Brand perception is a crucial, though oft-ignored, aspect of brand management. We focus so much on product quality, innovation and customer service that we tend to not consider how people perceive us overall.
Yet you can think of your brand as a living entity, existing in the minds of your customers, your biggest fans and your biggest detractors. Knowing how to manage brand perception is essential.
In this post, I’ll give you actionable tips on how to manage your reputation at every stage of the brand journey. Read on.
What is Brand Perception?
Typically, when we think of a brand, we think of a product or company. But the brand is much more than that. Indeed, a brand can encompass:
- Company culture
- Mission or vision statement
- Advertising messages
These more abstract elements of brand inform brand perception. Though, naturally, the quality of the product or service does as well, to a large degree.
From the moment a customer first becomes aware of a brand, their experiences with that brand begin to accumulate. The cumulative result is brand perception. Therefore, the brand perception exists on two levels:
- The individual customer level
- The market level
Brand perception is the mental impression your customers have about your company and product.
Complicating matters further, many elements that inform brand perception are out of our control. Let’s look at a few possibilities:
- A customer has a conversation with a friend in which your brand comes up. This may or may not improve the customer’s opinion of you.
- A customer reads a negative online review of your product.
- Your competitor’s name is raked through the mud for questionable practices, but you are also mentioned even though you’ve done nothing wrong.
Consequently, you must take command where you can so you can shape brand perception to the degree you’re able.
The Psychology of Brand Perception
When a customer first encounters your brand, hears your company name or sees your logo, a wonderful thing happens. You see, our big, complex brains are marvelous association machines. From that first moment of introduction, your customer will carry with them an overall impression of your brand.
This is a powerful psychological phenomenon that you can take advantage of—if you know how. Whether the consumer is aware of it or not, their brain creates a file of sorts every time it encounters a new brand. Then, when the customer interacts with that brand, their brain effortlessly updates this ‘file.’
How the information gathered by the customer is interpreted largely determines their opinion of your brand. Generally, there are three types of brand perception:
Repeat positive experiences have created rapport and have established a favorable view of the brand by the consumer. The consumer is likely to buy your product and may give you repeat business and valuable word-of-mouth advertising.
The consumer generally dislikes your brand and will avoid it.
The consumer has had lukewarm interactions with you and is indifferent.
Note that neutral brand perception can be just as damaging as negative brand perception, especially at the market level. One or two dissatisfied customers here or there may not do much damage, but if your overall reputation is negative, you’re in big trouble. Fight diligently to turn neutral brand perception into positive brand perception. More on that in a bit.
Building positive brand perception over time has several concrete benefits:
- Increases volume of first-time customers
- Increases repeat business
- Grooms brand ambassadors
Brand ambassadors are repeat customers who are so pleased with your product or service that they routinely sing your praises on social media or other outlets. In the age of the Internet, this results in priceless word-of-mouth advertising.
Don’t leave your brand perception up to fate. Chances are, your competitors won’t.
Tools To Use As You Go
You can use the following strategies at any point in the brand perception journey. In particular, these methods can help you create emotional connections with customers. Fostering an emotional bond with customers makes it easier to recover from a stumble. After all, making a strong first impression is only half the battle.
To achieve longevity, you’ll need to accomplish two things:
- Remain relevant to the customer
- Keep track of industry changes, changing consumer trends and cultural shifts
With the following four steps, you can do all this and more.
#1 Find out How Consumers View Your Brand
What do consumers think about you? Do they believe that your reputation matches your stated mission and values? Do they believe your product is as valuable as you do? Understanding what your customers actually think of you is always the first step in taking control of brand perception.
The tried-and-true survey is a good go-to. But consumer attention spans are growing shorter, so know going in that you may need to offer an incentive to encourage participation. A gift card awarded to one or two random winners will typically suffice.
