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Competing on Image Isn't Enough: Why and How to Make Your Brand an Expression of Identity

Posted by Dr. Erica Carranza

Wed, Jan 24, 2018

girl with coffee.jpeg

Brand image matters.

For marketers, that’s a truism—and for good reason. Brand image does matter. I see evidence of it every day, in the work we do at CMB, uncovering insights that help brands craft winning strategies. We spend a lot of time helping our clients decide how to fine-tune their brand image, market it effectively, support it with products and customer experiences, and track their progress. Some brands have been wildly successful in their pursuit of a brand image that has helped them maintain a competitive edge (e.g., Disney is “magical,” Apple is “innovative,” Walmart is “affordable”).

But the traditional focus on brand image hasn’t kept-up with people’s lives.

We live in a world where people are inundated with options. Are you looking for something to eat? Something to watch? Something to wear? Whatever it is, rest assured you’ll have lots of possibilities. Even something as mundane as shampoo yields over 100,000 hits on Amazon. It’s gotten to the point where scientists are studying the effects of “too much choice” on our wellbeing.

In a market this saturated, competing on brand image is no longer enough.

Most brands already strive to communicate a positive brand image and a well-defined set of brand benefits. In every industry, many brands are vying for the same customers and claiming the same (or similar) attributes. People are quick to say that Apple is “innovative”—but they say the same thing about Samsung. So, when they’re choosing their next smartphone, “innovative” won’t be a deciding factor.

Furthermore, competing on brand benefits (like service, cost, and convenience) isn’t always practical. I witnessed that firsthand in my time at American Express. Great customer service and Membership Rewards were once part of a unique value proposition. But, nowadays, card benefits offered by one brand are quickly copied by others, and the industry is stuck in a “race to the bottom.” In their efforts to beat competitors and increase share, brands are undercutting profitability to offer ever richer card rewards.

What’s a brand to do in a world where it’s gotten this hard to compete on brand image and benefits?

The answer: Compete on brand tribe.

People love brands that help them express their identities. And, thanks to the explosion of options for consumers, every choice is now a chance to express who we are.

Yet decades of scientific research have shown that our identities are social—they are shaped by our social groups, norms, and connections. Who we are depends on our real and aspirational relationships with other people. So truly strategic brands lead people to equate using the brand with joining a tribe that expresses an identity. And the secret to creating that connection is a clear, compelling brand customer image. After all, brands aren’t people. But brand customers are.

Your brand’s customer image is the mental picture people have of the kind of person who typically buys or uses your brand. It’s related to brand image, but it’s not the same. To take one of my favorite examples, consider Subaru. When we ask people to describe the brand Subaru, they say “safe” and “reliable.” But when we ask them to describe the typical Subaru owner, they say “middleclass,” “family-focused,” and “outdoorsy.” They picture someone with kids and a dog, who likes to hike, and who supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primaries. There’s a lot of nuance to their image of the typical Subaru customer—including attributes a person can embody, but a brand cannot.

Of course no image of your brand’s typical customer will truly capture your actual customer base. Your brand’s customer image is more like a stereotype: A set of overgeneralized assumptions about typical members of your brand tribe. But people tend to rely on stereotypes—often unconsciously—in order to navigate our complex world. Accordingly, brand customer image has powerful effects on consumer behavior.

For example, at CMB we’ve found that:

  • When people identify with their image of a brand customer, they are 14-times more likely to choose that brand, and 15-times more likely to recommend it.
  • As predictors of brand engagement, our measures of identification with the perceived customer routinely beat perceptions of the brand—even on dimensions as important as quality, price, value, service, convenience, authenticity, reputability, and innovation.

Taking all this into account, it’s no surprise that many of the most iconic ad campaigns have invoked a clear, compelling customer image. Remember “I’m a Mac / I’m a PC”? Dove’s “Real Beauty”? Or the insidiously cliquey “Choosy moms choose Jif”?

