The ironic thing about a brand’s image is that you can’t actually see it. Brand image is an intangible, unarticulated set of feelings, memories, and associations — all of which (we hope) are positive.

There’s no question that analyzing a brand’s image and current positioning is a challenging undertaking. Creating a mental model of your company that meshes with your customers’ is a daunting challenge, made even more difficult by a marketers’ position — you’re on the inside looking out. How can you understand how the market compares your brand to your competitors’ when you have a different set of goals and priorities than customers? How can you assess and understand your own brand’s outward-facing image when you’re positioned squarely on the inside?

If you have trouble expressing the strengths and weaknesses of your brand, there’s a good chance your customers will too. Or worse, they’ll ignore you.

Oftentimes, clients will enter the brand-building process knowing only that their brand is underperforming and needs improvement. They sense they’re unhappy with their company’s image with without being able to pinpoint the root causes of that dissatisfaction. Sometimes they’re reluctant to even acknowledge that there are root causes, not because they avoid accepting fault, but because they view their brand with an insider perspective that is simply too hard to translate to outsiders.

Being able to view a brand as a concrete entity, a vessel that can carry attributes, aspirations, and identity is the first step in coming up with an actionable plan to improve it and better define it for the customer. Without developing meaningful anchors and associations for one’s brand or image, it simply floats around, impossible to fully grasp. Fixing such an untethered brand is like trying to throw darts into the mist.

We find it can be helpful to use visual rather than verbal exercises to uncover deep-seated opinion and insights. Not only can images help unearth hidden assumptions and essential truths about a brand’s image and communications, they can also help paint a clearer picture of the the market perceives product or services, compared to competitors.

Visual cues can also serve as a collaborative tool that encourages teamwork and unifies groups around shared notions. So the ability to gain insights through concrete visual cues and metaphors can be critically helpful at this early, but pivotal, stage of brand assessment.

It’s often easier for a group to agree on a symbol (and what that symbol represents) than a set of abstract, personalized thoughts that ultimately stand for that same idea.

Though you may initially have difficulty expressing perceived strengths and weaknesses of your brand, visual metaphors can bring them to the fore. Instead of focusing on the abstract elements of your brand strategy, focus instead on how your brand is alike or different from symbols and objects you can readily see, grasp, and feel.

Free association is one visual activity that we find to be incredibly effective in the branding insights phase. In this process, small groups of internal stakeholders (employees, management) are shown a group of related images, such as six types of beverages or six different tools, and asked to identify which image reflects the corporate brand today and which they hope will reflect the brand in the future. The real insight comes not from the image that is chosen, but the honest, unfiltered explanation of the choice.

image of various beverages

For example, during a recent rebranding project with a client in the energy industry, we conducted this free association method to uncover key insights about the client’s existing brand. A dozen employees were asked to pick the beverage image that best represented their brand today. Five employees chose the same image – a bottle of water. Interestingly, when asked why they chose this image, the answers greatly varied. One employee picked the bottle of water because it represented something important, necessary for survival, but often overlooked. Another saw the bottle of water as plain and boring, not sexy. When we asked the same group to choose the image that best reflected where the brand needed to be in the future, many employees were drawn to an image of a cup of coffee, because it represented a habit, a wake-up call, something that could not be ignored.

As this example demonstrates, working through a set of connected but unique symbols can lead to specific and productive insight about where the brand is today and where it needs to go in the future. The translation, semiotics, and consensus building that occurs in such an exercise is similar to what will happen “real time” for customers evaluating the brand. The association needs to be just as strong for them as it is for employees.

Visual metaphors not only enable companies to think of their brand with increased clarity and depth, but they also provide brand strategists with information that is far more actionable than what’s gleaned from less anchored conversations. As employees work through categories of images, their commentary reveals the company’s positions and aspirations. Scores of otherwise inaccessible insights are collected, analyzed, compared with market research, and finally assembled into a comprehensive dossier exploring the brand at its core and offering concrete guidance on how to improve the brand moving forward.

The Takeaway

When rebranding, leveraging the power of the image can be an effective way to uncover deep-seated opinions and insight about perception of a brand today and tomorrow. The knowledge uncovered from free association and other activities that incorporate visual cues is very different than the knowledge gained through a survey or standard Q&A session – it is inherently emotional rather than intellectual. Understanding how a brand is perceived on both levels is a critical step in developing a truly successful brand strategy.

Dru DeSantis

About the author

Dru DeSantis is a cofounder of DeSantis Breindel. She shapes strategic brand identities and powerful brand activations from digital ecosystems to multi-channel campaigns, engaging audiences and achieving critical business objectives.

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