In addition to all the concretely measurable aspects of customers’ engagements with your company, there’s also one more intangible one: customer perception.
Customer perception is how customers view your brand.
“Your brand is what sets you apart in the market from your competitors, and it can be defined as the sum of your customer experience, your product experience and every customer touchpoint that you have,” says Director of Service Al Moore. “At its core, your brand is the relationship your audience has with your organization. That means the objective of your brand strategy should be to align your desired customer perception with their actual perception, and more importantly their actual experience, so that you can strengthen and grow an authentic relationship between company and customer.”
The Relationship Between Customer Perception and Your Brand
Your brand impacts customer perception in two critical ways:
First, it drives the emotional connection and set of expectations your audience has, often before customers even engage with you.
“Brand can exist to influence customer perception and create an emotion that allows a prospect to lean into and choose your company above another,” Al says.
Brand is the reason why people will seek out specific products instead of settling for something generic or convenient. People want to purchase from and engage with companies that they have a connection with.
Secondly, brand reinforces and creates trust within the audience to help audiences be more receptive to your value prop and selling proposition.
“A strong brand actually influences the customer perception before they become a customer. It creates essentially an avenue for your prospects to listen to you differently,” Al says.
Brand can do some of the legwork of gaining buy-in. It leads to prospects already associating you with what you want to be known for so they’re open to hearing how you’ll do those things.
Customer perception impacts brand through a sort of flywheel effect. To some extent, your brand is how your customers perceive your company. So, customer perception fuels the reality of brand and can be used to help guide how you strengthen and grow your brand.
“Your overall brand promise might be aligned to safety or trust or customer service. If you’re not getting that feedback from your users, and they are not reciting back that they’re having that experience, that tells you you have work to do in terms of investing and owning up to that brand promise,” Al says. “It might also signal to you that your actual brand promise might be a little bit different. You might stand for security, but your clients are finding that you’re the easiest brand to work with.”
Misalignment between intention and perception is worth exploring even if the brand perception you’ve cultivated is a positive one. If customer perception is significantly different from the brand you’ve been working to build, you might decide to broaden the scope of your brand promise or shift it to be closer to how your customers are already perceiving you.
Bridging the Gap Between Customer Perception and Brand
The first step to bridging the gap between customer perception and brand is to gauge what the customer perception of your brand actually is.
“As a brand builder, it’s critical to reconcile your desired perception with the actual perception among your audience,” Al says. “Importantly, the actual perception and experience may contain ‘differentiators’ which actually interfere with what your company hopes to be known for. A good partner will help you audit your brand experience and get to the heart of what your brand stands for and how to express it in a way that resonates.”
You can measure actual perception through research, including surveying, asking questions about awareness, recall and associated characteristics. Additionally, you can form focus groups and interview customers.
As you’re gathering feedback about brand perception, it’s important to not just ask your customers, but rather to get information from as wide of a cross-section of your audience as possible.
“There should be internal stakeholders at every level of the organization that are engaged in this and offering their perception of the brand, there should be external prospects that are surveyed in some capacity and there should be actual clients that range from new clients to fully-adopted clients,” Al says. “The broader the cross-section you can make, the better the data is going to be in terms of what your brand perception really is.”
Seeking feedback and acting upon it is the only way to narrow the gap between perception and reality.
“In terms of things you can do to influence the brand perception, at the end of the day, you need to make good on your brand promise,” Al says. “You need to really look at your product and make sure that you’re owning up to that promise, and if you’re not delivering on it, there’s no amount of marketing that can white-wash it.”
However, if the rest of your business is living up to your brand promise, then there is work marketing can do to build the brand perception you want your company to have.
“From the marketing and sales perspective, a lot of it comes down to consistency of messaging, consistency of overall brand story and bringing in brand participation and engagement,” Al says.
Create environments and opportunities for your audience to engage with you more deeply and get an understanding of who you are and what you stand for. Go beyond just one-way communications and leverage tactics like webinars, events, social media and user groups to forge connections between your company and your audience and facilitate interactions beyond just transactions.
Then, over time be intentional about reinforcing the brand reputation you want your customers to perceive.
Influencing brand perception is a long-term effort that can have a major impact on your company’s success.
“Brand credibility takes a long time to establish and it’s hard to rebuild,” Al says.
It takes time to establish a core benchmark of brand perception and it takes a lot longer to materially impact that. You can take weeks or months to get a clear benchmark on customer perception, and you shouldn’t expect to really change it within six months.
“Because of that long time horizon on these efforts, you need to be really thoughtful about when you’re going to do something that can potentially change your brand perception,” Al says.
Quinn is a writer and copyeditor whose work ranges from journalism to travel writing to inbound marketing content.