What is a brand?

There are lots of descriptions of what a brand is, but the definition we work with at Breaking Blue is of a brand as an ‘idea’ that makes something stand for more than the tangible product or service it delivers. This idea is sometimes referred to as a “memory trace” and consists of a set of attributes, values and emotions. It might be described as a brand positioning, brand proposition or brand essence.

Understanding how brands work, and helping clients to introduce and develop their brands is fundamental to the insight we offer at Breaking Blue – and it’s every bit as relevant to B2B and specialist markets as it is to the world of FMCG and the consumer landscape.


Brand architecture

While a brand can be a single entity, it’s more typical for a brand to include several – or very many – different products or services. This is when we help clients to think about and refine their brand architecture. For example, we help clients to decide whether sub-brands should exist underneath an over-arching parent brand. In this scenario, we can design research that clarifies how sub-brands and the items within them relate to each other, and to the parent brand.

In recent years we’ve addressed this important topic for numerous major brands, including a major British butter brand who needed to understand the likely impact of launching new spreadable and lighter variants on the core brand values and shoppers’ purchasing behaviour. Through a programme of qualitative research, we carried out product testing to investigate the parent brand associations and reactions to the new products. Our research evaluated how best to package and communicate the benefits of the new variants, to ensure all the positive parent brand associations were transferred. We also investigated how far the brand could stretch, exploring its potential to play in other food categories and even kitchen utensils.



Brand models

A fundamental aspect of any brand is what it stands for: marketers also talk about ‘brand personality’ or ‘brand values.’ And of course, models and systems have been developed with the objective of understanding this facet of brands. Often these models link brands to equivalent models, including human personalities. Over the years, many different models have been proposed as a basis for understanding the way brands are comprised. In our experience, many of these models are relevant and useful. Rather than favouring one in particular, we identify the right model to use in a study, according to the specific category and the research objectives.



Brand ladder

Combining robust research methods and building the insight around a respected model like the Brand Ladder gives us the deepest understanding possible. Our clients rely on Breaking Blue to help shape brands’ strategic direction with confidence.

We helped a leading provider of qualifications in the medical profession to identify opportunities for international growth. We created a detailed understanding of brand awareness and perceptions among influential healthcare professionals in India, Malaysia and Sudan, both for the client and other qualification providers in the same space. As a result, our client was able to move forward with a clear vision for the brand, and an informed set of growth objectives. 

Sometimes we’re asked to carry out brand positioning work that sits further down the design process. For example, a leading global provider of B2B events had prepared a range of new branding expressions, with the aim of repositioning a major annual conference for the travel and tourism industry. In this scenario, they needed our help to validate and refine the new branding before launching it.

Our work explored both the core brand positioning, how it was manifested in the conference delivery, and alternative expressions. Ultimately, we helped the client to arrive at a refined brand positioning, which it is using for all events going forward.

We also do a lot of work using brand models in the consumer space. For example, DineBrands worked with us to understand customer and franchisee needs, and to take our guidance in positioning global brands like IHOP and Applebee’s for local audiences. We used the Brand Ladder model as we helped DineBrands to develop this brand positioning. Our research design started with the client’s target market and gathering consumer insights about them, before laddering the brand’s benefits from multiple perspectives, towards a complete positioning.

We’ve delivered numerous global insight studies for DineBrands, incorporating everything from in-restaurant focus groups and dine-alongs to in-situ observation, semiotics, and menu analysis. Crucially, though, we rarely focus on the customer alone. An essential part of our research for this client is the ongoing conversation we have with managers, staff and chefs. As well as understanding diners’ needs and perceptions, we help the client to understand the franchisee’s perspective, and ensure their views are included when we are recommending strategy to the C-suite.



Brand archetypes

Another widely used approach is brand archetypes, which can be effective in bringing customers to life, and help our clients to get really close to their audience by understanding their lifestyles, motivations and attitudes.  Psychiatrist Carl Jung came up with the archetype: a collection of highly developed elements of the human collective unconscious, manifested through culture, but universal: applicable to all humans, at all points in history.