#2 Tailor Messages to Specific Demographics
To gain market share, you had to have conducted analysis on consumer pain points and market gaps. Put this data to good use by showing consumers you care. Focus your campaign messaging on these pain points and gaps so you stand a better chance of creating an emotional bond with customers.
If you can demonstrate that you’re in tune with consumer needs, your customers will respond. To see this in action, study any recent ad campaigns targeting millennial parents. Ads targeted at these new parents tend to lead with product functionality in an attempt to build meaningful connections.
Additionally, millennials tend to do more research than other generations, and they tend to buy from companies whose values align with their own. These are both traits you can put to use for your own ends.
#3 Create, Build and Nurture Positive Associations
One of the ways in which online shoe and clothing retailer Zappos set itself apart was by ensuring it had stellar customer service. Founded all the way back in 1999, Zappos faced a dilemma, as it wasn’t yet clear that consumers would embrace shopping online.
Indeed, customers had many questions. One of their main concerns with online shopping: how would returns work? One of the ways in which the fledgling company allayed these fears was to ensure that returning merchandise was incredibly easy. Today, Zappos is a thriving online retailer, and they consistently enjoy a reputation as masters of customer service.
Whether you strive to differentiate yourself through amazing customer service, frequent giveaways or through some other scheme, do so consistently. Over time, building positive associations will keep you top of mind, which will lead to more repeat business.
#4 Anticipate Change
Nothing stays the same. Therefore, one of the best ways to remain relevant is to anticipate change. Consumer tastes can be fickle, so make it a priority to stay abreast of changing trends and any changes in your industry. Similarly, it’s a good idea to stay on top of technological advances. These advancements can help you address consumer pain points before the competition can.
Establishing Brand Perception
If you’re just starting out, there are several strategies you can employ to mold brand perception in your favor. Your role as a leader is substantially more complex today than it was for leaders in the past. Always-on Internet and social media mean that things can, and will, change fast.
Consequently, you must be vigilant in shaping the way people see your brand. One wrong move can go viral and change this perception overnight. But the corollary to that, of course, is that one right move can accelerate your brand growth tremendously.
#1 Be Social
As you work to establish your brand, don’t neglect your online presence. Setting up a bunch of accounts on a myriad of platforms may seem an inconvenience, but establishing and maintaining a following online can pay big dividends.
For instance, Twitter can help you provide lightning-fast customer service, and Facebook groups give your fans a place to congregate and discuss your brand. Meanwhile, Instagram can help your company show a more human side. Remember those millennials from before? They love seeing the more social side of a business.
At the same time, don’t use social media platforms to engage in social evangelicalism or culture wars. This could lead to disasters. Such messages should not appear in your business social media accounts.
With today’s hyper-reactionary consumers, you include them at your peril.
Finally, on the social front, consider engaging in social media marketing, if you don’t already. While outright spam is not tolerated by consumers, clever, more subtle marketing, is. One of the biggest advantages that social media platforms offer businesses, other than being free, is that they give you the chance to regularly engage with potential customers.
Remember that old marketing saying that goes something like, “To get a customer to convert, you need to expose them to your message seven times?”
Now imagine that principle employed across your social media accounts with thousands of active, engaged followers.
Smart, strategic engagements that get your messages in front of key influencers can have a real impact on your bottom-line. Tools like BuzzSumo can help you find influencers who are relevant to your brand.
#2 Invest in Professional Branding
The importance of professional branding materials cannot be overstated. Simply put, if you don’t have the money to have a professional logo created, then find it. Don’t use cheap freelancer websites or contest sites. Don’t use generic logo templates you find on the Internet.
The thought, Well, I can always change my logo later, is a dangerous one.
The whole point of establishing an enduring brand is that you won’t change it.
#3 Update Your Website if Needed
Many consumers now view content via a mobile device at least some of the time. Therefore, updating your website so that it’s mobile friendly is a must. Otherwise, you risk gaining a reputation as being, at best, aloof, and at worst, stodgy and out of touch.
