How to Conduct Brand Research – Practical Guide with a Case Study

How you present yourself to the world, visually and in terms of message, constitutes a real science and many companies do a good job of that. Still, how users react to your brand strategy lies relatively out of your hands. Words, logos, brand colours just trigger things – their power resides in associations. Previous experience with a specific brand deeply influences the way people perceive it. Today you can get to know these peculiarities better  to (re)shape your brand identity. Let’s jump into branding research!

It will take you just eight minutes to read this article, you will know about:

  • An “inclusive” marketing strategy. What’s it got for product teams?
  • When does the time come for this type of research?
  • How we build stronger brands with user stories
  • A snapshot of tools and techniques
  • How we conducted brand research on our UX studio brand
  • Takeaways on branding research

An “inclusive” marketing strategy. What’s it got for product teams?

Ask 100 fellow product managers and UXers to define branding and who should do the job. Many will start talking about visual identity and taglines, graphic designers and marketers. Indeed, marketing teams have traditionally overseen branding but the times, they are a changin’! Not that we want to take over marketers’ jobs (we love marketers!) but bringing the users’ voice into the brand identity process sounds like a good addition.

When we add a user research to branding, personal stories from your target audience start to flow. It fills gaps you hadn’t even thought about. Knowing these stories can give product teams a lot more confidence to take bolder design AND branding decisions. It will also make your product stand out. This could also translate into reduced budget needs for marketing campaigns once you’ve better defined your market target.

Wait, don’t we already do this in a market research? Well,  my colleague Dan took a comprehensive look at how market research and user research differ, as well as when and what to use each type of research for. In this article, I want to zoom into the branding process and make a case for incorporating users stories when you create your brand.

Brand Management: When does the right time come for this type of research?

Good news: You can do it now, whichever stage your brand finds itself now. We at UX studio make no secret how we believe in the value of research. We do! More or less optimal times to do it may come around, but including research in your project never happens at the wrong time.

Have you already got your product out there? Do research! Specific methods can find out what customers think when they encounter your brand, and validate your message (or not). Or perhaps, while working on something new, you need to figure out how to best present it to the world. Do research! When performed at early stages, research services help find the right tone and character of the new brand. Get to know your potential users, their current choices, how they communicate and which approaches they prefer.

Find the right tone and character of your brand. Get to know your potential users, their current choices, how they communicate and which approaches they prefer.
Find the right tone and character of your brand. Get to know your potential users, their current choices, how they communicate and which approaches they prefer.

How we build stronger brands with user stories

Let’s have a look at typical brand elements that a comprehensive research strategy (market + user research) can shed light on.  

Brand awareness

Finding out who knows about your brand and the journey they took to get to know it forms a basic yet crucial first step. Understanding how large an audience currently recognises your branding can help you track improvements over time. You also want to identify more effective communication channels, so you don’t waste money and effort on the wrong platforms.

Brand perception: Associations

Human minds amaze me. Words and images evoke ideas, which “trigger many other ideas, in a spreading cascade of activity in your brain,” (Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman). Brand associations refer to the ideas and qualities that pop up in people’s minds when they encounter a certain brand. Research facilitates getting these right.

In turn, this helps your branding in many ways. It can differentiate you from the competition, project positive feelings or make it easier for customers to remember and choose your product over others.

Brand affinity

Making users familiar with your brand and aware of the attributes you want them to see in it sounds pretty good. What if we could level up one? You probably can recall a person you felt related with after just a couple of minutes. Something indicated you could easily get along and become friends. Brand affinity deals with this, creating a real connection. By understanding your users and the traits they associate with your product, research unlocks the possibility to design branding that connects with their personalities.

Value proposition

In a simplified way, value proposition represents the answer to your users’ question, “What can you do for me and why should I care?” Research will inform you not only about the problems of your potential users that your brand may offer to solve, but also the why’s behind it.

What makes this problem important? How do they perceive it? (Perception plays an important role here.) As part of research, we can test the value proposition and fine tune it before the official launch, increasing your chances of hitting a bullseye instead of just the edge.

Competitors analysis

Assessing where your brand stands compared to your direct competition can further fill out the picture. Learn what users like and don’t like about other products and their value propositions. How do they make their choice and what gaps can you still target?

