There are 3 broad categories to understanding brand strength:
Brand Strength based on observing the brands current performance
Discussions of 'brand strength' or 'brand equity' sometimes suggest that these are abstract values, somehow quite separate from the brand's actual sales in the marketplace. Certainly we are assuming there are aspects of the brand's strength that may not be apparent just by looking at its marketplace performance. But this should not blind us to the fact that the most obvious evidence of a brand's relationship with its public is normally to be found in its sales. A brand that is struggling in the marketplace can only be said to be 'strong' in specific and limited ways, if at all.
This is underlined by the fact that most forms of financial brand valuation, whether for sales or balance sheet purposes, start by looking at the brand's current sales and profit.
In one sense it is always true to say that a big, successful brand is a strong brand. But only in the tautological sense that we have made size and success our definition of strength. What we are interested in is interpreting sales data so that it may tell us something extra about the brand's strength in a way that is not merely tautological.
The main possibility here is to define brand strength as the strength of consumer demand for a brand, relative to its competitors. 'Demand' and 'sales' will normally march in step, but not necessarily. In other words, we need to make some allowance for factors that might be influencing aspects of sales without actually improving consumer demand. The most important ones are price and distribution.
Brand Strength based accessing the relevant beliefs, associations and attitudes of the consumers' mind:
An obvious place to understand the strength of a brand should be through the consumer's mind.
David Aaker of the University of California, Berkley, visualises each brand name as a box in the consumers brain, in which are stored away all the bits of information and associations to do with that brand. The whole box is then in turn stored with positive or negative feelings. This is as good an image as any, although like all metaphors for how the mind works it is likely to be too simplistic and therefore runs the risk of sometimes being misleading. It will serve however to introduce some basic categories of information that we can try to gather about what goes on in the consumers mind:
- Awareness - whether there is a box for our brand there at all, or whether it is easy to find.
- Associations and beliefs - what's in the box? This is a big area in itself with many dimensions to it.
- Attitude - how the consumers feel about a brand, positive, negative, indifferent.
Each of these areas can be interpreted to tell us more about an aspect of a brands strength. You could say a brand is strong because many people have heard of it or spontaneously think of it; you could certainly say it is strong if many people express great loyalty or affection for it, in their words and actions. In between, a brand can be called strong if it is strongly associated with imagery or functional benefits that we interpret as desirable for consumers.
Brand Strength based estimating the brand's future performance and profit streams:
There is, perhaps, a thin line between asking someone to rate a brand on ‘quality' and asking them to express a degree of personal preference for it, but this represents a shift from the respondent's perception of the brand to one about their relationship with the brand.
Ultimately the bottom-line relevance of all the perceptual material is that it somehow translates into consumer behaviour - it leads to them buying the brand, staying with the brand, perhaps paying more for the brand. It is possible to observe the results of this behaviour directly in the form of sales, but this alone still begs a question highly relevant to the original issue of brand strength; they may be buying our brand today, but how likely are they to go on buying it tomorrow? Are they simply buying out of habit and inertia, or so they actively value it and feel close to it? How easy would it be for a competitor to take away our sales?
What is being asked for here is a measure of the consumer's overall attraction to the brand. This is also commonly called ‘loyalty', though as we shall see this can be defined in different ways. (It is worth thinking about what the word loyalty meant, before it was borrowed by marketing people. A ‘loyal' follower of the King was not just one who fought on his side, but one who would resist bribes or threats to betray him or run away. A ‘loyal' football supporter goes to every game, home or away. A ‘loyal' friend stands by you when others find a reason to desert you.) Or we could describe what we are looking for here as the consumer's ‘attitude' to the brand, in the original and proper (dictionary) sense of the word:
'A mental and neural state of readiness, organised through experience, exerting a directive or dynamic influence upon the individual's response to all objects and situations with which it is related.'