Archetypes can be an extremely powerful tool for brand thinking, but in order to make best use of them, brands must address the multi-faceted nature of the 21st century consumer, and research the culture of new markets and consumer attitudes carefully. Archetype thinking tends to be based on a world view in which ‘human nature’ is understood as a constant – not influenced by economic, social or cultural factors, and unchanged through time. We know that human nature isn’t constant, and need to bear this in mind when we use brand archetypes as a conceptual structure.



Brand stature

Brand stature is another model, relating to the esteem consumers hold a brand in, and their knowledge of that brand. Brands might hold stature by using or growing one or more brand assets:

  • Fame: being instantly recognisable, a household name
  • Innovation: being ‘first to market’ with new ideas, breaking new ground
  • Presence: succeeding simply by being everywhere and associated with many things
  • Momentum: being seen to be going somewhere, being of the moment and having currency
  • Differentiation: actively seeking to take a stance in marked contrast to the rest of the market
  • Leadership: acting and behaving as the category leader
  • Heritage: making great play of what has brought the brand to this moment
  • Value: making price and value for money the one overriding and compelling story for the brand. A strategy often used by retailers

We devise research that assesses brands’ performance and stature, revealing a brand’s footprint against the strategic approach it is trying to take.



Brand mapping

A challenge that many brands face – especially in categories where numerous brands exist – is differentiation. This means developing attributes, values and emotions which are unique, and not shared with competitor brands.  In almost all of our work with brands, we seek to understand not only our client’s brand, but also key competitor brands.

There are many approaches we can take to this. Semiotics has long been a valuable addition to conventional research. More recently, mining and applying analytic techniques to data sources like social media has been part of our toolkit.  One very useful technique that can be applied to quantitative survey data is correspondence analysis – commonly referred to as “brand mapping”.  This presents brands and attributes together on a 2-dimensional map.

Maps like these illustrate a brand’s position in a market and how near or far it is from others.  However, it is only a summary, and mapping can easily mislead if designed inappropriately or interpreted wrongly.  Our research team are expert in both designing and interpreting brand maps. Our work for a well-known BWS brand is one example of helping a client to move forward by understanding how they sat relative to competitors.



Brand health

A brand that is widely recognised, well-regarded and advantageously differentiated is a valuable asset! The concept of brand health is widely used in marketing, in particular when reviewing or tracking a brand’s performance. There are many strands to what people know, think and believe about a brand. But generally speaking, we think of the key components of brand health as:

  • Awareness
  • Consideration
  • Usage
  • Preference

These metrics are often shown as a pyramid or a funnel. Measuring the proportion of the target audience who progress from one step to another can help us to understand where a brand needs attention.

At Breaking Blue, we track brand health for leading consumer and business brands, across numerous categories, from technology and utilities, to retail, investment and transport. The exact metrics we use vary from one category to another, and brands are usually assessed within the context of their competitive set. In addition, we develop specific metrics for every brand tracking programme. Creating bespoke measures allows us to assess brands against their particular objectives.

We also ask important questions about metrics. For example, brand awareness is not a binary dimension.  We advise clients to let us measure the quality of awareness – how well do people know your brand?  Is it very familiar, or just one of a series of names they recognise?  Is it top of mind, or only there when they are reminded of it? We worked with a BWS client who were developing a UK marketing strategy to boost a well-known rum brand. Their team needed brand health research to understand whether the promotional events they were creating were impacting awareness, trail and usage among consumers. Using brand conversion and correspondence mapping, we mapped the relationship between awareness, trail and usage across key sub-groups. We were also able to demonstrate that the client’s brand is distinctive when compared with the competitor set, and to drill down into brand advocacy at a truly granular level. Our research was the basis of in-depth understanding of the way consumers experienced the brand and of its health.



One widely used “single measure” of brand health is the Net Promoter Score (NPS). Clients often request that we include this in brand tracking. We always argue that NPS alone doesn’t do a good job as a measure of brand health.

Although tracking NPS can be a very useful measure of a company’s performance, we believe that an NPS study that just reports numbers is a wasted opportunity, and that its strengths lie in product or service performance measurement, rather than wider brand assessment. We think that as a minimum, any NPS study should be looking at the reasons behind scores (and most importantly changes in scores) as well as making suggestions on how service and value can be improved, and, as a result, both brand health and NPS can be improved.

