Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Challenges of B2B Branding Research

The B2B marketing teams across the world have only recently begun to look beyond the myth that says that “branding is relevant only in B2C categories”. They have finally awoken to the fact that if they understand and utilize the concept of branding, they will fare better than their competitors. They are realizing that developing brand awareness among customers’ customers can help capture a larger share of channel margins and build loyalty that can protect them against price-based competition.

However, there are some basic dynamics that impact B2B marketing significantly and these need to be taken into consideration while developing branding and marketing programs for the B2B segment.

For one, there are, usually, only a few buyers and more over, they are not as transitory as the buyers in the B2C space tend to be. Therefore, both developing and maintaining relationships becomes an important part of the marketing agenda. While this is rather obvious to the B2B marketer, he tends to forget the fact that there is a need to constantly evaluate and thereby strengthen these relationships.

Secondly, the positioning of a B2B brand needs to be done in a way that will ensure a proper fit, accuracy and relevance.  Marketing research plays a crucial role in helping  B2B firms define this positioning.

Thirdly, B2B marketer’s survival kit is, good information about the size and structure of the market. Knowing the size and structure of the market is very essential for the company to enable it to formulate its strategic objectives. Most B2B companies specialize in a narrow market sector and therefore it is necessary to assess the market size and structure from a number of different angles. This adds precision and confidence to the figures and will increase the understanding of how the market is constructed.

Finally, marketing teams in B2B firms suffer from a tendency to look at all marketing effort from a rational, sales-driven, and short-term perspective. Often, by virtue of their technical backgrounds they fall a little short in being creative in their marketing approaches. And so, marketing and communication becomes rather dry, rational and standard across brands, making differentiation very difficult, thus leading to the simplest choice factor, Price.

Obviously, market research has the potential to play an important role in B2B marketing; however, amazingly, most B2B companies conduct no market research at all to speak of.  Or, to put it more precisely, they concentrate on various technical statistical data but make no effort to find out the emotional responses within their target group toward their industry's products and/or services.

Since the B2B market is based on manufacturing and producing goods / services whose need is factual, it is assumed that the decision-making process is equally completely rational. It is believed that "we B2B experts are completely logical and never allow any emotional impulses to intervene in our decision-making process..." but this is not exactly so… What is forgotten, however, is that we are human.  Human nature predetermines behavior and so, every action is triggered by an emotional impulse.  We do almost nothing that does not have some emotional impulse to trigger it off.

Logical thinking is the keyword within the B2B industries because it is the ideal which is sought. However, even though theoretically, it is possible to do something without emotion, even routine activities carry some conviction of emotion, be it boredom or the feeling of responsibility or the emotion of being forced to do it against one's own willingness. The emotion is not often obvious to the person because it's so interwoven with thinking, and that just makes emotional impulses more hidden.

Market research in such a setting, is not something researchers look forward to. For the market researcher, B2B research is usually seen as boring. It is so much more interesting, exciting and glamorous to discuss the new ad for a soft drink, rather than listen to engineers talk about the merits of a new development in a pumps brand. The challenge is to get away from the rational 'work mode' in which these projects normally take place.

B2B marketers, for their part are very skeptical of research output, as they are inclined to question the very approach that research adopts, feeling that they are more suitable to the B2C. Industrial and B2B market survey projects are practical, accurate, and reflective of the particular client needs and the nature of the targeted B2B market. Technology market research, therefore, often requires the researcher to be both knowledgeable in the language and concepts of technical issues, while bringing in a fresh approach to technology marketing issues.

The crucial thing in B2B research (as in B2C) is choosing the right approach.

Traditional quantitative methods face many challenges like –

  1. Choosing the sample size – given that the universe itself is small in the case of B2B, even the usual simple random sampling becomes  expensive as it requires a complete list of the companies from which to make the selection. In a country like India, putting together such a comprehensive list is almost impossible and even in cases where it can be done; it is tedious, time-consuming and very expensive.
  2. Setting quotas within an already small sample size, to ensure that you can get the required width and depth of analysis becomes an additional challenge.
  3. Designing the questionnaire itself, requires the researcher to have a thorough knowledge of both the company and the category. Attribute listing becomes critical to the exercise.
  4. Identifying the right individual for administering the questionnaire- each industry and often each firm within an industry tends to follow a different process for choosing a supplier. The people involved in the decision making process can vary drastically as can the decision making process itself. The final decision maker can also vary, from company to company. Therefore, identifying the right individual to meet, becomes a challenge and requires significant time and effort.
  5. Industrial interviewing is often carried out over the telephone for expediency and economy. Although there will be some loss of data, the cost will be one tenth of a face to face interview. The telephone handicaps the interviewer and respondent in some ways. One can never be sure that the presence of other people at the respondent's end is not influencing the answers, and both parties are inhibited by their verbal powers of description. As a result the face to face interview is cherished in industrial market research, calling for special skills in both obtaining and conducting the interview.
So, qualitative approach is more suitable to B2B research? Not necessarily. Qualitative research faces its own challenges in the B2B space –
  1. Geographical spread of the sample proves expensive, even for convenience based qualitative research sample
  2. Access and availability of respondents is a time-consuming process and can end-up consuming twice as many man-days as budgeted
  3. Multiple interviews within an organization become essential to cover all information and to be able to validate it enough to be able to get a comprehensive perspective.
Therefore, it is essential that industrial market research studies begin to use hybrid designs, incorporating both qualitative and quantitative methods.

