Using Market Research to Build and Enhance Your Brand

Becky Morehouse

Becky Morehouse

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I’ve always been intrigued with how even just a little research can have such a dramatic and positive impact on informing brand strategy work. It’s especially useful when you use research at three stages.  

1. Research is used at the “Uh, oh” stage.

This is when you sense that something is wrong with your brand, but you’re not sure what. Perhaps enrollment has stalled, or your latest capital campaign is struggling. Your gut is telling you that something is amiss but you’re not sure what it is.  

Research at this point is largely perceptual and positional. You want to know how you are perceived or, also illuminating, misperceived by your key audiences. This might include audiences such as prospective students and nonmatriculants, current donors, and donors who have lapsed.  

Here are a couple of questions you want answered:  

  • Why do students and donors we once served no longer consider us?  
  • When these audiences think of us, what do they think?  
  • To what other schools are they turning and why? 

This research can be used to help get your brand back on track. However, if it reveals a significant disconnect between you and your market, it might be time to use market research to develop a wholly new brand strategy (see below). 

Before we move to the second type of research let me offer a quick thought. If students are electing not to attend because your facilities are increasingly out of date or your current curriculum is rightly perceived as poor, then these deficiencies must be attended to before your brand will gain traction. Remember, great brands are built on great products. 

Related reading: Four Questions that will Dramatically Improve Your Market Research

2. Research can be used during brand development

This will include the perceptual research outlined above but it will also include comparative/competitive research. In addition, your goal is to determine what niches are occupied by competitors and what potential niches (that you can fill) are still open.  

Some possible questions: 

  • What niches are “owned” by our competitors? 
  • What niches remain open? 
  • With what schools are we compared by students? 
  • What words and phrases do students use to describe our school and our competitors?    

For example, if you want to be known as the best liberal arts college in Iowa and you are not Grinnell, your brand strategy will fail. Grinnell owns that niche.  

Remember, one of the cardinal rules of brand development is that it’s always easier to fill an open niche than to nudge a competitor out of an existing niche.  

Not only does this research provide data that will help you develop your brand, but it also provides a baseline against which to measure, at appropriate intervals, the effectiveness of your brand strategy. 

One extremely powerful research tool to use during brand development is called a price elasticity and brand value study. This study uses choice-based modeling to not only determine how you are perceived and compared, but also how to identify the price point at which you will generate the most revenue and the college-choice attributes students value most.  

Please let me know if you would like more information about a brand value study.  

Read more: Options for Measuring Brand Equity

3. Research can be used to determine if your brand strategy has begun to move the needle.

In other words, are you making progress against the baseline you established through your brand development stage? 

This involves repeating, at a lesser scale, the research you conducted as part of your brand development process.  

A couple of quick reminders before closing. 

Because you are going to be making significant decisions based on the data, you want audience research that is robust and inferential. This means incorporating surveys and samples (quantitative) and not just in-depth interviews and focus groups (qualitative). 

In the coming weeks we’ll look at the costs and benefits of different types of research, research options when you have a small (or nonexistent) research budget, and how to complete an internal brand audit.  

If you would like to talk about how research can be used to help you assess or develop a brand, please drop me an email. I’d love to show you how we have helped our clients refine their brand strategy.  

Read Next: 6 Signs Your Brand is Failing Your Institution

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