Moreover, it’s a good idea to update all of your technology and processes wherever you can. For instance, with webinar software and high-speed Internet, you can host large gatherings for your most passionate brand ambassadors.
Staying up to date with modern technology reflects the value you have to offer to consumers and demonstrates your willingness to find and solve pain points.
#4 Build Connections with Other Brands
Savvy businesses create cross-promotional campaigns with other brands. This way, you both benefit. This is one of the most powerful means of establishing the brand and shaping brand perception. Just take care to partner only with businesses that share your values.
But imagine, for a moment, the power of leveraging the social followings of other businesses. This is a robust mechanism you can leverage to bring new customers into the fold.
Obviously, you’ll want to partner with businesses that aren’t direct competitors. But more than that, you should take care that the partnership will make sense from the viewpoint of the consumer.
For instance, an airline that serves snacks on their flights would do well to create a joint promotion with one of the snack brands it features on those flights.
Here are a number of other recent co-branding partnerships:
- Red Bull & GoPro. Energy drink meets physical activity.
- Pottery Barn & Sherwin-Williams. Crafts meets craft supplies.
- BMW & Louis Vuitton. Luxury car meets luxury fashion house.
What do these companies have in common? They share demographics yet don’t compete directly.
Over time, the connections you build now with other brands can result in considerable growth.
#5 Be Proactive with Reputation Management
Don’t wait until there’s a problem to gauge your brand’s reputation. It can be well worthwhile to engage the services of a professional for a reputation checkup. The benefits of active reputation management, while you’re establishing your brand, are many:
- Earn more money. Adjust your advertising by knowing how people actually perceive your brand and your messaging.
- Build trust. Because you’ll know about issues as they come up, you can course correct much faster than other companies. In other words, you’ll be more agile. Addressing any on-going issues shows consumers you care and can build trust.
- Maintain your brand perception. Investors, banks, and the general public all have an opinion of your brand. Knowing what that opinion is at all times can help you maintain the good reputation you’ve spent so much time building. You can’t counter a problem if you’re unaware of it.
Maintaining Brand Perception
If you’re like many business leaders before you, the early stages of building your brand required a lot of decision-making. You probably called the shots on everything from core services or products to the colors in your logo. But as your business grew, you likely began delegating some of these tasks to others.
As you did so, you may have noticed that your brand perception changed. It’s only natural for certain brand elements to evolve over time, but it may be time to take a step back to see if recent changes were for the best.
After all, companies like Nike and Coca-Cola have made a name for themselves by not changing. Their products change and evolve, sure, but their branding elements are mainstays of pop culture.
The key thing to remember is that many consumer buying decisions occur on a subconscious level. One of the factors that inform habitual purchases is sameness. The brain gravitates toward what is familiar.
Example: the average consumer, faced with a decision between Coke and some upstart soda brand is likely to go with tried-and-true Coca-Cola.
Next, let’s explore five other ways that you can maintain your brand perception.
#1 Reaffirm Your Mission
From the get-go, your brand image should have been closely aligned with your core values. Even if you’ve long since created a logo, there are probably aspects of your website and other branding materials that could be made to be more in alignment with your values and your mission.
Ensure that all your branding materials send that message loud and clear, and remember how heavily the subconscious factors into buying decisions. For instance, a business touting itself as the fastest delivery service would be poorly served by a slow-loading website. This contradiction may not be consciously acknowledged by the consumer, but at a deeper level, they would still notice.
#2 Inspect Your Foundation
How effective are your branding templates? Are templates available to all team members who need them? Or is there a lot of wasteful back and forth between team members when messages requiring branding elements need to go out?
You should have templates and guidelines in place to smooth the creation of all outgoing communications bearing your branding.
Further, inspect all of your templates to ensure that they are consistent. If, for instance, your business card template features an older version of your logo, that is going to send a negative signal to consumers.