Quantitative methods using technology can prove to be more effective is B2B research. Email surveys, web-based discussions can be used extensively and relatively economically to produce valuable information. The fact is that industrial teams respond more positively to a computer screen that allows them the flexibility to complete the survey at their convenience, while also letting them cross-check facts as and when required, than to a researcher sitting across from them and wanting the answers there and then.

Qualitative research methods need to go beyond the traditional depth interview approach that is typically used in B2B research and explore possibilities of using ethnographic observations, projective techniques, visual cues etc to elicit responses that go beyond the rational and delve into the emotional.

Therefore while planning and conducting B2B research, researchers as well as marketers need to ensure the following
  1. Plan the research extremely carefully
    1. Carefully put together the list of key information areas and be clear on how you are going to use the information finally
    2. Evaluate the information already available through secondary sources – from industry information to comprehensive contact lists.
    3. Evaluate accessibility – the geographical spread of the sample and the levels of people that you need to meet
    4. Evaluate the number of people you need to meet to get relevant information
  2. Evaluate different research approaches to identify one, or a combination of approaches that will give you maximum input, in the least time consuming and at least cost
    1. Ensure that you allocate sufficient time and people for assignment
    2. B2B research interviews will often involve a great deal of waiting time; will often be re-scheduled and also cancelled. Therefore the time-plan needs to factor in all these eventualities.
  3. B2B research needs a lot more effort on planning and therefore ensure that
    1. All meetings are planned
      1. Obtaining a market research interview is not easy - the respondent believes (with some justification) that he is giving up his valuable time and may be getting little in return. The best way of approaching a respondent is to be confident, clear, pleasant and businesslike.
      2. To the extent possible, fix meetings directly with the respondent and not through others in the organization
    1. Background info is collected before primary phase commences
    2. If using quantitative method, ensure that there are enough  open-ended Q’s that open the possibility of asking “why is that”
    3. If using a qualitative interview approach, they should be semi-structured with sufficient probing
                                                    i.     Avoid sending out list of topics for discussion, questionnaires etc  as it always gives the respondent a reason to back out
  1. Ensure that you leave a door open, so that you can follow-up for additional information if needed.
  2. While analyzing it is necessary to take a bird’s eye view, rather than focusing on the details so that patterns emerge more clearly and more valuable insights can be drawn.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Shifting Sands of Brand Research

The past few decades have seen the emergence of Brands as the make all and break all of businesses across the globe. What was born as an “identity- a name, logo, tagline” has today become the heart and soul of the business. More and more proponents of Branding are canvassing the need for the “brand” to become the central driver of all that a company is, does and wishes to become.

Therefore the brand is becoming recognized as the firm’s most important asset. It has come to represent the cumulative result of all of the company’s activities in the market place. Brands have morphed into investment vehicles that are designed to build perceptions and experiences to influence purchasing patterns and relationships with potential and existing customers.

Most companies that understand and perceive the brand as being central to their activities, base their decisions about the brand on rigorous and vigorous brand research. Yet many marketers and indeed even branding professionals find difficulty in differentiating Brand Research from Market Research. While they understand the importance and power of research in quantifying buyer demand, they are unable to perceive its role and importance in examining the customer’s “brand experience”. Brand research helps firms to define and understand customer expectations, evaluate whether they are being met and finally to explore how to exceed expectations.

In the forthcoming years, brand research will need to foray into the methodologies that are able to delve into emotions and evaluate them as drivers of brand experience. This will require the utilisation of research and design methodologies, techniques and tools that elicit insights into the “WHY” of users goals, needs and motivations and find ways to translate these insights into brand, product and service concepts.