To effectively compete on brand tribe, make sure that you have answers to these three questions:

  1. What is your brand’s current customer image? Does your target audience already have an image of the kind of person who uses the brand? If so, how clear is it? What attributes define that image (e.g., what demographics, motives, and values)? And what (if anything) makes it unique compared to competitors’ customer images?
  1. How compelling is that image? Is it an image of a person your target audience can relate to? Is it a kind of person they know and like, or would like to know? Does it represent an “ingroup” or an “outgroup” tribe—and how appealing is it compared to their images of competitor brand tribes?
  1. How can you optimize that image? What’s working about the image, and what isn’t? Which assumptions should you reinforce—and which should you work to change—to own a customer image that is compelling and unique for your audience, and realistically attainable for your brand?

If we want to influence consumer behavior, we must remember that consumers are people, and that people are social animals. Show them a group that they want to belong to, and they’ll adopt the attitudes and behaviors they believe to be normative (i.e., typical) for that group—including choosing the same brand.

Yet most brands today are not leveraging this powerful insight in a truly disciplined, quantitatively-validated, systematic way. 

And in the current competitive context—across industries—it’s more important than ever. Brands assume that consumers are asking themselves, “What brand do I want to use?” But, at a deeper and more decisive level, they are really asking: “Who do I want to be? Do I want to be the kind of person who uses this brand?”

Interested in learning more about how CMB leverages consumer psychology, advanced analytics, and market strategy to help clients build customer-centric brands? Watch out latest webinar on BrandFx and the three critical pieces to the brand engagement puzzle:

Watch Now

Topics: brand health and positioning, Identity, AffinID

BrandFx: How to Fix Brands' Consumer-sized Blind Spot

Posted by Mark Doherty

Mon, Nov 27, 2017

Today’s executives are investing money, mind- and man-power into cracking the code of the Empowered Consumer. Every client I speak with understands the importance of developing a consumer-centric culture and strategy, and they are putting millions into making this a reality. But there's a pervasive problem affecting brands across industries—while research and insights have generally kept up with this evolution in consumer-centric thinking (witness the growth of ethnographic work and customer journey mapping), brand tracking has not. Most brands are still tracking their brand health through measures focusing solely on their brand and not on the consumers.

Just as retail stores are transforming their floor plans and service firms are overhauling their operations to enhance their customer-centricity, today’s brand health measurement and tracking needs to change, too. Trackers must put the consumer first and uncover how well consumers see “what’s in it for them”—specifically—how they benefit from being a customer. This is why we’ve introduced a truly comprehensive and holistic approach to consumer-powered brand measurement—BrandFx.

BrandFx focuses on what consumers want from a brand—the benefits driving purchase, loyalty and advocacy—and provides specific guidance and critical, concrete recommendations on what to (and what not to) communicate:

  • Identity Benefits: What should you communicate about who your customers are?
  • Emotional Benefits: How do you want people to feel about your brand?
  • Functional Benefits: What should you say people will get from your products/services?

It’s true that many brand trackers already cover elements of this approach. For example, some have transformed their functional brand attributes into functional benefits, and new thinking about the role of emotion in purchase decisions has led to a battery of emotional benefits in a growing number of trackers.

However, very few have incorporated benefits associated with consumer social identity, and as a result, they are missing out on a critical piece of the brand puzzle: The more the image of a brand’s typical customer represents a “tribe” they connect with or aspire to be part of, the more that consumer will try, buy, and recommend the brand.

 Our research shows that, when consumers identify with their image of a brand’s customer, they are 12-times more likely to consider the brand. And our proprietary assessment of a brand’s performance on these Identity benefits, AffinID, has proven to be a better predictor of brand engagement than the standard brand tracking metrics (functional and emotional) most brands rely upon.

BrandFx4blog.png

Advanced analytics provide insight into how these three types of benefits—Identity, Emotional, and Functional—fit together to explain how they drive the key outcomes of consideration, purchase and loyalty. In the example below we see how benefit composition varies by brand—highlighting key areas for differentiation.

brandpies.png

After three decades of refreshing and reviving brand measurement programs, we know the challenges for insights professionals charged with running trackers. Some of these are technical (making 30-minute questionnaires mobile-friendly), and some of these are strategic (balancing trackability with addressing the needs of a changing market). Brand tracking programs need to be designed with the flexibility to meet these challenges through analytics, technology, and thoughtful strategic planning. We understand these challenges and specialize in working with clients to tackle them successfully.

The bottom line is that consumers aren’t conducting business as usual and brands can’t afford to either.