The data we gather in surveys contains a wealth of information, and we look constantly to interrogate the data, hypothesise, test and suggest improvements. Sometimes, applying data analytics to a source that is readily available means a client doesn’t have to spend more budget on further research. We truly understand the value that can lie buried in NPS and other data, and often help clients to unlock it.



Brand Closeness

Brands’ emotional components and performance are also important. A strong emotional connection with the consumer will drive consideration, usage and preference: in other words, it will drive better commercial performance. This emotional component can be expressed as ‘closeness,’ or as ‘trust,’ as in our brand tracking work for a global name in tech. This needed to understand their brand image as a B2B solutions provider, both against the broader business landscape, and with a focus on specific industry verticals and customer segments. The programme we designed allowed our client’s team to monitor brand perceptions among business customers, measure market reactions to comms activities and campaigns, and to fine-tune and differentiate its brand image as a result.

In this context, clients need to know which images and associations to improve, in order to improve brand closeness.  Key Driver Analysis (KDA) can be very valuable here.  In essence, KDA measures how much individual attributes contribute to an overall brand metric: this could be brand closeness, or loyalty, or even NPS.  There are numerous forms of KDA and we always choose the approach that is most suitable for the specific dataset we’re working with.



Developing your brand

New brands are constantly coming into existence, and it’s vital that brand positioning, values and communication are considered from conception, through launch and onwards.

One example of our helping to launch and nurture a new brand is NEST, the auto enrolment pension provider, set up by law. With a public service obligation to accept any employer that chooses to use it for auto enrolment, they now have millions of members. To help make sure NEST’s scheme continuously delivers for its members, they needed the insight to understand their diverse and changing member base, in order to develop the brand.

We have carried out brand tracking work researching employers, intermediaries and consumers to address this requirement. Our findings are pivotal in underpinning NEST’s respected annual thought leadership report, NEST Insight.

We recently worked with a global logistics operator who wanted to optimise its B2C offer. Our work needed to begin with an understanding of the brand’s current position in the UK market. By the end of the study, we delivered a comprehensive picture of the UK parcel delivery marketplace, as well as an understanding of the brand’s strengths, and the gaps in its service quality. Most importantly, we provided the team with robust, actionable recommendations for development that would position the brand effectively.

Developing a brand sometimes means making changes to the nature of a product or service – and often choices have to be made about attributes to improve or add.  Max Diff can provide robust data to inform this type of decision.  It enables us to identify, from a long list of possible attributes, which are most valuable to consumers or customers.



Extending your brand and creating brand stretch

Brands also need to grow, and much of our work is focussed on how that growth can be achieved, particularly by extending the brand into new categories or territories. This is known as brand stretch. Examples include:

  • Launching a similar product in a different form from that of the core brand
  • Extending product benefits into similar categories
  • Capitalising on brand expertise in a specific area
  • Companion products that can be used alongside existing products
  • Targeting the existing consumer base with products that fill distinct gaps in the market
  • Capitalising on market changes – using emerging trends or fresh insights to power new product development

Launching brand extensions can’t be taken lightly. Data suggests that the failure rate for brand extensions is higher than for new brands. Two of the biggest reasons for extensions failing include lack of understanding of what the brand stands for (meaning the brand risks being over-stretched or extended into irrelevant categories), and cannibalisation because the extension is too similar to the main brand.

Developing and stretching a brand correctly, however, unlocks huge potential to create profitable growth. Whether a brand is looking to stretch within the category or into a new category, there are some basics that it needs in order to be successful:

  • Strong brand equity
  • Extendable equity: do consumers see a fit with the new category?
  • Distinctive properties that will provide it with a competitive and relevant advantage in the new category

We think it’s crucial to start off with an understanding of the current brand equity, both from an internal and a customer point of view. For example, if management think the brand operates in the ‘specialist print’ space while shoppers only see it as an ‘office’ brand, this will limit how far the brand can viably stretch at this point in time.

