There is a power to pictures – and that is the reason that perceptual brand mapping can be such an effective tool for marketers. Perceptual brand mapping is the visual plotting of specific brands against X and Y axes, each representing brand attributes that are known to be drivers of brand selection. Done well, a perceptual brand map depicts the relative position of competitors in the minds of consumers. Because perceptual mapping creates such a concise summary of significant amounts of information, it can be a high-value tool for uncovering insights about the marketplace and its players, communicating a company’s direction, and sparking discussions on strategic alignment.
Benefit #1: Unlocking insights about your competitors and industry
In its purest form, perceptual brand mapping shows the relative position of competing brands based on how those brands are perceived by consumers. The axes are carefully chosen brand attributes that are both known to be highly compelling to consumers and that also enable maximum differentiation among the brands. Here’s an example of a simplified map regarding beverage sweeteners.
The value of perceptual mapping is in the visual impact. Through this view of the marketplace, findings may come to light more quickly than they do with tables of data.
In this example, the perceptual map shows the “proximity” advantage that natural sugar substitutes (like stevia-based Truvia) have over artificial substitutes like Equal for acquiring sugar users who are seeking a healthier alternative. The implications of this advantage are major due to the sheer size of the sugar users segment, and the fact that artificial sweeteners like Equal may never be considered by many sugar users.
To do perceptual mapping right, we recommend creating multiple perceptual mappings for your brand and the marketplace by using a few different pairs of brand attributes that are determined to be highly important to the target audience. Here are another two simplified examples for beverage sweeteners.
This exercise of generating multiple perceptual mappings can be fruitful because it requires evaluating your brand, competitors, and the overall marketplace through many different lenses. These additional maps, using different attribute pairs, highlight additional limitations for artificial sweeteners like Equal relative to natural substitutes like stevia-based Truvia in the eyes of sugar users. These additional limitations are relative healthiness (natural vs. artificial) and even a relative “cool” factor due to the novelty and growing momentum of natural sweeteners like stevia. (For example, stevia is a key ingredient in Coca-Cola’s newly introduced green-packaged “Life” product.)
Ultimately, these are the types of learnings that can confirm specific brands’ strategies or strengths, and that can identify where an industry’s “sweet spot” or value may be located (due to the density or type of brands in a specific position), as indicated on Map #3.
Benefit #2: Communicating where the brand is headed
We have described how perceptual brand mapping can surface learnings and insights by taking a snapshot of current brands’ positions in the marketplace. Perceptual mapping can also be an effective tool for describing a desired future position for the company’s brand, especially when a company is seeking to change its positioning or when an industry is undergoing a major shift. Understandably, a perceptual map can also help track the re-positioning of a brand over time as it moves towards that desired future position. Let’s return to the sweeteners example.
In this hypothetical example, a perceptual map shows the position that Equal wants to own – different from the position that it holds in consumers’ minds today. Given that many companies struggle with the right ways to communicate their strategies throughout the organization, perceptual brand mapping can be an effective and efficient tool worth considering for that purpose.
Benefit #3: Confirming alignment with your business and brand strategy
A key reason that perceptual mapping is an effective tool for marketers is that the mappings can help gain alignment on strategy. A critical conversation to generate with perceptual mapping is whether a brand’s position is the right position, given the organization’s over-arching business strategy (e.g. vision, mission, competitive advantages) and brand strategy (e.g. intended brand positioning and architecture).
We have discussed how perceptual maps can help to identify key learnings and can help to chart the way forward for a brand, however ultimately there are some critical questions that a team must answer about a brand’s current and intended future position in the marketplace:
Does this brand position align with the company’s strengths, assets, and capabilities?
Does this brand position effectively express the unique value that we are offering?
Is this brand position credible and compelling with consumers and customers?
How sustainable and defensible is this brand position relative to competitors?
In the case of the Equal brand, the company validated the “natural” sweetener opportunity and aligned on the importance of competing in that space with brands like Truvia. However, ultimately they determined that a different brand strategy would be most effective with sugar users, launching a new “Naturals, from the makers of Equal” product line. This final map shows where they ultimately landed, having begun with insights generation, then identifying the desired future position, and then aligning on the business and brand strategies to make it all happen.
In conclusion, perceptual brand mapping can be an effective and efficient tool for marketers. Our belief is that it is an often overlooked tool in the marketer’s toolkit. We hope that you will consider perceptual mapping as you seek to surface market insights, communicate brand direction, and ensure alignment of business and brand strategies.