Let’s face it: research isn’t exactly the sexiest part of the branding process. But the fact is, you can’t plan for the future without knowing where you stand today. Research is the key to that assessment. We’ve already established that brands are all about perception. And while you may think you know how the world perceives your brand. We’re here to tell you that, odds are, you don’t.

Knowledge, as they say, is power. And research gives you the power to influence consumer behavior by knowing how the world thinks and feels about your brand. What, then, goes into this all-important brand research process? We’ve broken it down into 5 key steps that will give you the insight you need to start.

Step 1: Information Gathering

Only with a thorough understanding of your brand’s current positioning and messaging can you effectively plan its future. The first step is to gather up all relevant assets your business has in place. Take over the conference room. Hang things on the walls. Separate documents into logical categories and file them away for easy reference. The types of assets you should collect and review include:

  • Mission, Vision, Values
  • Value Propositions
  • Strategic planning documents
  • Employee surveys
  • Marketing collateral
  • Sales literature
  • Annual reports
  • Press Releases

Step 2: Stakeholder Interviews

Internal stakeholder interviews (with the likes of management, employees, project teams, sales force, boards of directors, and so on) are designed to get an honest assessment of your brand’s internal perceptions and culture. How are employees living the brand on a day-to-day basis? How does the executive team want the brand to be perceived—internally and externally? The branding process bridges the gap between your brand’s current image and your desired one.

Stakeholder interviews are most effective when they’re done in person and when the interviewee hasn’t been provided the questions in advance. Off-the-cuff responses often prove to be the most insightful. The types of questions you’ll want to ask include the following:

  • What business are we in?
  • Why do we exist beyond making money?
  • Who is our ideal customer?
  • What are the values that drive our company?
  • If we could communicate a single message about our company, what would it be?

Step 3: Market Definition

Before you can get a candid look at how your brand is perceived by your customers, you need to understand the landscape in which it lives. Market definition is a descriptive research process that provides insight into market needs, trends, growth, challenges, and competition. The market landscape is a puzzle into which your brand fits in a very particular way. The empty space is where opportunities exist. But you need a detailed understanding of the puzzle in its entirety before you can position your brand. Resources for defining you market include:

Step 4: Audience Segmentation

The best brands know exactly who they serve and why. With audience segmentation, you’re defining those target audiences—the specific groups of people at which your product, service, or message is aimed. Segmenting your target audiences enables you to custom-tailor your message to ensure it resonates with these groups. The outcome of this step is a high-level outline of the demographics and, more importantly, the psychographics of each of your audience segments. Demographics help you understand who buys your product or service, while psychographics helps you understand why they buy.

Examples of demographics include:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Income

Examples of psychographics include:

  • Lifestyles
  • Motivations
  • Behavior

Step 5: Customer Research

With the insights from the audience segmentation process in hand, you can move to the final step in your brand research: interviewing the people that your brand serves. This is where you glean a critical understanding of how your brand—and your competition—are perceived by your customers. Customer research comprises two important categories: qualitative and quantitative.

Qualitative research reveals customers’ perceptions, beliefs, and motives. This research often provides profound new insights about how brand your brand exists in the minds of your customers. It includes:

  • Interviews: Individual in-depth interviews with external stakeholders such as customers, non-customers, partners. These take the form of either a series of structured questions, or an open-ended opportunity for a subject to talk about their experience with your brand.
  • Focus Groups: Group discussions led by a moderator with selected participants who share common characteristics (like, say, a group of professional women in their 30s). The goal is to determine attitudes toward your brand.
  • Ethnography: Observations of consumer behavior in everyday life—either in a work, home, or shopping environment. Ethnography stems from the tradition of cultural anthropology.

Quantitative research gives you statistically accurate market information. The goal is to glean enough insight from a wide range of participants so that you can better understand the behaviors of your customer base. Typically, a large sample size is asked exactly the same questions in exactly the same way. The sample should be representative of the characteristics of the broader target market. Quantitative research includes:

  • Online Surveys: Information gathered from participants with similar demographics. Free and-low cost tools include Survey Monkey.
  • Segmentation: Consumers and businesses are separated in groups, each with common special interests, lifestyles, and preference for particular goods and services. These segments are usually defined by demographic and psychographic information.
  • Web Analytics: Analytics provide in-depth knowledge relating to the online behavior of your current and prospective customers. Google Analytics and heatmap tools like Crazy Egg are excellent resources for web analytics.

Putting it All Together

Once the research is complete, a formal presentation should be given to your company’s key decision-makers that synthesizes the findings from your brand research. It’s the product of compiling the vast amounts of raw data you’ve collected, and then analyzing that data to extract salient and instructive conclusions. This ensures that both management and creative teams are all working with the same unbiased, foundational insights when making critical branding decisions.

Time and effort spent on research is one of the best investments you can make. It’ll save you in the long run. This isn’t a one-time thing, either. Comprehensive, ongoing brand research is the only way to ensure that your branding efforts are as powerful as they can be. Knowledge, after all, is power.

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A prolific blogger, speaker, and columnist, Brian has more than a decade of experience in design and branding. He’s written for publications including Forbes, Huffington Post, and Brand Quarterly.