How to conduct B2B brand tracking research
January 24, 2021
Why it is important to track brand health
Best practices when conducting B2B brand tracking research
Why it is important to track brand health
There are many benefits to having a strong brand:
- Buyers are more likely to consider you and purchase from you
- It makes you the safe choice, which can be valuable when the purchase is seen as ‘high risk.’ To paraphrase an old saying, you don’t get fired for hiring a strong brand
- It makes things easier for purchasers to understand the benefits of buying from you
- It provides clear points of differentiation from the competition, which can be particularly important when a decision is challenging
- You can charge a premium
Ultimately, B2B companies with strong brands outperform their rivals by 73%.
But it isn’t easy to build a strong B2B brand. Marketers spend a lot of time and budget on brand-building and brand management efforts.
Brand tracking studies allow marketers to check that their efforts are being well-spent by:
- Measuring overall brand health and monitoring how it is changing over time
- Comparing their company’s brand health against competitors
- Demonstrating the ROI of marketing initiatives. It is generally challenging to prove ROI for individual campaigns, but consistently tracking your brand health makes it easier to demonstrate overall marketing ROI
- Diagnosing and correcting brand health issues, e.g., not associated with specific desired brand attributes
B2B brand trackers enable marketers to measure various brand health measures.
First, there are measures that relate to the prominence of your brand:
- Top-of-mind awareness of the brand
- Spontaneous awareness
- Prompted awareness
- Understanding of what the company offers
- Credibility in desired service areas
Second, some measures relate to what your brand stands for:
- Spontaneous associations with the brand
- Extent the brand is perceived to be differentiated
- How the brand is differentiated
- Whether the brand owns its desired brand attributes
- Whether the brand’s services are relevant to clients
Third, there are metrics that explore how your brand performs:
- What is your reputation among the target audience
- To what extent do you deliver on your promise
- What drives supplier choice, and how do you perform against those measures
- How the brand performs versus competitors (e.g., relative strengths and weaknesses)
- Level of satisfaction among existing customers
Fourth, there are measures that determine your brand’s authority:
- The extent to which the brand is seen as authentic
- Level of affinity for the brand
- Level of pride in association
- The extent of market leadership
Finally, some measures gauge the outcomes of your current brand health:
- How many businesses currently use you
- The extent to which prospects would consider working with you in future
- The extent to which customers would consider continuing to work with you
- Whether businesses would prefer you to competitors
- Whether clients have referred you to colleagues and peers
- The extent to which you can justify a premium price
Best practices when conducting B2B brand tracking research
In any brand tracking project, there are several best practices to bear in mind.
#1. Don’t do it too frequently (in B2B markets)
Companies conducting B2C brand tracking studies often measure perceptions monthly or quarterly. That frequency is not realistic or possible in most B2B markets:
- One of the main differences between B2B and B2C market research is that B2B target audiences tend to be small. If you were to measure perceptions monthly, you would quickly run out of people who are willing to take part in future studies
- B2B markets tend to move slowly; B2B sales cycles are long, and it takes time to shift perceptions. Similarly, it takes time for B2B organizations to make internal changes that might shift perceptions. Therefore, if you measure brand health too frequently, you will not see any changes in the results. Leaving longer gaps between each study increases the likelihood that you will see changes reflected in the data
As a result, we recommend that B2B companies wait 12-18 months between each study.
There are a few situations in which something more frequent (i.e., 3-6 months) would make sense:
- If you have launched multiple large campaigns in a short period
- If the market has been disrupted (e.g., a new competitor changes the product category)
- Other unexpected events (e.g., global pandemic)
#2. Get your employees’ perspective.
If the people who ‘live’ a brand daily don’t buy into it, your customers’ brand perceptions will not reflect your desired positioning.
We recommend spending some time exploring how employees feel about the brand. Specifically, it is essential to identify gaps between the desired positioning and employees’ perceptions.
There are a few ways to capture this information. An online survey of the entire employee database can provide a robust measure of employee perceptions.
However, it may be overkill. The internal research is just intended to be check that there are no issues, and asking every employee to spend 5 minutes on a survey is not necessarily a good use of their time.
