Tracking Studies — Are They On Track?

In the past few months I’ve been looking over a number of different tracking studies across a wide range of categories and brands.  As I was looking through these I was struck by their absolute similarity.  The questions were nearly identical.  The attributes being measured were nearly identical.  The scales and everything else were nearly identical.

How could that be?  Aren’t there category dynamics at play?

A tremendous amount of research resources are being devoted to “awareness”  top of mind, unaided, aided and otherwise.  In some of these studies it becomes clear that total awareness is nearly universal for all of the major players.  In fact,  awareness is not a critical measure for most brands — and therefore not necessary in most tracking studies.  To the extent that awareness might be an issue, the traditional ways of measuring it are inadequate for what we know about the way our memories work.

Currently tracking study awareness measures almost all rely on “recall”.  “When I say such-and-such a category, what is the first brand name that comes to mind…”  In reality people come across brands visually, seeing them in context.  I go to the shelf to buy pasta and there I see the name on the package with the logo and distinctive colors.  I “recognize” the brand and feel very familiar with it.

But the tracking study forces me to artificially remember the name without a real context.  It forces me into “recall” (do I remember it when prompted with nothing but a category cue?) when it really should be measuring “recognition” (do I recognize it when I see it?)

Why?  As the say in Fiddler on the Roof…TRADITION!

Because that’s the way tracking studies have always done it.  Looking back, we can trace the use of verbal recall as an adaption to the limitations of phone interviews.  Now they tracking are primarily conducted online, but the old questions are being retained.  The technology makes it possible to use more accurate measures.  Force of habit sometimes blinds us to these opportunities.

Measuring recognition is more representative of the real world in most categories (not all).  Because it consumes less research time, it is possible for companies to add in other measures that can be of great value.


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