Building strong foundations – A complete guide to market research

All strategy, whether for brand, content or a particular channel, is just the product of gathering all the relevant information and applying it in the most aggressively ambitious way your stakeholders and bank account can stomach.

Unfortunately most marketers are too lazy to gather that information in the first place, and too fearful to apply it with any ambition. Consequently strategies tend to be little more than a list of marginal tactical improvements.

This article is concerned with that first step – research.


The Business:

No matter how bland and generic a brand may look on the outside, there is always something entirely unique going on inside. No two businesses are the same, so you need to get to the heart of what really defines and distinguishes this business from the competition.

Here are some of the key issues you need to get to the heart of:
– What is the company history? When was it founded, by whom and what were their motivations?
– What do they do/sell? How is different to the competition?
– What has been the driving force behind their success so far (they are still in business, so must have had a degree of success!)?
– What are their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats?
– What is their long term vision? What do they intend to be famous for in their market in ten years from now?
– What are their more immediate goals? What would a successful 12 months look like?
– What are their current marketing activities? How much are they spending on advertising?
– How do they measure the performance of the brand online (including engagement metrics, brand reach metrics and of course sales metrics)?
– What are their organisational values?
– What is the personality type of the people within the business? Are they confident and self assured, almost slightly intimidating, or are they warm and welcoming? Are they highly technical or are they more people orientated?
– What’s the value proposition? Do people care? Is it unique? Is it credible?

In my opinion the two most important questions in that this are:
– What’s the long term vision?
– What are the values and personality types within the organisation?

Most companies will have a vision in the shape of a mission statement, but they tend to be vague and generic. Likewise companies will also usually have documented values, but they rarely suggest anything specific or unique about the culture and if you asked ten employees to explain what they were you would probably get ten different answers.

If either of these two things are missing, outdated or not understood by the companies employees, then you have a major problem. You cannot proceed with the branding process until these two questions are answered.

The vision should be ambitious but achievable in the next 5 years. Don’t say your goal is to be the leading x unless that is genuinely achieveable, and be clear on how you will do it and how you will know when it has been achieved. For example, if you’re a small accountancy practice there is little point saying that your goal is to be the leading accountancy company in the UK. It won’t happen and you’ve given no indication of how it will be measured. On the other hand, you may say that you’re going to be the most loved accountancy firm in the West Midlands and you will know it has been achieved when you have won awards for both staff satisfaction and contributions to the community.

The values likewise need to be specific and really mean something. They need to shape people’s behaviour in the company day in, day out. Every employee should be able to recite the values and they should directly impact pay reviews. Even more importantly, they should be the driving force behind your hiring and firing.

Often the best way to establish these values is to understand what the shared traits were of the founding members – the people who made the business a success in the first place.


The audience:

One of the biggest challenges companies face is being clear on their audience. Most companies try to communicate to far too many people and consequently fail to speak clearly to anyone.

It is perfectly possible for a brand to appeal to lots of different types of people. McDonalds, for example, base their brand on convenience. Well who doesn’t want a convenient meal? Their audience therefore sprawls across many different segments, from teenagers to families to business people.

Few brand achieve that kind of mainstream appeal, however, and the reason is simple; in order to have really broad appeal your brand core needs to also be very broad (such as convenience), but that immediately opens you up to huge competition, which in turn demands that you are not only extremely creative but also have substantial advertising budgets. In other words, unless you’re already a major brand then you’re going to be seriously up against it.

The only exception to this is where a change in technology opens up a new market among a mainstream audience; something that we see a lot of now. But the majority of brands are far better off focusing on their ideal 1% and owning 100% of it. When that has been achieved they can, if they wish, move onto the next 1%.

In order to identity this 1%, you should ask the following questions:
– What are the demographics of your audience? Where do they live? Are they male or female? Young or old?
– More importantly, what are their hobbies, interests, likes and dislikes?
– Which brands do they currently engage with in your market?

If you do end up with multiple target groups then be sure to identify the theme that ties them all together.

You then need to build up a sense of how they view your brand at present. For this you should survey the following groups:
– Existing customers
– Lapsed customers
– Non customers but fall within your target audience

What do they each like about your brand? What don’t they like? Who do they think it’s targeting? Which are their favourite competing brands in the market?