#3 Conduct an Audit of Existing Products
Secret shopper services can be a powerful tool to evaluate your product. A secret shopper will provide you with more objective feedback than you’ll ever get from an employee. Hey, mistakes happen. If you have an issue in your product line, it’s better to find and acknowledge it sooner rather than later.
A low-quality product will result in a spate of negative online reviews which will harm your reputation.
#4 Audit Your Internal Messaging
Inconsistency between your internal messaging and your external messaging can harm you. If you’re telling consumers that all you care about is quality, and then the next moment you’re turning around and telling your employees to cut costs wherever possible, you’re creating a muddied overall message. Worse, in the age of social media, it’s only a matter of time before this discrepancy leaks.
Improving Brand Perception
Finally, we’ll look at how to improve flagging brand perception. Granted, such an endeavor takes time and requires dogged determination. But it’s not impossible. Once again, we must mention the quickened pace that the Internet and social media allows. If your reputation takes a hit, you must proactively take steps to course correct.
But remember: brand perception is owned by consumers. It’s not just your words that matter, it’s your actions that count.
Modern social media platforms give you the power to join conversations. Don’t ignore it. If you’ve grown neglectful about what people are saying about you online, it’s time to plug back in. You can use a service like Mention to find out what people are saying, or if money is tight at the moment, start at the free end of the spectrum with Google Alerts.
Additionally, you can use a service like Hootsuite or Buffer to schedule social media messages so that managing accounts isn’t as much of a chore. Focus your social media strategy on building relationships and not on touting your own products or services. The most common mistake business owners make when it comes time to re-engage is to talk about themselves nonstop.
Don’t do this. People will just tune you out, and you’ll lose whatever chance you had to mend fences.
#2 Get Real
A consumer can sense a sales pitch from a mile away. What’s more, millennials have an aversion to stiff, inorganic marketing messages disguised as discourse. If you want to build a real bond with consumers, and thereby begin to improve brand perception, craft genuine messages that speak to the heart of the matter.
around the year 2010, Domino’s Pizza started a bold advertising campaign. Their message was basically: “We know we can do better, quality-wise, and we’re going to do that.” The result of this authentic messaging paired with new recipes was a surge in sales.
Use your social media presence to build trust with consumers by being authentic.
#3 Don’t Shy Away from Negative Feedback
Negative feedback can be annoying, frustrating or even hurtful. But it can also be a powerful tool, allowing you to course correct. If you receive negative feedback on Yelp! or some online message board such as Reddit, don’t panic.
Review the feedback.
Absorb it, and then sit on it for a bit. Mull it over. Is it fair? Is it accurate? Or is the customer blowing things out of proportion?
If you don’t take time to reflect on it, you risk reacting instead of proactively addressing the issue.
If, after sitting on it for a bit, you realize that the feedback is fair, then congratulations. You’ve found a hole in the hull of your ship that you can patch. If the feedback isn’t fair and is obviously spiteful, then trust that other consumers will recognize this as well and that they may disregard it. In fact, many consumers automatically disregard 1-star reviews.
Whatever you do, don’t try to bury or discredit negative reviews. This will almost surely blow up in your face in a spectacular manner.
Even if you manage to get the review expunged from a particular site, the Internet has a long memory. An enterprising Internet user may simply take a screenshot of the review before site admins take it down, and then they could share it on Reddit or some other site. For better or worse, once something appears online, it’s there forever.
#4 Honor What Made You Valuable
If you’ve strayed from your unique value proposition, you must ask yourself why. Such swerves are often detrimental in the long term.
Let’s look at a quick hypothetical.
Imagine that you’re a luxury brand that has bent to pressure and lowered your prices. While doing so may bring in sales in the short term, this act sends a message to consumers. One of the main reasons consumers shop luxury brands is for the exclusivity. It’s about status.
So making the brand accessible to more people removes much of your appeal.
I hope this concise guide has clarified the concept of brand perception and has given you ideas on how you can safeguard yours for decades to come.