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How to Effectively Evaluate Brands with Qualitative Research

Quantitative research has a vast number of uses and in the internet era is widely available to businesses of virtually any size. However, the idea that brand evaluation can be conducted purely with quantitative methods is fundamentally flawed. As Mike Owen points out in the book Developing Brands with Qualitative Research, the traditional social survey has a number of pitfalls when it comes to dealing with concepts as psychologically complex as a brand.

These include: withheld information, unconscious or latent desires, questioning based on pre-defined assumptions and communicated meaning.

These, Owen suggests, are the reasons that quantitative brand evaluations are doomed from the start. Because researchers will all too often conduct a brand evaluation with pre-determined ideas of the outcome, or even their own conceptions of brand meaning, it is nearly impossible to separate this positivist bias from genuine statistical response. So, if these are the challenges of quantitative research, how can qualitative research be used to effectively negate such issues?

Always Ask Why

Perhaps one of the core benefits of qualitative research is the ability to directly associate reasoning and thought. By focusing on participant experiences, values and perceptions interpretivist research is conducted. The most obvious method of achieving this is through the laddering technique (also sometimes known as A-C-V sequencing).

A-C-V stands for Attributes, Consequences and Values. The idea of this technique is to start simple by identifying attributes of the brand that participants have opinions, then make abstract the questioning by seeking the consequences of this; for example, a consumer may prefer cars which feel faster, the consequence of which is the impression of freedom. Finally, associate the consequence with a core value of the participant.

By laddering questions and asking participants to think in incrementally more abstract terms, it is possible to connect brand perceptions with more deep-rooted values and identities. Moreover, it gives structure to qualitative techniques and gives room for brands to further build on both attributes and values.

Incorporate Multiple Methods

Using more than one method of research has a number of benefits. In longitudinal studies it can ensure that participants do not become easily fatigued. However even in shorter qualitative studies, using multiple methods can force participants to think in different ways and mentally apply brand values in different situations.

For example, consumers may show very different opinions of a brand in group research activities compared to intimate research diaries. Of course, to some extent this could be attributed to the phenomena of groupthink. But it also reflects something more potent: the multiple identities that consumers possess. It was Belk who originally outlined this theory, stating that possessions and brands contribute to a sense of self. However, more recent marketing theory has suggested that consumers in fact have multiple identities and thus will interact differently with brands in different scenarios.

This has some interesting implications for researchers, as it suggests that studying multiple participants is no longer enough. To effectively evaluate a brand, it must be investigated under multiple different circumstances. From a purchasing mind set, to at home daily interactions, it is important to study the full range of consumer activities and build a full picture of how brands are integrated into the multiple selves.

Use Multiple Stimuli

Ensure participants remain engaged during your research by introducing a wide range of stimuli and tasks, from marketing and advertising materials, to the products and services themselves. By introducing participants to multiple brand elements, it is possible to track their perception over time, as well as differences in opinion between brand elements.

Using different stimuli can also encourage brand co-creation. Digital scrapbooks for example, invite participants to pin images and create their own mood boards based on sentiment. These scrapbooks can then be used to inform brand guidelines, from tone of voice to use of imagery and even abstract concepts such as values and propositions.

Continuously Evaluate and Refine

It may seem obvious, but a continuous cycle of evaluation and refinement should always be a priority for a company. In the age of the internet where consumer sentiment can change almost instantly, brands must always be listening and monitoring brand perceptions and constantly re-aligning their original positioning.

The rise of social listening tools has made this easier than ever. However social listening can only provide a snapshot of how consumers interact and discuss brands. For deeper insight into the psyche behind this behaviour, it should be constantly supplemented by insight driven qualitative research. The two key ways of achieving this are through consumer diaries and communities.

Diary research provides the opportunity for brands to measure and track how consumer opinion changes over time. Communities, on the other hand, provide group-based feedback and can form the basis of a microcosm used to understand how brand-centric interaction forms and develops.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that brand evaluation can be tricky to master. Each brand will have different touchpoints and visibilities within consumers’ day-to-day lives. Further complicating this is how brands are integrated differently into the multiple identities consumer behaviour suggest exist. However, with carefully planned qualitative research and more access than ever before to innovative research tools, brands can effectively monitor and refine their core values and proposition to stay current, relevant and fresh.

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