What do tracking studies really track?

There is a pandemic of brand tracking studies sweeping across the nation.  These studies are often giving companies misleading information about the state of their brands.  Which leads to making wrong choices about marketing.

What, if anything, can be done to stop it?  

The typical way of assessing the success or failure of marketing communications is through tracking studies.  How many people are aware of my brand? Did my top-of-mind awareness go up or down?  How do we compare to the competition? How are my attributes tracking?  Are there any signals of problems in the marketplace?  How do people rate us on a battery of personality characteristics?  Are we more approachable than before?  Less fun to be with?

The theoretical underpinnings of tracking studies can be traced to the brand positioning theory.  Now that brand positioning has lost its effectiveness, now that we have a better understanding of how our minds work, it raises fundamental questions about what a tracking study is really measuring.

Here are some of the problems with tracking studies:

1. Time lags:  Often tracking studies are a “lagging indicator” — they aren’t sensitive enough to anticipate trouble ahead.  They simply report what is already known. A friend of mine recently compared them to autopsies.  Yes, now we know what the patient died of.  Mystery solved.  But, alas, the patient is still dead.  

2. Awareness is less useful: Asking verbal questions about awareness is limited because it assumes that our brains process information that way and that way only.  Of course practical experience and neurology tell us otherwise.  With the growth of the web, awareness can rocket up from next to nothing with little spending.  So what are you really measuring?  

3. Attributes are not how people understand and connect with brands: Measuring brands on a list of attributes is forcing people into the box of verbal thinking when much thinking is visual.  Also, the attributes are often too abstract, not giving real insight into the minds of consumers.  What does someone mean when the rate a brand as “innovative”?  Does “innovative” mean the same thing to you as it does to me?  Hard to answer that.  I think Marcel Duchamp is innovative.

4. It is nearly impossible to know what activities contributed to the changes: Back in the 1980s I saw an interesting piece of research.  A company did a tracking study in which they asked people where they saw the brand’s advertising.  A great many people said it was from the television campaign.  The only problem is that the company never ran TV ads.  The campaign was primarily on radio.  

5. They do not track stories and metaphors:  If people primarily communicate through metaphors, anecdotes and stories, why aren’t those part of the tracking study?  How do I know my the narrative people are telling themselves about my brand?

Some companies don’t even bother with tracking studies.  At one point in time Kellogg didn’t use tracking studies.  They believed that the sales numbers were a faster and more accurate indicator of a problem in the marketplace.  They were very big believers in market research.  Just not that kind of research.  

So why do companies continue to do tracking studies?  

Well, often it is inertia.  We do it because we’ve always done it.  Sometimes it is necessary to demonstrate to senior management some form of quantitative evidence that marketing is working…another number for the spreadsheet. Ad agencies like it because they can “prove” the effectiveness of a campaign by pointing to a jump in top-of-mind awareness.

And sometimes it is genuinely useful in helping a company know how real and deep are the problems.  A scandal might get a lot of press but not catch the imagination of your customers.  In that case a tracking study can prevent you from over-reacting. Or the numbers are necessary to galvanize the executive team into action.

The traditional tracking study needs to be overhauled.  It needs to be visual, not just verbal.  It needs to be analyzed with a grain of salt.  And it must be just one piece in a more robust set of tools to make your branding accountable.

1 Response to “What do tracking studies really track?”


  1. 1 Bradley Peacock May 18, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    Randy,
    Talk about fate! Due to a quick Google search this morning on the pros and cons of tracking, I ended up bumping into the very blog that you published today. Pure kismit.
    Great blog entry.
    All the best,
    Bradley


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