What is the brand’s position in the market currently? What territory does it occupy and what are its key competitors? From here we can focus in on the brand’s essence before we ladder this up, to inform the categories that the brand could feasibility stretch into. For example we worked with a leading manufacturer of print technology as they contemplated diversification into specialist label printing for the health and food service sectors. Through qualitative and quantitative research we were able to, understand the brand’s current position and potential to reach into new verticals. Ultimately, we translated the insights into key strategic decisions for the client’s health tech portfolio. In addition to an over-arching opportunity map, we pinpointed verticals, disciplines and European markets to target, in order to maximise brand share and profitability.

Our in-depth analysis, brought to life through compelling case studies, is helping the client to optimise its messaging, and to reach the health tech buyers and influencers who matter the most

It’s important to develop ideas around the shape that the extension could take, based on knowledge of the market and category and the long-term brand plan. What are its key attributes? What functional and emotional benefits does it offer? What role does it play in customers’ lives? What needs does it meet? Answering these questions helps us to understand ways in which your brand has ‘permission’ to extend its presence.

We’ve also helped a global healthcare company to decide whether and how to enter the direct-to-consumer space in kids’ nutritional supplements, and a weight loss brand to launch snacking products to suit the needs of dieters across different markets.

Once the general areas of brand development opportunity have been established, we develop more specific hypotheses as we start to home in on new product concepts. Who is the target market? What are the key insights we’re hinging brand stretch on? What competitive advantage can be offered? We work with the brand to develop a series of hypothetical options, modelled around consumer insights, before moving to testing with consumers using approaches like co-creation workshops, where we assess their uniqueness and their success in differentiating over the current competition.



Brand naming

For new brands, as well as brands stretching into new territories, naming is a crucial aspect to consider. Creating a memorable brand name in a competitive landscape is a huge challenge facing any organisation, and marketers need every technique available to achieve it.

Very often, naming is a particular issue for tech brands where the proliferation of new product introductions can lead to potentially confusing scenarios. We work with one of the world’s best-known tech brands, and helped them to overcome an issue when sales of one of its solutions were limited by a confusing naming system. The client offers defence-grade platform and application security, aimed primarily at business users. The client team commissioned Breaking Blue to identify a new naming architecture and convention.

Our recommendations for a new naming architecture enabled the client to maximise comprehension and this in turn led to increased consideration and sales. We delivered exactly the outcome the client needed.



Brand identity

We talk about the way a brand is represented and communicated through physical design as its brand identity. The brand’s logo is often thought of as its core identity – but brand identity can go much further than this, including colours, shapes and even fonts, which are key in helping users recognise the brand. 

Just like its other assets, a brand identity needs to be developed in order to respond to changes in culture, society, and general innovation. At the same time, though, it needs to keep its core identifiers so that people still recognise it.

We’ve helped many different brands to achieve this balance. For example, our work to define a new naming architecture for a well-known global tech brand simplified and unified the brand identify it was using for a security application.

There are other aspects of brand identity that don’t relate to a specific brand, and we’ve worked on several studies that address issues relating to that scenario. For example, one of our clients is Fairtrade, whose marque appears on many brands across categories.  We recently helped Fairtrade evolve a new identity architecture, communicating the potential complexity of certification to shoppers in a clear way. 



Marketing communications

Marketing communications are a hugely important facet of brands, and are the key ways in which marketers build brand saliency and values. We often evaluate the impact of marcomms alongside brand health measures, so that we can link the two together and understand how one is influencing the other.

We also work routinely with clients to develop communications that will be effective in supporting brand values and strengthening brand health.

For example, we’ve been a key partner to a major investment provider for many years. They come to us when they need to identify the print advertising, executions and assets that will most effectively drive up brand awareness and promote new services and routes. We carry out early-stage development research to identify the most powerful headlines, copy and imagery to use in their global advertising campaigns.

We also work with several train operating companies to track brand health and performance. We provide detailed insights into how the client brand is performing, passenger behaviours and perceptions, allowing them to target future marketing strategy more effectively to ultimately increase passenger numbers. Our reporting enables these clients to quickly assess the impact of events like line closures or new timetabling, from a customer’s point of view.

We’re well-known for our global brand tracking studies, and a typical objective of these programmes is to measure recall of and reactions to comms activities and campaigns. Our analysis allows comparison between regions and markets, and enables the Breaking Blue team to recommend market-specific brand strategy that targets particular aspects of brand health.