An alternative approach is to conduct some qualitative research among a small number of employees representing the entire workforce.
Focus groups can be a useful method of quickly gathering multiple employees’ input, but there are some drawbacks:
- Employees are less likely to be honest about issues in a group setting
- Focus groups aren’t an efficient use of participants’ time. Groups take employees away from their jobs for around 90 minutes, but they each only get to speak for about 15 minutes
It is often more productive to gather employees’ input through depth interviews. A 30-minute one-on-one interview takes less time than a focus group and allows the participant to speak about some of the issues they may have been reluctant to discuss in a group.
#3. Think carefully about which external audiences to include.
Any study exploring brand equity needs to include customers. They have the most experience of your brand and will be able to explain its strengths and weaknesses in-depth.
Customers’ perceptions will be crucial to their brands’ future success, so they need to be captured. For example, if they think your solution is over-priced, you’ll likely lose them in the long-run unless you adapt your B2B pricing strategy.
But brand tracking studies shouldn’t just focus on customers. Prospects may have a less detailed perspective of the brand, but their view is just as important.
If prospects associate your brand with inconsistency, then you are going to struggle to acquire them. So you also need to measure your brand equity among non-customers.
There may also be value in incorporating other audiences’ perspectives, such as suppliers, channel partners, and other stakeholders. For example, a manufacturer who sells through channel partners should include these intermediaries in addition to end customers. Channel partners won’t just share their brand perceptions but also provide valuable intelligence about how their customers perceive the brand.
Additionally, it’s also worth considering whether you want to target the entire target audience or specific segments.
Certain customer types may be responsible for the majority of spend in an industry – for example, enterprises may spend significantly more than SMBs – and you may decide that research should focus on those types.
Similarly, your company may be changing its strategy – for example, you may currently sell to businesses and ‘hobbyists,’ but may only want to focus on the former in the future – and so only interested in a specific audience.
However, we typically recommend including all segments in a brand tracking exercise. There are a few reasons for this:
- A particular segment may not be a focus right now, but that could change in the future. In that scenario, it would be useful to have data about your brand health among that audience rather than having to conduct a separate study hurriedly
- Customers who spend less can still be critical to your business’ success. They may share their perceptions of you with peers. They may suddenly start spending more. Decision-makers in low-spending companies may move to higher-spending businesses. Therefore, being aware of your brand equity among these companies matters more than you might think
#4. If possible, avoid mentioning that you’re sponsoring the research.
The goal of brand tracking studies is to measure awareness and perceptions of your brand. If you tell the research participant at the beginning of the interview/survey that ‘company X is sponsoring the research,’ it will bias the results:
- It will prevent you from accurately measuring brand awareness. If a survey respondent hears a company name at the beginning of the survey/interview, they are more likely to claim that they were aware of the brand beforehand
- It will also impact your measurement of brand perceptions because of a psychological concept called ‘acquiescence bias’. Research participants are more likely to be positive about a brand if they know the brand is sponsoring the survey
Ideally, you would not mention who is sponsoring the research. The problem with doing this is that it becomes harder to convince executives to participate. After all, why should they give up their time if they don’t know for whom they’re giving it up?
In a small number of instances, there is no alternative but to mention the survey sponsor at the beginning of the interview. Analysis of the final results should factor in the potential biases that are introduced as a result.
#5. You don’t have to (just) do a survey.
Traditionally, B2B companies have tracked their brand health using a survey. There are a few reasons that B2B quantitative research methods are preferred for tracking studies:
- The research questions are relatively simple and can be answered using a survey. Research techniques that allow researchers to explore topics in more depth (e.g., one-on-one interviews) are not needed
- The research questions also lend themselves to a more structured research technique. For example, questions with 10-point scales are not well-suited to more exploratory techniques
- If you are going to monitor your performance over time, you need a large number of responses to ensure that changes in the data are ‘real.’ Let’s say that there are 1,000 decision-makers in your target audience and that 999 of them had the same opinion of you in 2019 as they did in 2020. Now let’s say that you only interviewed 20 decision-makers in 2019 and 2020, but the person whose opinion of you had changed took part both years. The data would show that 5% of your target audience had changed their view when in reality, only 0.1% of decision-makers had. Surveys are better for tracking studies because they limit they are the most efficient way to obtain a large number of responses
However, there are occasions in which a quantitative survey is not feasible, e.g., if your target audience is tiny. In those instances, only doing qualitative research makes sense.
