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Consumer Insights and Coronavirus: Why Hiring Brand Tracking Companies is More Important Than Ever

Posted On  April 6, 2020

The big complaint about brand tracking studies has always been that the “data is too stable” and there is “no new news” in this wave. As the world grapples with COVID-19 and its massive impacts, those days are gone. Keeping a pulse on your customers ― especially their feelings about your brand and category ― has never been more important.

Brand perceptions tend to be long-held, deep-seated beliefs with non-conscious components, and thus very slow to change. But times of crisis can lead people to reevaluate their priorities and purchase criteria, leading them to change their behaviors. And many brands are pivoting their messaging and creative executions to focus on coronavirus-relevant themes, highlighting either their core equities or promoting new ones.

Now is the time to double down on tracking to help your brand understand its role and relevance in the age of social distancing by adapting your existing tracker, launching a new ad effectiveness tracker, creating a custom COVID-19 behavior-change tracker, or some combination thereof. Let this article offer a starting point to informing and implementing those decisions.

Why brands spend millions on partnering with brand tracking companies

The benefits of brand tracking have always included the ability to evaluate the impact of your marketing actions, detect impacts of competitor moves, and observe shifts in consumer behavior or attitudes (if measuring them).

Brand trackers traditionally:

  • Measure “the funnel” (which includes some variation of awareness, consideration, purchase frequency, and loyalty) plus overall affinity metrics (such as brand love or identity).
  • Compute a brand health score based on the measures above.
  • Diagnose the drivers of brand health and assess the effectiveness of advertising through measures of brand perceptions (on functional and emotional benefits).

Some companies have investigated whether they can replace this large, recurring expenditure with big data, relying on web scraping to answer the same questions. But in our experience, even giant technology companies have concluded that social listening offers only a weak substitute for representatively sampled, survey-based brand tracking, and thus use it as a supplementary source of insight instead.

Why you need to keep brand tracking during COVID-19

The world is experiencing unprecedented levels of pattern interruption and shocks to habitual buying behaviors, lifestyles, and media habits. Now is not the time to press “pause” on your brand tracking.

Why not?

In times of economic crisis, the brands that smartly adjust, but do not cut, their marketing and advertising have historically performed better both during and after the hard times. You can’t waste your precious marketing dollars on ineffective tactics, so you need to be tracking the impact of what you’re doing on both micro and macro levels.

Many brands will look to augment their media spend, reallocate their media weight toward the highest-performing channels, or deprioritize promotional/performance advertising in favor of brand advertising to drive consumer connection.

You can leverage insights from ad tracking to inform short- and long-term strategies by identifying which channels perform best and deliver the greatest KPI lift per media dollar spent. More importantly, however, is that a shift toward brand advertising requires consumer feedback to understand how campaigns are working for, or against, your brand health.

During times of anxiety and stress, brands that connect emotionally with consumers through empathetic messaging or philanthropic actions build strong consumer bonds, while those who strike the wrong chord in their advertising or cost-cutting measures risk alienating previously loyal buyers. You can’t afford to lose customers, so you need to be tracking brand choice, affinity and perceptions over time, and making efforts to remain salient and relevant during these times of disruption.

How to keep existing brand tracking studies relevant

But it’s also not the time to just “let it ride” by leaving your brand tracker alone to do its thing. Yes, it’s usually taboo to change anything in a tracker, especially in the screening qualifications or near the start of the survey, since seemingly small changes can impact the trendability of all your results.

It was these types of concerns that prevented many people from shifting their PC-only trackers to mobile-compatible ones. But failure to transition actually meant they were losing trendability, as portions of the market became inaccessible to the research.

The same type of shift is occurring now, but at lightning speed, and warrants immediate minor adjustments to content and analysis plans.

  • Adapt language to reflect coronavirus-related category-level shifts.

If your brand is a restaurant (sit-down, quick casual, or fast food) and you were asking people where they have visited, how often they have visited, and how likely they are to visit in the future, then you immediately need to replace “visit” with “order.” That small change will help you capture the seismic shift from dine-in to take-out and delivery. All industries should ask themselves: what similar shift may be required to accurately capture the new reality in your category?

  • Adjust your qualification criteria.

If your restaurant had been qualifying people based on very recent behavior, you are likely to see sharp declines in qualifying incidence. This increases costs, decreases execution feasibility, and potentially misses a crucial piece of the market you need to pay attention to while consumers temporarily sit in confinement, dreaming about your delicious offerings.

  • Pay closer attention to which brand consumers mention first.

Brand salience (A.K.A. top-of-mind or unaided awareness) is particularly important now, especially as people are shifting their buying to online, app-based, and voice-activated buying platforms.

  • Give extra consideration to advertising and messaging.

If you have an advertising module in your tracker, check to see that you are tapping the right metrics to ensure you are not striking the wrong emotional chord or coming across as self-serving. If you don’t have an advertising tracker in place, consider launching one to gauge response to new campaign messaging.

  • Re-evaluate what’s important to your customers.

If you have derived importance analysis that tells you which equities are more important to consumers, re-run those analyses as soon as you have enough sample size to do so. The dependent variable in these models (i.e. the outcome you are trying to predict) should be a forward-looking metric like intent to purchase. Backward-looking metrics (like actual buying behavior) may mislead you as they reflect the limited availability at stores during an extraordinary moment in time.

  • Repurpose your “special issues” questions.

If you have followed tracking best practices and reserved a short section for “special issues” questions at the end of the survey, repurpose that section for coronavirus-related questions to help address the business’ most pressing issues.

  • Make sure your sample remains demographically representative.

To do this, ensure that your household income question refers to last year. You can understand the impact of income shifts and job losses by adding a specific question about this at the very end.

Revamp, don’t tweak, your brand tracker

During this period of rapid change, you need tools to understand the nuances of customer behavior ― not just what they did, but why they did it and what they’re likely to do next.

For example, out-of-stocks are causing unprecedented levels of brand switching and trial. Do your previously loyal buyers like what they’re trying, or are they likely to return once availability does? Job losses, pay cuts, and general economic anxiety are triggering increased price sensitivity in many categories. Will consumers switch to fewer units, larger sizes, less expensive brands, or more affordable substitute categories?

Answers to these types of questions can only come from asking (i.e. surveys or communities). Right now, you likely need a customized piece of research that taps into the shifting dynamics of your category so you can figure out how to plan and how to fight back.

Ask questions like:

  • How has your usage changed in nature and frequency?
  • What brands are you buying more/less of recently? Why?
  • What categories and sub-categories are you buying more/less recently? Why?
  • What brands and (sub-)categories do you expect to buy in the next two weeks?
  • How much of your in-store shopping is shifting to online?
  • Which online retailers or delivery apps are you relying on? How are they doing?

Get these questions into the field as soon as you can and then track them at least twice a month. If you don’t have an advertising tracker in place, and your creative has pivoted to COVID-relevant messaging, launch an advertising effectiveness tracker to track both digital behaviors and survey data.

These are the kinds of aggressive actions you must take now to ensure you’re protecting and building your brand during this time of unprecedented disruption. Contact us to learn more about our tracking programs.


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