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BRANDS UNDER GLASS

With all of the emphasis agricultural companies are placing on brand management, agencies are under additional pressure to help clients properly position their brands and products. As a result, agencies are examining the benefits or positioning of their clients’ brands and products before creating an ad campaign and testing concepts with customers.

"Before we put a pencil to paper, we talk to farmers and try to find out the most compelling reasons behind their buying choices," says Gaye Kaufman, vice president/director of research for NKH&W Inc., Kansas City, Mo. "This helps us create a strategic ad campaign that gets across the key points about the brand."

Rhea & Kaiser Marketing Communications, Naperville, Ill., also advocates conducting research to uncover brand perceptions that can be used to develop ad concepts. "Research is fundamental to our ‘Strategic Roadmap™’ and our approach to campaign planning for clients," says Brian Rund, vice president and account management supervisor. "The process starts with basic research to discover what aspects of the brand have the most utility to the target audience. From there, you can build an effective strategy that’s carried through the entire marketing campaign."

DOING THE THREE-STEP

To explore positioning for a brand or product, NKH&W uses its proprietary three-step Brand Relevancy Process. Here’s how it works:

The first step is information gathering and benefit testing. "The goal is to isolate the factors most motivating to farmers’ buying and brand choices," Kaufman says. The agency’s research department recruits producers for teleconference focus groups, which it calls In-TELEGENCE. Each session takes place in the evening and lasts 90 minutes. Eight to 10 farmers typically participate, and the average number of sessions per study is three to four.

On the day of the teleconference, participants receive via overnight mail a package containing the materials in a sealed envelope. A letter instructs them not to open the envelope until the session starts.

The envelope typically includes 15 sheets stapled together. Each features a benefit statement (determined ahead of time by agency and client) along with a simple visual to help convey the end benefit. For example, one sheet might read: "Availability is a critical factor to me in selecting a product because it saves me time and money." The accompanying visual might be a stock photo of coins on a desk and a clock.

Serving as moderator, Kaufman reads the benefit statements one by one to the participants and asks them to rate how important each is in selecting one brand over another. At home, each participant sorts the benefit statements into three piles in terms of importance. As a whole, the group takes a second look at those deemed the most important factors and discusses why they are so compelling.

The agency’s creative team then uses the top benefits as the strategic foundation for the ad campaign and begins developing campaign concepts. The result will be three or four concepts with different executions - all delivering the same brand or product-positioning message on the basis of those factors, Kaufman notes.

The second step in the Brand Relevancy Process is ad concept testing. NKH&W lines up a different set of farmers for In-TELEGENCE focus groups. This time, the participants receive color executions of ad concepts - be they for print, direct mail, TV storyboards or scripts for radio spots.

When the sessions begin, the participants open their packets and look at the ad ideas for Brand X. "For each concept, I read the headline and copy and describe the visual they see," Kaufman says. She asks the farmers questions such as:
Overall, how appealing is the approach?
What is the message or point of the ad?
How important is that to your selection of this brand over others?




Kaufman says the agency’s creative team often listens in on the second set of teleconferences so they can hear directly what farmers think about the ads. "Hearing their comments and the tone of the conversation is more effective than my telling them what was said," she notes.

The third step in the process is testing the final campaign via teleconference focus groups. Kaufman points out that this step is not always necessary if the direction in the second step was clear and the creative team only had to fine-tune the concept.

As an example, Kaufman cites how the Brand Relevancy Process worked for a cattle biological from client Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica Inc., St. Joseph, Mo. Wayne Cole, manager of cattle biologicals for Boehringer, says the process enlightened the company as to what type of message the audience would receive well. "What we discovered was a way to truly fine-tune our message into something that supports our Alpha-7 brand," he explains. "This actually formed the foundation for all of our internal and external support for the product."

ALL FOR ONE

Following brand utility research, which determines what "planks" will make up the positioning platform, Rhea & Kaiser often conducts brandscape research to test positioning platforms. Rund reports that this research is quantitative, using a sample size of 200 to 600 in typical projects, and employs sophisticated statistical analysis to map target perceptions of the brand being tested and of its competition. The result: a 3-D view of where the brand fits in the target’s brand-choice hierarchy.

"By tweaking elements of the positioning and running different analyses of the results," Rund explains, "a very solid picture emerges of how the brand should be positioned."

Once positioning is nailed down, creative concepts are explored through qualitative research, typically in focus groups. "By using traditional focus groups in a nontraditional way, we’ve found we can uncover a great deal of valuable insight," Rund points out. "It’s not just a matter of showing an ad and saying, ‘Do you like this?’ It’s about getting into deep discussions about the ideas that the concepts help surface."

Rund points to the launch of Balance corn herbicide for client Rhone-Poulenc (now Aventis) as an example of using brandscape research to develop an ad campaign with an on-target message. "Our job was to find the leverage point for the brand that we could exploit and make it stand out from the 44 other brands out there," he says.

"Through the brandscape work, we discovered the solution was the concept of ‘recharge’ - the herbicide’s unique ability to reactivate with rain to continue controlling weeds," Rund explains.

The next step was to determine through further quantitative research (phone surveys involving a few hundred corn growers) if the concept would pass the tests the client and agency put all positioning strategies through. The key questions that had to be answered were:
Is this positioning unique?
Is it sustainable?
Is it important to the consumer?
Is it deliverable?

"With Balance, our research showed that the answer to all of these was ‘yes,’" Rund reports.

With that, the agency developed creative that would "memorably and effectively introduce and hammer home the concept of ‘recharge,’" according to Rund. Rough concepts were tested in focus groups, and animatics of television commercials were tested in one-on-one interviews using a short questionnaire.

From that came the "Signs" campaign that launched the product for the 1999 season. "When rained on, ordinary field signs came to life and ‘whacked’ emerging weeds," Rund relates. "This simple concept was delivered via sophisticated live-action and animation techniques in a series of television commercials that were supported with print and radio, as well as a slew of other elements such as a point-of-sale display with an animated sign."

He says the results spoke volumes. "Balance’s initial production was sold out prior to the season," Rund explains. "It was used on more acres its first year than any other herbicide. And despite some performance issues in 1999, it has continued to grow rapidly in a declining market.

"Finally, while our communications campaigns have changed in tone and manner," Rund concludes, "the core idea - that BALANCE is the only herbicide that recharges with rain to control emerged weeds - is still at the heart of everything done and said about the brand. And it all started with good research."

ENDURING MESSAGE

By beginning with brand or product positioning research, agencies are better equipped to determine the strongest position to include in ad campaigns.

"What a brand stands for is huge in today’s market," Kaufman says. "You need to make sure a brand is positioned properly and that the positioning is durable. Taking the time to figure out what the position should be is very important and is driving the extra steps in testing."AM



Debbie Coakley is a freelance writer based in Warrenville, Ill.


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