Don’t neglect preference: how strong brands drive greater sales

Brand preference sits in the ‘tricky middle’ of the sales process and is overlooked by many businesses, not least because it can be difficult to define and measure.

But it’s a critical point in the value chain: understanding brand preference connects the investment in brand and marketing activity to the choice to buy. This means it has the potential to make a measurable impact on financial performance.

The secret to revealing it lies in target audience insight.

Audience insight

In providing services to their clients over a period of time, businesses gain a general understanding about them and other prospective clients in the market. But educated guesswork can lead to narrow assumptions and reduces the opportunity to create impactful communications throughout the buying journey. Asking the right questions, listening carefully to the answers and deploying the insight in communications can make a huge difference to a prospective client’s choice between one brand and its competitors.

The challenge is measuring preference effectively. Brand awareness metrics offer a guide to the pool of prospective clients. At the other end of the funnel, sales outcomes are tracked as a measure of marketing performance. But neither of these offers a measure of impact on behavioural change – choice of one brand over another – amongst the target audience. A business must identify not just why clients are loyal but the main drivers of choice at each stage of the buying process.

Understanding brand preference

Gaining actionable insight means getting under the skin of how the audience feels, not what they think:

“Do you prefer company A or company B? Is X, Y or Z attribute more important when making your choice between the different companies?”

Otherwise the temptation to rationalise or retro-fit the decision-making process creeps in. It’s a classic case of ‘no one ever got fired for buying IBM’. When asked, a buyer will say they chose the more well-known, higher-priced brand because it’s perceived to be better quality and more reliable.

In business buying processes, many assume that decisions are rational. But the buying team are human, and whilst they still need data to support their decisions, they also make choices based on emotion and personal circumstances.

Dig a little deeper and it’s possible to uncover more valuable insight on what really drove the buying process: emotion.

In business buying processes, many assume that decisions are rational. But the buying team are human, and whilst they still need data to support their decisions, they also make choices based on emotion and personal circumstances. Asked what they felt when choosing the more well-known brand, the buyer might share that they were keen to impress their boss and didn’t want to get fired. This offers more meaningful information about the most relevant drivers of decision-making.

Many studies have shown that decisions are made in the subconscious mind; Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman estimates up to 95% of decisions are made this way and that what buyers really think and feel often contradicts what they say. Communications focused on the feeling and emotional response that the buyer will have is imperative – “sell the sizzle, not the steak” as the saying goes.

Consider another example: the appointment of a prestigious magic circle law firm to undertake a company’s corporate legal work. The choice might initially appear to be the result of sector specialism or international reach. Underlying this, there are likely myriad more personal and emotional reasons for the decision; in this example, the decision is perhaps a symbol of business success and achievement.

The importance of listening

Whilst all brands must promote their messages, those that cut through to resonate strongly with their audience, have usually spent time listening to their clients first and have a greater understanding of what they need to hear or experience. Emma Massingham, client listening specialist for law firms, explains how much of a difference this can make: “In professional services, well-structured client listening programmes have had a transformational effect on the buying process. Independent third parties conduct in-depth client interviews using active listening techniques to capture open and honest insight. Innovative service providers use this insight to change the dynamic of the buying process; shifting the focus to a client’s reality, rather than the service provider’s perception of their reality.”

Given the significant benefits that listening to clients brings, it’s surprising that more don’t embrace it. Emma goes on to comment: “Many professionals are wary of asking probing questions, for fear of causing offence or appearing uninformed about a client’s business. Yet, by asking clients a few simple and open questions about their current and future priorities, a professional will almost always win new work, or lay the foundations for a future sale. What’s more providers armed with client insight are best prepared to deliver value to clients by using that insight to develop products and services their clients want and need to buy. And in many cases, firms can employ a premium pricing strategy for those insight-based products.”

So, whilst it’s appealing to jump straight into planning and designing brand communications, it pays dividends to gain proper audience insight and to understand what drives brand preference. Ask questions that truly identify the basis on which buying decisions are made, listen to the answers and frame messages that reach the emotional subconscious. The resulting insight into brand preference paves the way for effective communications which are capable of driving a measurable difference to the bottom line.

where next…

Brand advocates: the missed opportunity in building brand awareness>