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Brand awareness: keeping the client secret

June 19, 2012

Trainers in a treeIn a recent blog post I discussed ways to tell whether cold calls you receive about research are legitimate or a scam.  In this post I said that in their introductions, legitimate researchers have to tell you the name of “the client who commissioned the research (usually, unless they have a good reason not to)”

In a telephone or face-to-face survey the typical introduction would include a sentence along the lines of “We are doing a survey for McDonalds about burgers”.  However, sometimes they skip a bit, and the Market Research Society code of conduct is OK with that as long as they have a ‘good reason’.  Instead you get “We are doing a survey for McDonalds about burgers”.  Maybe you wouldn’t notice.  Or maybe it would seem a bit vague, or perhaps (if you’re a paranoid conspiracy theorist) a bit suspicious.

Usually if you ask who the survey is for the person asking the questions will tell you “it will become clear in the course of the interview” or “we will be happy to reveal the name of the client at the end of the interview”.

So what is this good reason behind the omission of the client name?

It is all about gauging brand awareness.  Many companies want to get an objective view of how well known their brands are, usually to track whether their marketing is working.  It may be hard to believe, but most companies don’t want to inflate their figures, they need to know the (sometimes hard) truth about their brand awareness in order to make genuine evidence-based decisions about the way they spend their money.  We’re not talking about dodgy press releases to generate media interest, we’re talking about the nuts and bolts of actually getting the product out there in the most effective way.  If people know about them, great.  If people don’t know about them they’ve got something wrong and need to change it.

So a company will commission an independent research agency to design and manage an independent research project that is free from bias.  And eliminating bias extends beyond question design, it is important that respondents are not led in a particular direction at any point in the process. 

Imagine if I said to you “We are doing a survey about trainers.  What brands of training shoes have you ever bought?” you might answer “er… Adidas, Converse, Reebok, New Balance…”

But what if I said “We are doing a survey for Nike about trainers.  What brands of training shoes have you ever bought?” – your answer is more likely to include Nike because I just reminded you about Nike, and named the brand in the context of trainers.

Questionnaires therefore tend to be structured in a particular order, to make sure the first questions can elicit a genuinely spontaneous response:

SPONTANEOUS AWARENESS:  What brands of training shoes have you ever bought? 

PROMPTED AWARENESS AGAINST A COMPETITIVE SET: Have you ever bought any of the following brands of training shoes? (Select from a list: Adidas, Asics, Converse, New Balance, Nike, Reebok, Other, None)

GENERAL BRAND QUESTIONS:  When did you last buy Nike trainers?  Where did you last buy Nike trainers?  Why did you last buy Nike trainers?

So in this case Nike is looking for the key headline figures (e.g. spontaneous awareness 25%, prompted awareness 80%) which they can track over time and compare to their marketing spend, and which can also be broken down into demographic sub-sets (i.e. spontaneous awareness is higher amongst males than females) and used to look for patterns elsewhere (i.e. those who are spontaneously aware of Nike are more likely to have bought them recently).

Rather sneakily, sometimes questionnaires repeat the same set of questions about several brands (i.e. When did you last buy Nike trainers?, When did you last buy Converse trainers?, When did you last buy New Balance trainers?) which has the multiple benefits (to the researcher) of keeping the questionnaire neutral for a bit longer and collecting comparative data on competitors.

But generally by the time the general brand questions come round, the respondent will probably guess that who the client is (in this case Nike), but no-one minds that they know the survey is really about Nike because all of the remaining questions will be specifically about Nike.

Sneaky, yes.  Dodgy, no.  But I guess we are asking you (as the respondent) to take a leap of faith and trust the professional judgement of the research agency that keeping the name of the client from you is ethically OK, because it is all in the name of maintaining independence and eliminating bias.

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