Market research managers are often asked to answer this question. It is critical to understand how our customers perceive our brand — and our competitors’ brands. After all, brand is one of the few things about of our products that a competitor cannot copy. It is something we can control. Building brand equity is a critical element in increasing a firm’s profits.
In the market research community, product demand is often thought of as the sum of the desirability of a product’s parts or attributes. This concept can help us better understand brand — and how brand equity can be strengthened.
Think of attributes as falling into one of two categories, Tangible features and Intangible features.
An example for an auto is…
Notice that I have left off brand? We often think of brand as another attribute when customers buy a product. However, I will explain in a moment why I think this is a flawed paradigm.
Brand is not a feature of a product; instead, think of brand as a bucket that holds other features– the intangible features.
When a customer buys a car, there are many attributes that they desire. A particular color. A certain fuel economy. An engine with a certain horsepower. These are all demonstrably tangible features. One can easily prove whether a car has these or not. They are not subject to opinion.
Customers also desire attributes such as reliability, great support, or prestige. These are attributes also — but they are attributes that are difficult to quantify. It is difficult to prove how reliable a car will be over its life. I call these “intangible features.”
They are subject to opinion. They are not listed on the specifications sheet for a car.
But often these intangible features determine which make and model of car a customer chooses. These intangible features are often more important that the tangible features that show up on a specifications sheet.
Think of brand as the bucket into which all of the intangible features fall. When one thinks of an auto, the brand represents all of those important attributes that are not easily quantified — reliability, service and support, ease of repair, prestige, etc. Therefore, brand, in and of itself, is not something that a customer desires. Instead, a customer desires the attributes that the brand represents. And there are likely many attributes that are important to customers.
If a customer believes that Brand A represents reliability and if reliability is very important to the customer, then that customer will prefer Brand A. If Brand B represents prestige and if prestige is important to a person then that person will prefer Brand B. In this way, the brand is a surrogate for attributes that are subjective — that are not easily proven.
With this paradigm, we need to know two things to improve our brand equity. First, we need to know what intangible features are important to customers. Second, we need to understand how our brand stacks up against these tangible features.
A challenge is that the list of intangible features that is important to any given customer can vary. What one customer considers important, another will not care about. Nevertheless, it is critical to discover the complete set of intangible features that are part of the consideration set when a product or service is purchased. Until we identify the full set of intangible features, we do not fully understand how our brand can (and does) perform in the market.
To build long-term brand equity we ideally must identify and strengthen our brand image on the intangible features that customers find most important. Customers can be fickle and preferences change over time. To build a solid brand that helps sales and profitability our brand must represent a full set of intangible features that customers find important at any given time. Relying on too small a subset of these features can leave our brands weak and vulnerable.
Once we understand all of the attributes that connote brand and their relative importance, we then must devise a way of identifying how we measure up versus our competitors. Who is the strongest on “prestige?” On “reliability?” On “cares about me as a customer?” Until we have a full list of the intangible features that influence the purchase decision for a product or service (and know their relative importance), we are unable to measure where our brand ranks; hence, we are not able to develop a coherent strategy for strengthening our brand equity.
Following this logic, a brand represents many intangible features that any given customer finds important. In order to strengthen a brand we need to strengthen our position on each of the important intangible features. Any attempt at strengthening our brand with one single message will likely fall short. After all, a brand is a bucket containing many intangible features. While our brand may be perceived as strong on one attribute, it may be seen as weak on another.