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Why Market Segmentation Needs to be Part of Your Brand Tracking Program

I’m often surprised to see big, expensive brand health or ad tracking studies survey everyone rather than just the target market the brand is trying to succeed with.

The most extreme example of this is asking non-users of your category to participate in the research. Unless yours is a rapidly expanding new category, where it’s reasonable to assume that today’s non-buyer is tomorrow’s new customer, you should focus your efforts on people who participate regularly in your category. While no one buys durables regularly, due to their long purchase cycles, the same idea translates into recruiting only recent buyers and near-term intenders.

Narrowing the focus of your brand tracker will give you more bang for your buck by only gathering opinions from people who are likely to have them and to act upon them. And it will give you a more accurate assessment of the effectiveness of your advertising creative and media buy since people tend to not register or remember ads that are irrelevant to them.

To do this well, you will have to answer four key questions.

1. Should you only be brand tracking among your target segments?

Some brands narrow their focus so much that they only survey the demographic or psychographic target group they’re most focused on.

This ensures a deep understanding of the brand’s position or impact among the consumers the marketing strategy and tactics have been designed for. But it may leave marketers blind to threats facing the large share of revenue that likely still comes from the rest of the market.

You may want to consider only excluding the lowest priority segments, and perhaps setting a maximum number of interviews among secondary priority segments. This allows you to get a comprehensive read of the relevant addressable market at the same time that it also allows you to dive a bit deeper into your areas of focus. If you cap those secondary targets, don’t forget to upweight their answers when pulling total market results.

Either way, including your target segments as analysis groups in your brand tracker is an effective way to keep the market segmentation framework top-of-mind with internal stakeholders, boosting and prolonging engagement in a way that helps maximize the return on your segmentation investment.

2. Should the tracker’s target segments be demographically or attitudinally defined?

Some of our clients still define their target based solely on demographics and category volume (such as 18-29 year-old heavy fast food buyers), but most have evolved to use a more attitudinal lens since it helps them understand how to win with their target.

Even so, many of those same clients have not incorporated their attitudinal segmentation typing tool into their tracking research. I think that’s a mistake. If you have invested in a foundational strategic market segmentation study that divides consumers on the basis of their relevant attitudes and needs, and are making your business decisions with one or a few attitudinal target segments in mind, you should make the effort to track your market performance among those same targets.

That might mean adjusting your study qualifications to exclude some segments and set maximums on others; or it might simply mean using your target segment(s) as a key analysis point in the reporting.

  • If your brand tracker is already ongoing, and the segmentation is attitudinal, insert the typing tool at the end of the survey so it doesn’t impact respondents’ mindset as they enter the survey. You won’t be able to screen people out based on it, but you’ll be able to filter your analysis to targets without putting trendability at risk.
  • If the base sizes of target segments are too small on a monthly basis, you can always do the segment-level reads at a quarterly level.
  • And don’t be surprised if the segment sizes in your tracker do not perfectly align with the original market segmentation study sizes. Different screening criteria, or even just context effects, can lead to different segment sizes in the tracker. But over time you’ll be able to see if segment sizes appear to be shifting.

3. Can including your market segmentation also improve the quality of your total tracking data?

Most markets are comprised of a consistent cohort of consumers that evolves very gradually over time. If you are surveying “past three month [whatevers]” and the category is not highly seasonal (like charcoal), then you would expect the demographic and attitudinal segment makeup of your qualified respondents to remain stable from quarter to quarter. Examples of stable categories include dog food, toilet paper, banking, etc.

If the segment composition of your tracking data does not remain consistent when it should, then your key performance indicators are likely to fluctuate as a result of this random sampling error and mask (or masquerade as) real market shifts. That defeats the purpose of doing a brand or ad tracker. You can control the demographic composition through a combination of targeted sampling and weighting…and many trackers do. But they often don’t do the same with the proprietary attitudinal segments, even if they are being measured.

If your market is fairly stable, I recommend that you add the market segmentation to your weighting scheme to help ensure the consistency of your brand health, perception, and ad effectiveness metrics. But keep an eye on the natural fallout that you’re getting each wave since a consistent trend in segment sizes could mean that your market is shifting. Just as the targets for the demographics can be updated annually or when a major market shift occurs (such as wide-scale dog adoptions during the pandemic), so too the market segmentation targets should be updated if there is consistent evidence of a shift.

But the first time you see a big shift in segment sizes, do a logic check. Has there been a sudden market shock likely to have a big impact on one of the beliefs underpinning your market segmentation scheme? If not, then I’d assume this is a random sampling error and remove the shift through weighting.  But if it seems like a real thing (such as a shift toward preferring eCommerce during the pandemic), then I’d let your tracker’s segment composition shift right away, and I’d start giving serious thought to evolving your market segmentation scheme.

4. Do you have room to include the segments?

If you built your market segmentation with a research partner who does not understand the importance of a highly efficient yet accurate typing tool, you may not be in a position to include the typing tool (i.e., golden questions) due to survey length constraints. If you are lucky enough to have done it with Material, it won’t take up a very large piece of survey real estate.

Even so, most trackers are over-full already and the evils of long surveys are numerous, so I am not endorsing expanding your survey to bring in the typing tool.

If you need to cut something in order to make room for your typing tool, take a close look at your attribute perceptions battery. Consumers typically have pretty vague perceptions of brands they use, and even vaguer perceptions of brands they don’t! And all people have a cognitive consistency bias that tends to introduce a strong brand halo into the data (if I rate you high on one thing, I tend to rate you high on other things as well). So, if you think you’re actually getting 25 distinctly different impressions from consumers about your brand, you’re really not.

So stop pretending that you are. Work with your research partner to cull the attribute battery down to 10 or 15 items that are the least redundant subset of the most impactful attributes that differentiate brands in the category. Not only will this free up space for more incremental information (like the typing tool), it will also improve the quality of your data by reducing break-offs (that lower the representativeness of your sample) and reducing respondent fatigue (that generates bad answers from those who remain).

If your perceptions battery is already succinct, you may need to have each person rate fewer brands.  This may require dropping some brands from your focus or expanding your sample size to still get enough responses for each.

In summary, if your segmentation typing tool is not in your tracker, start thinking about how you can add it. And if you don’t yet have an attitudinal segmentation, let’s talk about all the ways it could help you build your business.

About the Author

As Chief Research Officer at Material's Insights Division, Hilary runs the advanced analytics function and personally specializes in market segmentation studies at Material. She leverages her 20+years of experience to consult with a wide variety of clients on study and questionnaire design, sampling and weighting, online data quality management, cross-cultural comparability, and analysis in report writing. She holds a BA in Quantitative Psychology from UCLA and earned her Masters in Marketing Research at the University of Georgia.

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