We also worked with a major retailer to explore the way its branded point of sale and promotional messaging was affecting the in-store experience, and shoppers’ overall perceptions of its brand. The client suspected the environment lacked clarity and harmonization, and that its POS was creating too much noise and ‘busyness,’ detracting from the shopper experience. We designed a programme of in-store research including eye-tracked accompanied shopping trips, observation and staff interviews, leading ultimately to a set of guiding principles for navigation, POS and packaging.

Qualitative research approaches like focus groups and customer workshops enable our clients to see their audience face-to-face and to interact with them to understand exactly what they do and don’t take away from brand communications. We help brands to understand everything they need to: from the behaviours that surround their communications, to unpicking reactions to copy and layout themselves.

We provide clients with both ‘quick wins’ and strategic recommendations, to help them improve their customers’ understanding, and their relationship with the brand. What we say is both specific and actionable: we tell them what specific things should be changed, and how. Our work helps clients overcome the barriers to communication, and to create communications that people engage with.



Responding to change

Of course, brands operate in many different contexts, targeting different people and facing different challenges. But one thing all brands need to do is plan for and respond to change. It’s often at points of change that clients need insight to understand the implications for their brand, and how best to respond.

Change can be sudden and impactful – for example, in the case of mergers and acquisitions. In this kind of context, brand development is often a key business issue. For example, a leading international logistics organisation came to us for help establishing the brand proposition for its new entity, following a major merger. Through qualitative research across 12 markets in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, we built up a clear picture of the brand’s strengths and weaknesses, the customer journey and brand experience, and key preferences for brand messaging and channel.

We drew all these insights into an actionable cross-market roadmap, which supported the client in delivering the new proposition, operationalising and living their brand values through their customer processes. They are enjoying significant commercial success across the region, and we continue to partner with them to shape and refine their brand strategy.

Change can be also be slower, taking place over years as category in which a brand operates changes. It’s important for them to stay constantly in touch with change, and to evolve in line with a changing consumer perspective.

We work with Canon to provide a regular review of its key consumer product categories.  We deliver a definitive programme of customer research, covering 15 EMEA countries and involving over 10,000 interviews with customers. Using sophisticated data analysis, coupled with our industry knowledge, we tell the client what would make potential customers choose the Canon brand over a competitor, and make recommendations about the product specs and marketing initiatives that would result in the greatest share. As a result of our insights, our client has been able to improve conversion rates and grow their share in three other categories.

An important way in which markets are continually changing relates to pricing.  Brands may need to confirm that their current pricing strategy is correct, or to test how much more customers might be willing to pay for their brand.  Numerous approaches will help to address these questions, Brand Price Trade-Off (BPTO) is a particularly useful technique that focusses on the whole market rather than a single brand. It enables us to understand the impact of pricing changes, either to the client’s brand or by competitors, on brand share.




Around 80% of the research we do at Breaking Blue is international, and branding research is no exception. We’ve got decades of experience addressing the challenges our clients face in managing brands across regions and markets, and helping them to strike the right balance between maintaining brand consistency and adapting to different parts of the world. 

This can be particularly important when a client launches its brand in a new market. We’ve also helped global brands including a technology industry leader to monitor and respond to changes in brand perceptions among senior business decision-makers across EMEA. Our large-scale programme of quantitative tracking research allowed the client not only to compare performance in different regions and markets, but to fine-tune and differentiate its brand image in both developed and emerging markets.

We worked with another client, a global pharma brand, to uncover and understand key insights relating to the cold and flu area, in order to understand the daytime and night time consumer journey in the UK, Russia and Turkey. We were able to develop a number of concepts specifically aimed at providing night time relief for people suffering from cold and flu, and to test them very successfully via subsequent quantitative research.

We also helped UK retail brand The White Company to success in the very different retail environment of New York. Tracking customers’ purchase habits, attitudes and perceptions, as well as understanding online and in-store interactions, was central to its strategic planning. Our work’s helped this iconic retailer understand and monitor its customer relationship in two very different markets. We’re also proud of the significant improvements we’ve made to the relevance and actionability of the output, which now provides the Board with essential KPIs.