A snapshot of tools and techniques

We can select from many tools and techniques; which one you want depends greatly on the specifics of your brand, timing and audience. You probably should use a combination of several. To better keep track of all insights and emerging patterns, we recommend building a research system:

  • Surveys – online, by email or telephone. They mostly provide quantitative data and help collect users opinions/views on a large scale. When using surveys, you need to keep specific biases in mind and interpret the results with care.
  • Interviews – with the external (users, clients) and internal (employees, partners, investors) community. When carried out by experts, interviews provide one of the most effective setups to dig into reasons and personal stories.
  • Focus groups – in person. Running discussions or activities with a group of people can make for great fun and many insights as you observe interactions between several individuals and one or more brands at the same time. Marketers, psychologists and other experts have developed a large collection of techniques over time. UX studio staff have run personifications, storytelling, collages, associations and even “brand parties”.
Running discussions or activities with a group of people can be fun and insightful
Running discussions or activities with a group of people can be fun and insightful
  • Analytics tools – to measure traffic, origins, demographics of users arriving to your landing page or products. Search data can also add to the picture, as one user’s search session may often contain several (related) searches.
  • Testing – looking for proof. Many techniques can help validate existing or re-designed branding and value propositions. These include fake landing pages, A/B testing, five-second tests, content testing, associations, metaphors, etc.
  • Social listening tools – even more data. Some licensed tools let you scan for and listen to conversations in social media and on the web about your brand. Ever wanted to hear what others are saying about it when you’ve left the room?

Case study: How we conducted brand research on our UX studio brand

Some weeks ago, we at UX studio decided to re-review our own branding. We do this on a regular basis (and recommend everyone to do the same!). We usually kick-start with a list of questions we wanted to get answers for, for example:

  • What do people think of us as a UX agency?
  • What do they think of our design?
  • What do they think of us as a team?
  • How do they perceive us compared to other agencies?

Identify the audience

We started by mapping all stakeholders currently interacting with our brand. This means our past, existing and prospective clients and employees, user-testing participants, training courses and meetups attendees, potential CSR partners, our UX Blog readers, social media followers and literally anyone else who accidentally bumps into our UX studio website and content.

Get to know their stories

Several methods helped us find out what they thought. We carried out a large batch of live interviews with employees and partners. We conducted online and telephone interviews with existing and past clients. Online surveys also played a role. Apart from getting answers for our initial set of questions, such an exercise also allowed us to identify the main channels through which people currently hear from us for the first time. This also informed us of their initial reactions.  

We decided to re-review our own branding at UX studio
We decided to re-review our own branding at UX studio

First insights and action plan

Although we’d undertaken a rebranding process not so long ago, we learned a lot! Many positive insights confirmed that our brand strategy performs quite well in some ways. Besides, we found some other things we could improve💪 For instance, some users seemed confused about our positioning or the range of services provided.

We collected all the improvement points and prioritised actions that we needed to take. Finally, the team set up specific goals and an action plan with a focus on redesigning the website – including tone of voice, information displayed and optimising our value proposition.

Methods used

Excited about the task, we carried out a comprehensive evidence-based redesign plan that included (in varying order and number):

  • Analytics: We checked out what most of our visitors do and what pages they visit.
  • User testing: We tested the old site and continuously tested the new pages throughout the redesign phase, including our value proposition.
  • Interviewing: We carried out a lot of interviews with product managers worldwide.
  • Data search: We analyzed the use of certain keywords and how it related to our website.
  • Five-second testing: We used this technique to first check brand perception from our main page.
  • Comparison tests: We applied these to other leading agencies’ websites.

Results and next steps

By the end, we had revamped our main page and created a shiny new design services page, enhanced our brand image, and crafted a more clear value proposition. And we validated all this through the research.

Users started to show a higher affinity to our brand and to associate UX studio with most of the values we take pride in as a team. These included knowledge, humaneness, youth, professionalism, excitement and “walking the talk”.

To celebrate, we wrapped up the exercise by sharing the results and feedback with all the team and opening the floor to more improvement ideas. And no doubt, we will do it again in a few months.

Of course it succeeded from a business perspective. Also knowing what the broad community thinks and feels about our brand helped everyone in UX studio connect at a deeper level with what we do every day: research+design.

Takeaways on branding research

In many cases, brand success will depend on the ability of yours to stir positive feelings in the minds of many different people. Therefore, strong branding results from a collaborative effort. Like it or not, you should involve your users. And yes, that means user research.

A cross-functional branding strategy that involves marketers, designers and researchers reduces risks of getting it wrong. It also lowers marketing campaign expenditures because you now also have a qualitatively-refined target audience.

Whether you are just starting your branding identity process or already maintaining a presence out there, incorporating user research always makes good sense. Apply diverse and highly adjustable tools and techniques for your branding needs and timeframe. However, use a combination and keep track of the insights over time. Reviewing and (if necessary) refreshing your branding from time to time makes for a healthy practice!

Want to read more?

Do you rely on user personas to design and market your product? Keep in mind some common traps and how to overcome them.

For a more comprehensive view of what we do at UX studio, check out our free ebook, the Product Manager’s Guide to UX Design. In it, we describe the basics of our process.

More into in-person learning? Reach out to us if you are thinking about organising an in-house UX training for your team. We definitely have some ideas! 😉

Pablo Laboreo

UX Researcher enjoying life in Budapest.
I am more interested in the right questions than the right answers.
Enthusiastic about multidisciplinarity.