Will digital transformation get the better of ‘old school’ brand tracker or is tech the fountain of youth it badly needed?

I have always wondered about marketing’s apparent ‘fascination’ with death.

If we are to believe those click-bait headlines, almost all non-digital marketing is on the brink of death these days. From traditional media channels (TV, newspapers, radio, out-of-home etc.) to brick-and-mortar retailers, and department stores, it would seem there is no escaping the ‘apocalypse’.

While it’s undeniable that the rise of digital and data-driven technologies have been piling pressure on established marketing models in multiple industries, many of those doom-laden proclamations are exaggerated, and sometimes even ‘fake news’. Businesses have always changed with the times, but what seems new today, is the pace at which things evolve.

To stay competitive, no organization can afford to dismiss the ongoing shifts operating around them without running the risk of ending up wrong-footed, or indeed “dead”. Those who fail to adapt and transform are feeling the effects, as recent news headlines about ToysRus remind us. But the easier it is to recall the consequences of something, the greater those consequences are often perceived to be (availability heuristic). In other words, it’s easy to jump to conclusions and proclaim something as ‘dead’ before it really is.

Old Doesn’t Mean Broken

In 2014, Tom Goodwin (author of ‘Digital Darwinism, survival of the fittest in the age of business disruption’) noted that assets that once made companies successful in the industrial age often appeared to work against them in the digital age.

Goodwin was well inspired to use the word “appear” for he ultimately ended up revising his quote in early 2018 in light of the changes that had already taken place since his first quote. In fact, upon close examination, TV is actually sound and well (yes, even amongst millennials!), some retailer like Kohl’s are actually staging a comeback, and Airbnb is expanding into branded apartment buildings. Out of home advertising (OOH) is growing, thanks to the adoption of tech, namely a combination of IP-enabled digital screens and location data that enhances the classic offering. Sometimes old school is actually the best school, and learning to combine ‘old and new’ seems to be the best way to go right now.

If you ever wondered, the story is no different in market research. From survey research and funnels, to the entire industry (despite revenues in excess of $40 billion), many of the traditional tools and principles are regularly pronounced dead. Amongst the pundits’ favorites? The good old brand tracker.

In truth, with overall research budgets under intense scrutiny, many organizations have indeed started to rethink the value traditional tracking research provides. As a result, some are shifting their budget towards more dynamic (often data-driven) tools that enable real-time assessment and ROI analytics they believe better link to financial impact. To their credit, a brand tracker was never was the most exciting tool in market research.

Brand Tracking’s Pulse

With survey designs notoriously over-engineered, more complex than they really need to be, and KPIs that often fail to link with business outcomes, it’s fairly easy to explain why some marketers are turning their back on brand trackers. But it’s a shame.

Done right, tracking is a great way of taking the pulse on what’s changing around you, or telling you if your marketing initiatives are working, so you can plan ahead and take informed decisions well before sales or market share numbers start following your brand metrics down. It is also the only approach available for assessing how your brand truly competes in the minds of consumers to predict behavior change.

Let’s not forget this. But clearly, in today’s marketplace, businesses have developed the need for very dynamic reads on brand performance; something survey-based trackers, built from mid to long-term thinking are not always well-equipped to deliver. The problem, of course, is that relying on social data and the likes (pun intended) places an emphasis on short-term thinking, which can come and hurt the brand over the longer run. For this reason, one would ideally want to combine survey data with fast-moving indicators of brand health.

Tracking Brand Equity Predicts Spending

Some are already taking steps in this direction but often, without even re-questioning the quality of the survey itself. In today’s fragmented markets, in which consumers find it so easy to ‘shop around’, best would be to focus energy on key measures of brand strength that produce close estimates of individual propensities to spend across brands over time. If you want your tracker to ‘match’ the shifts in behaviors (and shares) you’re seeing in the real world, then set up your survey in a way that reflects how real people think, feel and behave in relation to brands.

Here, the latest developments in various fields of cognitive science should come in handy. As Professor Ravi Dhar (Yale School of Management) noted, “Marketing managers spend 70 hours a week thinking about whatever product they are marketing, but the consumer is spending seven seconds”. While it may be hard to admit, people often have better things to do in life than worrying about which brands to choose next.

In real life, brands are not the center of their world, yet many surveys are designed as if they were. Questionnaires are usually computationally intensive, as if respondents’ brains worked like calculating machines. Needless to say, the evidence points in the other direction. We now understand that people generally think about things more intuitively than deliberately, even in categories that are more ‘consequential’, e.g. buying an automobile. This is often popularized as “system 1” versus “system 2” thinking, or ‘fast and slow’ for short. The point being that system 1 is fast and automatic and uses mental short-cuts, or heuristics, for efficiency.

How people feel and know (often non-consciously) about your brand is also what is most likely to guide their attention in the store, or what makes your brand salient (or not) in buying situations. So, for instance, even if the market presents multiple choices (e.g. beer market), consumers will never consider them all. In deciding what to choose, they will unconsciously focus their attention on the smaller set or brands that readily come to mind, as if other brands simply didn’t exist.

Whether or not your brand is included in this initial consideration set is important information regarding its health, as demonstrated by McKinsey in 2017 in multiple verticals. Yet, most survey designs simply ignore those simple facts of human nature, and how they link to what real people do. As a result, countless trackers are simply out of step with reality and what organizations want.

Brand Trackers Are Part of An Ecosystem

Beside getting the survey into shape, one would also want to interrogate the ways in which their tracking survey fits the other initiatives the organization has also invested in. This is what will make the system truly actionable. Very often, tracking surveys sit in isolation, even though the longer-term view they provide combines really well with the flood of digital and mobile information that marketers generally have at their fingertips.

With advances in technology, it is now relatively easy to create an ecosystem that offers the best of both worlds, i.e. integrate the survey with digital and social data sources. With automated statistical analyses and machine learning algorithms running in the background, important associations between structured and unstructured data can be surfaced automatically. This information can inform early warning systems that automatically alert (the appropriate) stakeholders that things may be in motion and call for special attention. Making your insights and KPIs available to various audiences in real time, and in the formats that fit their needs is as important as the information itself. Yet, too many users are still relying on brand health reports and static portals that are not delivering the value the organization needs, at the pace that it needs it.

My advice would be to invest in easily implemented dynamic dashboards that can be visually adapted at will, so the information doesn’t collect dust on a shelf every quarter. The more tech-oriented marketers won’t probably stop there.

Some will connect the insights derived from their tracker (e.g. an important consumer segment) to a Data Management Platform (DMP) and create media audiences (via lookalike modeling) that can be targeted and activated at scale. Better, they even get a readout of how these audiences change right from the DMP. The possibilities are endless…but only if you have a reliable tracking survey in place, and learn to embrace technology.

So while some may be chopping at the tree of market research, ready to yell ‘timberrrr’, other forward-looking managers are already building the next generation of tracking architecture to build and create value for their brands.

The old school brand tracker may have found its fountain of youth in the very technology some thought would bury it.