Does your brand measurement have a blind spot?  Join CMB's Mark Doherty and Kate Zilla-Ba for a webinar: BrandFx: Consumer-powered Brand Measurement to learn more about transforming your brand measurement program into one that is truly consumer powered.

Watch Now

Topics: consumer insights, brand health and positioning, BrandFx

The Social Identity Effect: How one Millennial “Found Herself” at the MFA After Midnight

Posted by Lisa Hoffman

Wed, Nov 15, 2017

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Shortly after midnight last weekend, I was surprised when someone suggested that we head to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). Despite my love of art, while interning at the museum in college, I learned that people like me were not its "typical" daily visitors. Asked to conjure up an image of those who go to the MFA—an imposing neoclassical building located in Boston’s Fenway—I pictured school groups, white-haired docents, and tourists…lots of tourists.  I did not envision urban millennials looking for a respite from the Boston bar scene. Not until I saw it for myself.

In 2014, the MFA set out to grow their audience and take advantage of a city teeming with recent college graduates. They needed to continue to appeal to their typical daytime patrons (those older tourists, families, and school groups), but with a new director in place, the MFA saw an opportunity to become a sought-after destination for Boston’s millennials. So, the museum launched #mfaNOW—a series of late-night parties, artistic celebrations, and lectures targeted at young Bostonians looking for a fun night out.

These events are an incredible success—hundreds of millennials are lining up at the door on weekend nights, sharing on social, and bringing their friends because they now see themselves as MFA museum goers. The MFA is experiencing the social identity effect validated by our research: to change the image of the brand, you need to change the image of the typical brand customer.

I experienced it myself that night, as I wandered through a crowd of hip overnight revelers, my perception of the museum and museum-goers began to change. It wasn’t because of the heart-pumping music and flashing lights—though those were cool. It changed because I was immersed in people like me—young city-dwelling professionals—people I could understand, relate to, and who I wanted to be with. It felt like at any point I could run into someone I knew in the crowd, making the night an experience I was excited to share with my friends, either later online, or at the next event!

As the results of our research show, who consumers imagine as your brand's "typical" customer really matters. In fact, consumers are 12x more likely to consider brands when they can identify with their image of its typical user. So, brands looking to influence or change their brand perception need to consider who their typical (or target) customer is and create experiences and offer services and products that appeal to that person.

See it in action:

The MFA changed the image of its stereotypical visitor when it introduced #mfaNOW. It offers millennials—people like me—the opportunity to see their peers experiencing (and enjoying) the museum in an entirely different context than a typical daytime visit—a paradigm shift for an established brand.

Learn more about how we’re helping clients leverage the critical role of identity to create truly customer-centered brands. 

Topics: brand health and positioning, Identity, AffinID

Namesake: The Next KPI?

Posted by Laura Blazej

Wed, Aug 16, 2017

Pharah II.jpg

When my fiancé and I adopted our first dog a few months ago, we wanted to name her something meaningful… something that we wouldn’t grow tired of saying over and over. We landed on “Pharah,” after the rocket-launcher-wielding, jetpack-flying, altogether-badass character from one our favorite video games, Overwatch. As a market researcher charged with measuring brand health and loyalty, I started to wonder what naming my new pup “Pharah” says about my relationship with Overwatch?

This is the kind of question we ask when we’re measuring brand health. To gauge the strength of the relationship between consumers and a particular brand, we look at metrics—called Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)—to help indicate how a brand is doing. While namesake might not be a legitimate KPI (yet!), there are loads of others we measure in order to help our clients understand their brand health:

Unaided Awareness

  • Definition: The ability to recall a brand without help (This is different from Aided Awareness, which is the ability to recognize a listed brand)
  • Common question to gauge this metric: “Thinking about [industry], what brands come to mind?” (Respondent provides open ended answers)
  • Goal: Unaided awareness determines whether there is an existing relationship between the consumer and brand
  • Fit: Unaided awareness is a useful metric for smaller, newer, or regional brands who are working on improving their brand recognition. For example, the regional brand, University of Pittsburg Medical Center, would focus on unaided awareness, whereas the universal brand, Google, wouldn’t

