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Monday, 20 October 2014

Tracking at the crossroads

It’s a long time since continuous tracking of brand perceptions emerged as vital tool for marketers, and while a constant process of innovation has moved tracking along over the last 40 years, we’re now at a crossroads.

Tracking needs to evolve from all encompassing single studies to measuring a brand’s performance using a range of best-of-breed tools to address multiple, and more complex, issues and objectives – such as whether a new ad campaign has led to increased awareness, sales, or both, and how individual channels are contributing to long-term sales.

Where it all began
Invented by Maurice Millward and Gordon Brown, the founders of Millward Brown, in the 1970s, brand tracking gave insight and advice that helped marketers measure the impact of their marketing campaigns.

Tracking informed marketing decisions and shaped future brand strategies. In time, this longitudinal data also provided learning about the activities that deliver brand growth and how advertising contributes to this. For instance, it became clear that most ads don’t wear out and that the most important attributes in a category are often the most difficult to change.

Challenges along the road
Tracking continued to be an invaluable tool in the decades that followed. The use of tracking to monitor Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that could be reported to executives on an ongoing basis added to the value of the studies but also indirectly meant that the immediate actionability of tracking data was given a lower priority. As a consequence the reason for having large samples was questioned and, as pressure on costs increased these were reduced, limiting the ability to provide fast, reliable feedback.

Additional pressure on brand tracking came from the growing multimedia environment, since tracking studies cannot cover all media in sufficient detail. Tracking can provide a high-level read on one or two media but cannot realistically provide the breadth of coverage needed by most multimedia campaigns.

The availability of cheap continuous feedback from the web – and from social media analytics in particular – was a further pressure for large-scale brand tracking studies.

Tracking’s versatility became a drawback as it was directed to cover more ground with less power behind it.

The view at the crossroads
New challenges continue to emerge. Respondents, especially in the most desirable demographic groups, don’t want to engage with long, repetitious surveys.

But some challenges are more of a perceived than a real threat. The gathering of unstructured data by brands from online sources for example does not nullify the need for a structured survey. While social media data is clearly important for certain types of brands – such as those that conduct their business online or who are managing customer or community relationships – for others, coverage on social media is at a lower level and often generated by a vocal minority relating to specific events.

As researchers are well aware, analysing unstructured online information has value, but if it is evaluated in isolation then it may present a distorted and partial view. Businesses need to know what is changing and a self-appointed online group will not usually provide a consistent frame of reference that is needed to discern if real change is occurring.

It’s clear that the way researchers conduct tracking has to change with the times, but where do we go from here?

The road ahead
Regular, timely and reliable feedback remains critical for brands to compete in today’s fast moving, complex and highly competitive markets. There is no question that monitoring the underlying long-term trajectory of their brands as well as the short-term effects of in-market activity is essential but how do we capture that information most efficiently?

Marketers need to move from single bulky studies to carefully structured, coherent and connected programmes. These ‘brand performance’ programmes can employ individual tools that are best suited to address specific issues. To understand how a new ad campaign has broken through for example, a short study with a robust sample executed over two or three days could be what is needed. For quantifying short and long-term brand effects, a cross-media study running over the duration of the campaign with enough questionnaire space to ask the relevant questions for all paid, owned and earned media might be the best solution.

Feedback on executions and campaigns can be provided either continuously or on an intermittent, fast turnaround basis immediately after the start of a campaign. Either method will allow timely adjustments to be made if necessary.

The individual components of such a programme should provide a platform for integrated storytelling. They should be glued together by consistent brand measures that address central questions – such as how marketing is expected to influence the brand and what attitudes or ideas about the brand need to change. All programmes should be underpinned by a detailed understanding of brand equity insights that identifies the process through which associations build brand equity and how that equity manifests itself in the financial performance of the brand. This makes it clear what marketing actions need to be taken and what KPIs need to be captured in the ongoing monitoring.

Gordon Pincott is chairman of global solutions at Millward Brown

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