Even when a survey is possible, it can be valuable to use additional research methods to ensure that you obtain a holistic view of your brand health.
First, qualitative techniques (e.g., in-depth interviews or video diaries) can be used in parallel with the survey to enrich the research insights:
- A well-designed tracking survey should identify changes that a company could make to improve its brand health. The team who are implementing these changes may have some follow-up questions to inform their decision-making. It can, therefore, be useful to conduct a small number of interviews with survey respondents to ask them for more clarity about their responses
- Surveys can be an impersonal experience. Respondents are asked a series of structured questions with no ability to set the agenda or build a rapport with the person interviewing. That can be a particular issue for senior decision-makers at large clients, who may feel that their providers should be giving them a less impersonal experience. It can be valuable to gather their input through one-on-one qualitative interviews. These interviews are more exploratory but still include some structured questions so the results can be compared to the survey
Second, certain B2B brands can track their brand in real-time using social media monitoring tools, although most B2B brands will find insufficient data to do proper social listening.
Finally, brand tracking studies can be enriched by combining survey results with existing internal data:
- Some data can provide another measure of brand favorability. For example, data from customer service teams can be analyzed to understand customer sentiment
- Google Analytics can provide another data point for brand awareness. If search volume for your brand name is increasing, or if Direct traffic to your site is increasing, then it potentially suggests that more people are aware of your brand name
- Overall performance metrics, such as revenue or profitability, can also enrich survey results. Comparing changes in income to changes in the ‘hero metric’ can be incredibly revealing. Let’s say that the data shows revenue is increasing, but the ‘hero metric’ is decreasing. One explanation for this is that while performance is strong right now, some underlying issues might impact long-term revenue. Another possible reason is that the ‘hero metric’ is not a good predictor of current or future income; in our experience, this is undoubtedly true of NPS . Many businesses have seen their NPS decline while their revenue has continued to increase
#6. Don’t ask too many questions, and follow best practices when designing questions
When deciding what to ask in a brand tracking study, it is tempting to ask many questions. But the more questions you ask, the greater the chance the survey results will be low quality. And the less likely an individual will be willing to take part in the research again.
The list of questions needs to be short enough to keep participants engaged.
If you are using quantitative research, the questions should also be designed with B2B survey best practices in mind. Specifically, you should avoid:
- Leading questions
- ‘Double-barrelled’ questions (i.e., using one question to cover multiple topics)
- Overly complicated questions
- Long questions
- Repetitive questions
You should also:
- Include ‘other’ options where relevant
- Include a mix of ‘open’ questions where participants can type anything, in addition to the more structured questions that are standard in questionnaires
- Include ‘don’t know’ options where relevant
- Avoid asking for too much personal information
#7. Each time you conduct the study, be consistent but don’t be too rigid.
Brand tracking studies become particularly valuable once repeated over time, as you can track how brand health has changed.
But a like-for-like comparison is only possible if you use the same approach each time you conduct the study:
- Same sample proposition
- Same questionnaire structure
- Same research methodology
- Same timing (e.g., don’t do the first study during a time of great promotional activity, and the second during a quiet period)
It’s also important to keep many of the research questions that same. Around 80% of the questions need to be identical, but some questions can be changed each time the study is conducted. This rotating module of questions allows you to obtain new insights without losing the ability to track brand health over time.
#8. Pick the right ‘hero’ metric.
In any study of this sort, it is essential to select a ‘hero’ metric, i.e., a single score/number you focus on increasing. After all, it’s easier to unite a company around improving one number than improving several.
Some agencies will suggest that this key metric is Net Promoter Score (NPS), a well-known and well-used research technique. However, our experience is that NPS is not suitable for most B2B research studies because the nature of loyalty in B2B markets differs from the framework that underpins the NPS framework.