Top of Mind Awareness

  • Definition: The first brand recalled without help in an open-end response
  • Common question wording: “Thinking about [industry], what brand first comes to mind?”
  • Goal: Top of mind awareness gauges either the most loved, the most hated, or the most prevalent brand to each consumer in any given industry
  • Fit: Useful for established brands who want to be first in consumers’ consideration set

Net Promoter Score (NPS)

  • Definition: The willingness of customers to recommend a company’s products or services to others. To calculate NPS score, we subtract the percentage of those unlikely to recommend the brand from the percentage of those likely to promote it
  • Common question wording: “How likely are you to recommend this brand to a friend or family member?”
  • Goal: This metric determines the magnitude and valence of the relationship between consumer and brand—that is, how strong or weak the relationship is (farther or closer to 0), and whether the relationship is positive or negative
  • Fit: NPS is useful to measure holistic loyalty since it accounts for both the high and low end of the scale in a single metric

Funnel/Pyramid Metrics

  • Definition: Often comprised of awareness, familiarity, favorability, preference, likelihood to purchase, and/or likelihood to recommend shown as descending or ascending bar lengths, forming a funnel or pyramid shape
  • Common question wording: Surveyed as a series of questions that touch on the aforementioned metrics
  • Goal: This metric focuses on the whole picture by following the entire journey to purchase/loyalty and the conversion ratios between each step
  • Fit: Useful as a big-picture approach to pinpoint where along the journey to focus marketing efforts

Preference

  • Definition: Likelihood to choose a brand over its competitors
  • Common question wording: “Which brand is the one you prefer?” among a list of brands
  • Goal: Preference is like NPS in that it measures loyalty, however it does so by comparing the brand against the competitive market
  • Fit: This metric is useful for brands that are already well-known and working on improving loyalty in a competitive market
Pharah-1.jpg

And very often we create a unique secret-sauce combination of some or all of these metrics, called Brand Strength Scores, for some clients. These special scores use several metrics at varying weights determined specifically for the clients’ goals, industry, and competitive market to calculate a single score to compare against competitors and evaluate change over time.

The point is, there’s no prescribed “right” set of KPIs to track when measuring brand health. These metrics are used to answer different questions, and what KPI a brand like Bank of America might use is probably a lot different than what makes sense for a regional credit union.

However, and this MAY be a stretch, I’d argue namesake would be a great way to gauge ultimate commitment and loyalty to a brand—regardless of size. When I was thinking about what to name Pharah, I thought about the things I love and wouldn't mind repeating (shouting?) for the next decade. To name a pet, or even a person, after a character or brand indicates a level of commitment to that brand that isn’t measured by the conventional KPIs described above.

Who knows, maybe “How likely are you to name a pet after this brand?” will start to show up in our brand health questionnaires.

Laura Blazej is a Senior Associate Researcher at CMB who enjoys playing video games with her new pup.

Topics: brand health and positioning, customer experience and loyalty

The Power of Identity: A Look at Super Bowl LI Advertising

Posted by Savannah House

Fri, Feb 10, 2017

As a Boston-based strategy and research firm, we CMBers had high expectations for both the Patriots’ performance and of course, the Super Bowl ads. I’m happy to report that neither disappointed.

111 million people tuned into last Sunday’s game, making Super Bowl LI the fifth most-watched TV broadcast in history. But of those 111 million people, surely not all of them are Pats, Falcons, or even football fans. So while it’s hard for us New Englanders to believe, some people watch the Super Bowl (at least in part) for the commercials. After all, each year brands vie to have the most talked and tweeted about ad – setting the bar high to deliver quality, original, and memorable content.

In this divisive time, many brands were commended for tackling culturally relevant issues head on. And while I thought there were a number of really beautiful ads, I’d like to suggest a few other criteria for evaluation: 

  • How well does the ad align with the Super Bowl occasion?
  • Could you connect the ad to the brand and the value of the brand?
  • Did it communicate a compelling image of the brand’s typical user?
Question three is of particular interest to me because it’s related to our newest research solution, AffinIDSM.  AffinID helps brands understand their target consumers’ image of the typical person who uses their brand and finds ways to strategically influence that image to strengthen how much consumers identify with the image. Our research shows that the more consumers can identify with their image of the typical person who uses the brand, the more they will try, buy, pay for, and recommend the brand. This way of measuring brand perception is different from the traditional brand-centric approach (“What do I think of the brand?”) because it focuses on perceived brand user image.