The competition:

The next step is investigating the competition. There are two reason why this step is so critical:
– You need to ensure that the position you’re occupying isn’t already saturated with established brands.
– While you want to keep yourself distinct from a brand perspective, there will inevitably be countless tactical lessons you can learn.

The first point is essential for the brand. While it may be vindicating to see strong brands with similar messages if they’re too well developed and too established in the minds of the target audience, then you’re going to have to invest huge resources in convincing that audience to change their habits. That is, unless, you have some obvious and compelling competitive advantage with which they simply cannot compete.

The second point has little to do with brand but I cannot stress its importance enough. Too often companies try to invent everything from scratch, but this is a huge mistake. Steve Jobs spent his career stealing great ideas from his competitors, and in the digital space the Samwer Brothers have become famous for replicating successful business models. At the very least, you should see where your competitors are generating their traffic from (using tools like and where they’re investing their resources, because if they’re spending lots of money on a particular channel then chances are they’re earnings lots from it too!

Some of the different ways in which you can learn about your competitors include:
– Mystery shopping – pick up the phone and give them a call. This will give you a great deal of insight into their culture and customer service policies.
– Online analysis – look at their website, social media presence and where they’re investing their resources.
– Browse – look for reviews and comments about these businesses from both journalists and customers. If they have online reviews, try to understand what it is that customers like and dislike about them.

The other form of competition you should dig into is that which doesn’t have a competing product, but is nevertheless fighting for the attention of your audience with a similar message. For example, a law firm may not sell the same services as an accountancy firm, but they may both have the same audience (business owners, for example) and both be trying to engage them with similar content (business insight, commercial expertise, sector knowledge). These companies are really interesting as they may give you all sorts of ideas for the kind of messaging that will resonate with your audience. It’s often worth looking at the biggest brands in the world as you can be sure they have invested significant resources in developing their strategy.


Pest Analysis:

Another form of market analysis often overlooked but just as critical to making long term decisions about your brand, is PEST Analysis (although there are many slight variations) which stands for Political, Economic, Social and Technological.

In a nutshell, the purpose of this is to expand your research beyond the immediate factors (your business, audience and competitors) and consider some of the external factors that could, in the future, have an impact on everything.

Political – Brexit is a classic example of this. How will Brexit impact trade law and tariffs? How resilient to that is your business likely to be compared to the competitors?

Economic – often heavily linked with the political factors, this includes things like overall economic growth, interest rates, exchange rates and inflation. If you operate in the middle of the market, for example, is there a danger that if the economy goes into recession that your customers will look for cheaper alternatives?

Social – what are the cultural trends that should be considered? What about attitudes towards health and ethical considerations? Are these likely to have an impact on consumer behaviour within your market in the next 5 years, and if so then how well are you prepared to adjust?

Technological – we live in a time where every market either has been or will be disrupted by technology. Are you getting ahead of the curve on this or are you simply burying your head in the sand, hoping that the time never comes? A lot of your vulnerability will come down to where you are positionied in the market. Often the most premium brands are protected to some degree as their status is based on personal, bespoke factors that are less likely to be disrupted by technology, whereas the lower end of the market can be extremely vulnerable. Sooner or later, however, every part of every market will be affected by it so it’s essential to be proactive and begin planning for when it comes or, even better, for how you might be able to initiate that change yourselves.



I very nearly overlooked marketing insight as it’s sort of stating the obvious, but actually, how many marketers have a broad enough understanding of all the channels, both online and offline, to forumlate a complete strategy? Not many.

This is a serious problem. People extol the virtues of specialisation, but that’s of limited use for a strategist. It’s fine to have the specialisation, but more than anything you need to be a 7/10 across the board.

For example, an ecommerce website is highly likely to require content marketing, SEO, email, PPC, remarketing , organic social, paid social and affiliate marketing. As a strategist you may not be an expert in any of those areas, but you need to understand them well enough to pull together the appropriate resources. As a strategist you need to find time every single day to research into these different channels. Otherwise you’ll miss opportunities and all your strategies will look the same. What’s the expression – if all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail…

Information is everything.