Brand Perception Now and Then

Using historical social data to better understand brand perception

In the early 1990s, the U.S. Army War College started using the acronym VUCA to describe the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of the world after the Cold War ended. Not surprisingly, many business leaders adopted the term to characterize the global marketplace.
Business is not war, despite what many executives would like you to think — and the many cringe-inducing metaphors used to equate the two. But the global marketplace is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Just ask any brand manager.

Kodak called it the wheel. Very catchy. But in his pitch, Draper describes something else. He says “…it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards, takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel. It’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Round and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”

Don Draper was onto something. A brand’s history, no matter how old, is incredibly important to how it’s perceived now. As William Faulkner wrote in “Requiem for a Nun,” “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

So, in this post, we look at a few ways brand managers can use their brand’s history to make better decisions in the present.

The Value of Historical Data

Of course, there are many brands we’re familiar with — most, in fact — that haven’t been around for as long as Stella Artois or even Levi’s. Starbucks was founded 1971; Panera in 1981; J. Crew in 1983; and Chipotle in 1993.

Nevertheless, whether your brand is five years or 500 years old, if you’re a brand manager, you can’t afford to ignore the past. Although, real-time data is the “new black,” and social listening can deliver plenty of it, historical social media data gives context for what’s happening right now. So, analyzing brand perception with social media data will always benefit from using real-time and historical data.

Panera: The Vicissitudes of Brand Perception

Brands can be like good friends: you love them, but you don’t always like them. They can be thoughtless, grumpy, self-absorbed, unreliable, etc. Depending on your latest interaction with one, your perception of that friend could be negative. But he or she is still your friend. It takes something really big before you write off a good friend.

The same can be true of brands. Of course, “really big” is in the eye of the beholder. For example, in the fall of 2014 the bakery-restaurant chain Panera started to substitute a soft dinner roll for a baguette as the standard side item with its dinners. To many people that might not seem like a huge deal, but it definitely made an impact in the conversations about Panera and eating dinner.

And, a high-volume, negative Tweet storm ensued.

If I’m a brand manager, that’s not good news. One negative tweet does not a brand crisis make, but as the graphic below illustrates, the conversation around baguettes replacing dinner rolls drove a big negative spike in product-specific posts.

Historical social media data gives brand managers a broader context by which to evaluate the long-term impact of events on a brand. By brand standards, changing a product is an event. One of the questions brand managers ask is how long is the impact — positive or negative. Below we can see the kerfuffle around baguettes, which only lasted two weeks in the fall of 2014, as it looks three years later. Intense at the time but seemingly not much, if any, lasting impact.

One of the more interesting tweets that emerged from the storm was this one, “Absolutely ridiculous that Panera switched from baguettes to dinner rolls. If I wanted a dinner roll I would just go to Bob Evans” That’s revealing for the insight it gives into the difference in brand perception between the restaurants and the nuances of maintaining or losing those distinctions. Panera is a leader in the “fast casual” niche, which until recently has been dominated by Chipotle. That chain’s brand image and revenue has suffered over food-safety issues. By comparison a food fight over baguettes versus dinner rolls seems pretty tame.

As we can see in the next graphic, sentiment for Panera and dinner in 2017 is noticeably positive. At the same time, it also illustrates that positive spikes in brand perception can be just as short-lived as negative.

The positive spike in the “lifecasting at Panera” category was driven by an engaging post about a young Massachusetts girl meeting and dining with a police officer.  It also appears that “purchase intent” may have gotten a small bump from this as well.

On the other hand, the negative effect of Chipotle’s food safety issues that began in September 2015 were felt throughout all of 2016.

We can look at Chipotle’s sentiment in 2017 to see if the food safety issues continue to have a strong effect.

While the increase in negative Chipotle-related conversation did continue through to 2017 and peaked in February, the negativity dropped off in early spring and has normalized since, suggesting the brand has weathered the storm.

The Lessons of History

Brand managers, researchers, and marketers rarely have the time or the resources to conduct traditional surveys to understand what affects brand perception. Moreover, surveys take time to manually compile, aggregate, analyze, and interpret. And during that time, more events occur that impact the brand.

As we noted in our blog on competitive benchmarking, social media offers a 24x7x365 focus group. When you have access to historical social media data, you can see how the nuanced perceptions of that focus group change over time.

You can also track macro changes in a target audience. For example, a brand that targets a young demographic must understand what happens as that demographic “ages out” of the brand’s sweet spot. What appealed to one group of 18-34-year olds may not appeal to the next. This can have a profound effect on brand strategy. Many brands lose their audience simply because it gets older.

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