AffinID measures how compelling a brand user image is based on its clarity, relatability, and social desirability; so from an advertising perspective, we’re interested in evaluating how well the spot communicates a clear, relatable, and socially desirable message of who the brand’s typical consumer is.

That said, I thought it’d be fun to review a few popular Super Bowl LI ads through an AffinID lens:

"Romance" from Skittles
Created by: Adam & Eve/DDB

Reminiscent of the classic “pebbles at the window” scene, Skittles “Romance” features a love struck teenager throwing Skittles through his beloved’s bedroom window. The Skittles are intended for his love, but unbeknownst to the teen, she’s actually letting her mom, dad, grandmother, home intruder, policeman, beaver (?) etc. take turns catching candy in their mouths.

  • Clarity: Skittles is sending the message that everyone (even beavers?) eats their candy. While this inclusive message resonates with a wide audience, it may diminish the brand’s clarity of who the stereotypical customer is.
  • Relatability: “Romance” features a wide range of Skittles customers, making its image of the typical user highly relatable. 
  • Social Desirability: From the looks of the ad, everyone seems to be having a great time eating Skittles. Who wouldn’t want to be friends with them?

Skittles_AffinID.png

"Yearbooks" from Honda
Created by: RPA

Bust out your high tops and cassette tapes because Honda’s “Yearbooks” will take you for a trip down memory lane. “Yearbooks” features animated yearbook pictures of heavy hitters like Tina Fey, Robert Redford, Steve Carrell, Missy Elliott, Viola Davis and Jimmy Kimmel celebrating the notion of “chasing dreams and the amazing places they lead” yearbooks typically evoke.

  • Clarity: While it’s fun to see high school versions of celebrities like Amy Adams and Magic Johnson, the ad features so many different people that it’s not clear who the typical Honda CR-V driver is.
  • Relatability: I think to some extent we can all relate to someone in this ad. Even though they’re famous celebrities who may not be relatable in real life, in the ad they’re portrayed as normal high school students excited about their future. And really, who didn’t go through an awkward high school phase?
  • Social Desirability: This is undoubtedly a fun ad, but there’s not a strong social desirability here. Though warm-hearted, it doesn’t portray an aspirational social identity like other car commercials do – specifically ones that feature successful and sexy drivers.
Honda_AffinID.png

"Google Home" from Google
Created by: 72andSunny

The Google Home spot hasn’t gotten much love in “best of” articles about this year’s Super Bowl ads, but it may have helped Google Home take major strides across “the chasm”—while unintentionally setting off a bunch of the systems in homes of those who already had it. In the 60 second spot, the voice-activated smart speaker “welcomes” home people from a variety of backgrounds (younger, older, parents, pet-owners) and is used, seemingly with ease, to do things like turn on the lights and translate helpful phrases like “Nice to meet you” from English to Spanish.

  • Clarity: Mass market consumers probably lack a clear image of kind of person who has a virtual assistant—or assume that it’s an affluent early-adopter. While the people shown in the Google Home spot were diverse, they all shared an “everyday” quality that was likely clearer and more relevant than the image most Super Bowl viewers had had before they saw it.
  • Relatability: Where Google Home lacks clarity, it makes up for in relatability. Since the ad features people from all walks of life, it’s pretty easy to find someone you can relate to – whether it’s the young couple with sleepy kids or the mother in need of an ingredient substitution while she cooks for her family.
  • Social Desirability: The ad’s feel-good theme throughout makes me want to jump into any of the scenes – it’s 60 seconds of friends and family hugging, laughing, and loving. If that’s not socially desirable, I don’t know what is.
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As marketing, insights, and advertising professionals know, there’s way more to developing and testing messaging than my quick “analysis”. That’s why we created AffinID – to help brands and their agencies develop effective, consumer-centric strategies for growth by recognizing the power of consumer identity in brand decision-making. 

Learn more about AffinID by watching our latest webinar with Dr. Erica Carranza—CMB’s VP of Consumer Psychology. And let us know which ads you found engaging (or not) in the comments.

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Savannah House is a Senior Marketing Coordinator at CMB who places as much weight on the quality of the Super Bowl snacks as she does the commercials.

Topics: consumer insights, brand health and positioning, AffinID