respondent? The usefulness of focus groups is significantly dependent on the respondents who are participating.  If the group does not contain the correct target respondents, the results from the groups can be essentially meaningless.  For any focus group you consider doing, think carefully about who you need in the groups to answer the questions.  Too many times, marketers make the mistake of simply asking for their standard customer demographic target to be present in the groups – but perhaps they need something more, such as current non-category users or lapsed users of the brand.  Think very carefully about the questions you are trying to answer and who are the right people that you need to hear from to answer these questions.  Do not assume that your target respondent is just your target customer demographic.  It is likely that your target respondent is more than just that.

Those are the questions I like to focus on before initiating qualitative research for clients.  I would like to think that many marketers also ask themselves these questions before they start a qualitative project.  However, I think it is good to have this checklist handy for your next piece of research – just to make sure that your research will be as successful and as useful as possible.


Top 5 Marketing Reading Recommendations 1/11-1/24

January 25, 2010

Two weeks ago, I published a list of some of my favorite marketing articles that I had read over the previous several weeks.  I got a lot of great feedback that this list was very helpful to fellow marketers, and so I’ve decided to make it a regular post.  So with that, here’s a list of marketing related articles from 1/11-1/24 that I recommend you take a look at. Enjoy!

  1. Is Your Brand a Beacon or a Spotlight? (Ad Age). The article explains that while many brands are based on understanding their customers and their customer’s current needs, it is important for brands to stand for more than this.  Brands should also have an aspirational component to them to make them especially compelling to their customers.  This article is a great argument for brands to have a defined brand vision.
  2. Build Your Customer Experience Roadmap (Forbes).  This article summarizes the findings from a recent report from Forrester Research that ranks brands in terms of the overall customer experience that they provide.  The article highlights examples of brands in several categories that are providing excellent customer experiences, and then it provides ‘Three Golden Rules of Customer Experience.’  This article is definitely worth a read for anyone who is interested in improving the experiences that customers have with a brand, or anyone who is interested in improving customer loyalty for a brand.
  3. The Cost of Not Branding (MediaPost Online Metrics Insider). This post is a refreshing reminder that not investing in marketing or branding has a cost associated with it, and it mentions a couple of examples of how one could calculate the cost of not investing in branding.  For individuals who often find themselves in a position where they have to justify their marketing budgets, they will find this post very helpful.
  4. More CPG Players Embrace E-Commerce (Ad Age). This is an interesting article that describes how CPG companies are seizing a new opportunity to sell products to and better understand their consumers through e-commerce. For marketers in the consumer packaged goods industry who are not yet exploring e-commerce as a channel, this article is a good thought-starter.
  5. A New Rung on the Social Technographics Ladder (Forrester). For those of you who have read or are familiar with the book Groundswell, you know about the different technographic profiles that your customers may have when it comes to social media — these are the creators, the critics, the joiners, etc.  In a new report, Forrester Research unveils a new social technographic, the Conversationalist, and explains why this is a group that brands will want to watch closely.

Top 10 Marketing Reading Recommendations 12/28-1/8

January 10, 2010

In case you’ve had trouble getting unburied from your emails, Google Reader, and other marketing reading from over the holiday, here are my suggestions for recent articles that you should be sure to check out.

  1. Brand Focus Leads to Power and Profits (Brand Strategy Insider).  An interesting and persuasive argument for limiting line extensions under a brand.  The post uses several examples to illustrate that brands that are highly focused have higher profit margins.
  2. Kraft Makes a Bet on At-Home Eating (Ad Age).  For any food marketers, this article is worth skimming to see where Kraft is making its bets for new products in 2010.
  3. Taco Bell Latest QSR To Promote Weight Loss Angle (MediaPost Marketing Daily).  Okay… I couldn’t help myself with this one.  Marketers are abuzz right now about Taco Bell’s latest campaign.  Subsequent articles to this one have shown that Taco Bell is taking a bit of hit with this campaign since it isn’t true to its brand core and character.  If you still aren’t sure what all the fuss is about, take a look.
  4. Is Copernicus or Aristotle Running Your Business (The Marketing Technology Blog).  A short post that has a few questions to ask yourself to make sure you are running a truly customer-centric business or brand.
  5. CSPI Charges Brands With Mislabeling in FDA Report (MediaPost Marketing Daily).  Another article for food marketers highlighting the increased attention and concern around misleading labeling claims.  My prediction: statements/claims on labels are only going to become more restricted.
  6. Tipping the Iceberg (MediaPost OMMA).  Northwestern professor Don Schultz has found that only ‘4 to 5 percent of customers account for a preponderance of a consumer product’s sales.’  Knowing this could have a significant impact on how marketers advertise and target media.
  7. ‘Imperfect’ FreshDirect Gets Close to Consumers (Ad Age).  Interesting interview of the CEO of FreshDirect highlighting that understanding its customers has been the key to FreshDirect’s success.
  8. 6 Tips for Treating Your Customers Like Friends (SmartBlog on Social Media).  Some great tips for activating your customers, using the famed Maker’s Mark Brand Ambassador program as an example.
  9. The Principles of Marketing Can Be Summarized in One Word (Ad Age).  Excellent column that is thought provoking and appropriate for all marketers to read.  You don’t want to skip this one.  I’ve already referenced it in a couple of meetings.
  10. A Campaign Linking Clean Clothes With Stylish Living (NY Times).  This article covers Tide’s new campaign that taps into the insight that ‘clean clothes are a mean to an end — expressing personal style — rather than the end itself.’  The article shows Tide’s focus in emphasizing a higher order benefit, that is more emotionally motivated, to help continue to build its category dominance.  It’s a good example of some strong marketing.

Marketing & Branding Mistake to Avoid #3: Focusing on the Sale

December 14, 2009

Once upon a time, companies who measured the profit coming from each transaction, product line, or customer segment were considered to be first in class.  Over time this best practice of measuring profitability has evolved from focusing on individual transactions to focusing on the profitability of the total customer experience. Unfortunately, some organizations have not adapted to this new approach.

In today’s highly connected world, customers are seeking to build relationships with brands, and they do not view marketing activities and transactions independently.  Each of these are just different types of  touch points that a customer has with a brand, and the customer does not really distinguish between them.  For example, a great purchase experience is a superior marketing tactic that will drive future purchases.   For the customer, the overall experience that he has with a brand (which includes all types of touch points) impacts his future relationship (and likelihood of additional purchases) with the brand.

Since customers are evaluating a brand based on their total experience, companies should also focus on this total experience. From a measurement and analysis standpoint, instead of trying to maximize profits for any given product line or transaction type, companies should try to maximize profitability over their total customer experience. As a result, this might mean that a company should lower its price (and profitability) on some products that introduce a customer to the brand in order to maximize the total number of products that a customer purchases over the lifetime of the relationship with the brand.  It also might mean that a company should heavily invest in certain marketing programs with existing loyal customers, if it will help customers recommend the brand to others.

The key to successfully maximizing the value of the total brand experience is understanding the role each transaction and touch point plays in the development of the experience.  Once a company stops focusing only on the sale, but instead on the long term relationship, it will unlock long term profit potential.