Brand research in India, is likely to see some trend-setting changes over the coming years. While the list here is definitely not exhaustive, it should be indicative of the future.

  1. Pure methods will give way to hybrids
Brand research will need to explore the use of newer technologies as research instruments while delving more heavily into other disciplines such as Anthropology, psychology and cultural studies for devising innovative research designs. Many businesses around the world have already begun to change the way they track and measure their brands by using technology to enhance qualitative techniques. For e.g.,
    1. Using webcams to observe consumer experience in their context of use
    2. Software that tracks consumer content usage on the internet, that researchers then investigate to understand target consumers
    3. Events that take place in focus group style, involving an element of decision making.
The strength of combining quantitative and qualitative techniques will come to be recognised. There will be a heightened awareness of cultural diversity and thereby, the use of techniques that specifically take into account these differences. Alternative approaches that tap into universal, non-verbal aspects of human responses will also begin to become more popular in the context of brand related researches.

  1. Research focus will shift from tracking to understanding
Large quantitative surveys that pre-and post test ad recall will be sidelined as research begins to explore why the ad appealed to consumers and whether the appeal actually translates into purchase
Research efforts will switch focus to understanding consumer emotions, the expression of these emotions and the monitoring of their evolution over time
It is not merely what the consumers think about a brand, that drives brand strategy, but an analysis of the gaps in consumer perceptions and desired brand values. Consumers desired brand values are an outcome of appraisal process that involves rational and non-rational ‘sense evaluation’.

  1. Brand tracks will get replaced by brand audits
A brand audit tells evaluates the brand as it stands in the context of the three sets of market forces that work on it and thereby determine how it is perceived in the market place. The three forces that impact a brand are
                   i.      The company and its actions
                  ii.      The competition and their actions
                 iii.      The economic and social trends
A brand audit evaluates, not merely the external audiences to all brand communication and activities, but lays significant emphasis on the internal audiences (employees and stake-holders). It evaluates the gaps between a brand’s external audiences and its internal audiences. This evaluation, typically, puts to rest claims of “we know what our consumer think and wants” that can bring about the demise of a brand.
A brand audit seeks to understand the market space within which the brand operates in, find that space/opportunity (current/future) that may be available and not yet owned by any other brand. It defines the markets “ideal” brand, exposes perceptions and attitudes towards a brand and its competition and evaluates the impact of economy, society and market on brand perceptions.

  1. Internet based interactive brand research will begin to emerge
With the advent social networking sites and the enthusiasm with which the urban middle class in India has embraced it, researchers are beginning to discover ways and means of tapping social networks for collaborative consumer insights.
The dynamic nature of consumer contribution will encourage the use of mix-n-match formats in which a combination of activities will explore, understand and measure. (e.g – insights/discussion on bogs, followed by face-to-face interviews or focus groups)

  1. Research respondent profiles are likely to change
The senior citizens will become more interesting - With growing numbers of financially independent retired people, who have become accustomed to a specific life-style, the GEN-G(?) (generation-geriatric) will begin to become an important target segment for marketers in India. Expect products with larger typography, better legibility, ergonomic designs, easy to hold and operate, rounded edges and so on. With this will come the need to understand their emotions, their brand experiences (and how they are different from the other age-groups and why) etc.
Given the predicted shift from track to audit, the role of the internal audience in the brand research will begin to be recognised. Although in India, it will be some time before the industry grasps the importance of the internal audience and consumer as the ‘brand ambassador’, it will however become conscious of ‘a’ role that they play in brand perceptions.

However, as ‘brand’ becomes a much brandied word in common parlance, consumers will begin to experience the effects of brand fatigue due to over enthusiastic marketers going for brand overkill, brand research is also likely to suffer due to uninterested respondents.

“A Brand is the DNA that separates a product from a commodity” – David Michaelson 

A New Beginning...

My journey with brands began some 20yrs ago as a doctoral student in Sweden. Although at the time I entered the Branding arena as a marketer and therefore looked at them more as a mode of enticing the consumer/customer, as I dug deeper to understand what makes them work/fail, I realized that communication is in fact the fag-end of branding. A lot more work, thought and planning needs to go into a brand before we get to that point.

As I delved further and further into the theory, searching for explanations in culture, sociology and philosophy theories as to why something that works in one part of the world collapses miserably when replicated in another part of the world, I began to understand the width and depth of possibilities that brands can provide.

This blog is about this journey of understanding that has converted a marketer in to a researcher, a student of human behavior and finally into a strategist.

The posts are not likely to be in sequence and are definitely likely to be erratic and perhaps even commonsensical...