In our experience, it is better to create a ‘hero’ metric that is tailored to the company doing the measuring. For example, a SaaS business that aims to increase its customers’ productivity might want to select one of the following ‘hero’ metrics:
- The extent to which customers think their tool is easy to use
- The extent to which customers think they save time by using the software
This approach is similar to the one used by Product Managers when they are developing a new release/product. They often create a ‘North Star’ measure related to what they are trying to achieve with that product/feature.
Adience works with clients at the beginning of brand tracking studies to develop a tailored ‘hero’ metric that the entire company can rally around.
#9. Get emotional.
In addition to measuring an overall ‘hero metric,’ it is essential to explore your brand health in more depth.
Generally, this means identifying the key associations with your brand. For example, you could ask respondents the extent to which they associate your brand with ‘authenticity’ or with ‘being willing to go the extra mile.’
The attributes you select need to be clearly written to ensure that everyone interprets them in the same way. That is especially important if you are conducting international B2B market research because when vague phrases are translated, they can take on completely different meanings in each language.
It’s also critical to ensure that your attributes explore emotional associations rather than just focusing on the rational. That can be done in various ways; for example, asking participants how a brand makes them feel or conducting an Implicit Association Test.
#10. Ask about competitors, not just your brand.
A brand tracking study will have limited use if you’ve only measured your company’s brand health in a vacuum.
It is also essential to measure your competitors’ brand health. After all, your brand health may look good in isolation, but if competitors have even stronger brands, then there is work to be done.
In some markets, the list of competitors can be lengthy. You may need to prioritize which competitors. But if you shorten the list too much, you potentially miss out on smaller competitors who are growing threats. Some B2B competitor research may be needed to ensure that you get the balance right.
Another consideration when listing rivals is that companies that don’t sell the same products can still be a threat. If you are losing customers to a company in another category, they’re an (indirect competitor). Job-to-be-done research can be useful in identifying these indirect competitors.
#11. When analyzing the data, identify different attitudinal segments.
Generally, when analyzing brand health data, researchers focus on two things:
- The overall results showing brand health at a high level
- The results by different respondent types, to try and identify sectors or job titles that differ in their perceptions
But this approach potentially misses vital elements of the story. Just because two individuals have the same job titles or work in the same sector doesn’t mean they have the same perceptions of your brand.
There may be different attitudinal segments within the target audience that wouldn’t be revealed by a traditional approach. For example, one audience may perceive you as over-priced but feel stuck with you as there are no alternatives. Another segment may have a strong affinity for the brand without really understanding what it stands for.
A more nuanced, segmented approach to analysis can unlock a deeper understanding of brand health and inform more targeted remedies.
To develop attitudinal segments, you should use a similar statistical approach to a typical B2B market segmentation. To learn more, contact us.
#12. And when reporting, don’t just dump data/dashboards.
Like many B2B market research projects, brand tracking studies provide businesses with fascinating insights and data points. But these insights are often lost because researchers don’t clearly articulate the research findings.
Reports are often long and full of copy-and-pasted dashboards, with little effort to focus on the small number of data points that reveal something interesting.
Adience uses story-telling and visualization techniques to ensure that reports aren’t just a ‘data dump.’
Why it is important to track brand health
There are many benefits to having a strong brand. But it isn’t easy to build one. Marketers spend a lot of time and budget on brand-building and brand management efforts.
Brand tracking studies allow marketers to check that their efforts are being well-spent by measuring overall brand health and monitoring how it is changing over time.
Best practices when conducting B2B brand tracking research
Key tips: don’t do it too frequently (in B2B markets); get your employees’ perspective; think carefully about which external audiences to include; if possible, avoid mentioning you’re sponsoring the research; you don’t have to (just) do a survey; don’t ask too many questions, and follow best practises when designing them; each time you conduct the study, be consistent but not too rigid; pick the right ‘hero’ metric; get emotional; ask about competitors, not just your brand; when analyzing the data, identify different attitudinal segments; when reporting, don’t just dump data/ dashboards
Chris Wells is a B2B marketing researcher and strategist. He was previously on the management team at B2B research specialist Circle Research, winners of the Best Research Agency at the 2016 MRS Awards. Chris has helped to deliver hundreds of research and strategy projects for B2B organizations.