Some further truths about brand image perceptions

by Guest Contributor Josh Samuel | August 15, 2018

Author: Josh Samuel

Josh Samuel
Kantar Millward Brown
Global Head of Innovations

In his latest blog post, Byron Sharp has some pretty strong words to say about brand tracking. As usual, there is lots in his post that is true and important to say, but not that much that is as new or challenging as the headline suggests.

It has long been known that the relationship between image associations and brand purchase is circular – brand associations feed purchase decisions, usage feeds brand associations. One reason to try to build particular image associations is to help get the brand recognised and trigger consumer interest in brands. But more than this, advertising that emphasises the best things about the brand experience acts as a framing device for that brand experience, thus priming consumers to notice those positive attributes of the brand when they come to use it. This, in turn, builds the desired associations more strongly, feeding into the next purchase. (See here for a brief discussion of the evidence for this vital, but often forgotten, advertising mechanism, for which there is evidence dating back to the 90s).


So, when a market research practitioner tracks brand associations they are doing so not in the naïve belief that the image association will move massively first and then weeks or months later purchase will follow. Nor do they have the expectation of some simple one-way causal relationship with no feedback (that can occasionally happen with highly rational persuasive messaging, ‘try this new product with this new recipe’, ‘get our special offer’ etc - but that is certainly the exception not the rule), rather they are tracking brand associations alongside tracking sales; to check whether the intended virtuous circle is being achieved, as per strategy.

Furthermore, when practitioners measure image associations at a point in time, they are usually looking for the relative strengths and weaknesses of brands, to help understand which attributes stand out relative to what we’d expect given the size of the brand. As Sharp suggests in the blog post, this helps shed light on which attributes will help get the brand recognised, but it also helps unpick what makes the brand likeable and differentiates the brand. Again, while I know that Sharp doesn’t accept that brands being likeable and differentiated helps fuel growth, there is strong evidence that it, in fact, does - see figure 1 here).

 Knowing for what the brand stands, and which attributes tend to relate to likeability, differentiation and purchase (for both your brand and competitors), can all help decide where to focus those communications messages; to have the best chance of being recognised and setting up that virtuous cycle of enhancement described above – but it always needs an overlay of practical marketing thinking to understand for what a given brand can possibly hope to stand (which elements of its brand experience can it possible hope to prime people to notice and then deliver on).

But what do you think? Do you agree with Byron Sharp’s assessment? Please share your thoughts.


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  1. Josh Samuel, August 16, 2018

    Thanks Diane. To be clear, I agree with some of Byron's assessment. Namely, that we shouldn't expect a simple one-way causal relationship of: I advertise a particular message => image perceptions change => people buy the brand more. The relationship is much more complex. But Byron, then jumps to saying the only value of image perceptions is in helping get brands recognised. I don't agree with that. There is strong evidence that communications messaging can help frame the brand experience, in turn helping to build image perceptions and support long-term sales growth.

    That is the virtuous cycle I am referring to. And to take advantage of that potential virtuous circle, brand owners need to decide on comms messaging that will help positively frame and thus enhance the brand experience (image perception research is critical to this decision). Furthermore, to monitor success, they need to track the relevant image perceptions.

    I think this is equally true in retail as it is in most other categories.

    I also agree though (with what I think may be your point) that retail and other service industries offer more opportunity (and danger!) of changing the brand experience itself (through the in-store service, the online service, the range stocked etc). Much of this can be tracked directly with customer experience research, but broader tracking of brand image perceptions is also important to understand the net effect of all of that. Again though, in sympathy to Byron's criticism, I would suggest focusing on tracking the image perceptions that you are trying to affect (through enhancing the actual brand experience or the way comms frames that brand experience), and things that you have seen move quickly historically, rather than just tracking everything just in case (which can be the tendency). 

  2. Diane Lauridsen, August 15, 2018
    In principle, I agree with Byron's assessment.  Where it may differ a bit is when talking about retailers rather than FMCG brands.  In the case of retailers, how do you feel Byron's assessment would be modified, if at all? 

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