From time to time, companies may need to take a step back and assess how their brands are performing both in the marketplace and in the minds of consumers — because if you’re a brand, any disconnect between what you think of you and how others perceive you could be bad for business.
If you’re angling to be a luxury brand, for example, and have a company name, logo and website that look as though they were designed by a 12-year-old, you may not be getting the sort of traction you’re hoping for.
To analyze the situation — and make any necessary adjustments — a company may perform a brand audit.
What Is a Brand Audit?
Getting started with a brand audit is tricky. So we asked experienced brand marketing practitioners five of the most commonly asked questions about brand audits. These individuals include Sharon Harris, global chief marketing officer at Jellyfish; Matt Klein, a strategist and cultural theorist; Jonathan Knowles, chief executive officer at Type 2 Consulting; Bryan Kimbell, founder and chief strategist at Ethike Marketing; and Megan Marrs, marketing and communications manager at Crowe.
Their answers have been edited and condensed.
What’s the Point of a Brand Audit?
Harris: The whole process of a brand audit is to ensure that your brand is still relevant, that there’s still that alignment with your core values, and to understand how you differ with the market.
Marrs: To help see if there is a gap between what you’re perceiving you put out in the market — with the message, tone, visuals — and how consumers are really experiencing your brand and how they’re engaging with it. This will help you have a true understanding of the health of your brand.
Klein: It’s to better understand how your business — or specifically your brand — is performing relative to your peers. But there are many ways to go about the brand audit, and that’s because there are many different elements to inspect. You could be auditing social media, or pricing, or sentiment for your brand. It really runs the gamut.
Knowles: There are at least four different versions of a brand audit. There’s what used to be called the visual audit, and now is called a customer experience audit, where the goal is to assess the consistency with which the brand is being presented. So you get those touchpoint wheels. There’s the new, digital version of that, which is focused on SEO and meta tags and your digital presence and visibility. A lot of this is about optimizing your brand for machine reading. The third version is what I’d call a brand strategy audit, which asks: “Do we really understand the role that the brand can play in making the business more effective? How can a brand increase the growth and margin being earned? Where risk is being incurred?” The purpose of this type of audit is alignment, between the brand strategy and the business strategy. The fourth kind of brand audit is a legal audit, which documents the trademarks, copyrights and patents that form the legal foundation of the brand and the basis on which it can be valued for licensing and tax purposes.
Is There a Right Time to Do a Brand Audit? Signals to Look for?
Harris: As you grow and your business evolves, there’s always a time when you need to check in to ensure that your company’s mission, its values and its company culture are really well aligned with that brand. If you’ve had a similar experience to ours at Jellyfish, where you’ve acquired new businesses and doubled the amount of staff, it’s time to revisit what your brand means and ensure there’s still alignment. Other signals for a brand audit include: the differentiation has shifted, the business itself has somehow pivoted, grown, accelerated, maybe even declined, and it’s time for a boost of energy.
I highly recommend that brands do brand audits at least every two to three years. Sometimes things won’t change. But sometimes there may be a nugget of information that you will find out that will be helpful in helping you differentiate in the marketplace.
Kimbell: There are some signals that are very clear, such as an unexpected drop in sales that can’t be attributed to a specific activity of the company, or growth stalls, or other competitors are gaining market share. Those are indications that potentially the brand doesn’t have the same recognizability or brand value in the minds of the consumers that maybe it did originally.
And when you ask somebody, “What does this brand mean to you?” and you get really mixed answers, then you have to take a serious look at your brand and do an audit.
Klein: By the time a brand thinks it’s maybe time to perform an audit, it’s likely too late, and it’s likely that the brand is way behind and is now playing catch up. It’s always beneficial to be doing it proactively, to be keeping up, to understand where’s culture going and where competitors are going, so I’m not left behind and rather than chasing the hockey puck, I can skate to where it’s going next.
Is There a Recommended Framework or Approach for Brand Audits?
Klein: The role of culture in the brand audit is more often than not the most overlooked component that a brand can be scored against, and arguably the most important one. Because at the end of the day, culture is the operating system of all business, and if you’re not understanding how your brand is performing against culture, you’re going to be screwed.
There are four angles from which to consider how your brand is performing in culture. The first is prevalence, which asks where your brand is showing up in culture. In my communications, messaging, social media or sales, am I leaning into a trend or a cultural moment?
The second one is relevance, which asks if you should be showing up in the first place. Does it make sense for you to be leaning into this movement?
Third is resonance, which asks if showing up in culture is working well for you. Do people like the idea that your brand is, for example, leaning into civil rights or racial equity?
And the fourth one is purpose, which asks the why — why are you showing up, what is your mission, what is your purpose, is this something you’re willing to double down on?
If you lean into those four components — prevalence, relevance, resonance and purpose — you get a better guiding compass or North Star in regards to how you are leveraging culture to your business’ benefit.
Marrs: When you’re doing a brand audit, you want to uncover sources of brand equity, so that you can suggest ways to improve and leverage your brand’s equity as you move forward with business planning.
Kevin Lane Keller laid a great foundational framework for brand auditing in his book Strategic Brand Management. He has a customer-based brand equity pyramid, made up of the identity of the brand, the meaning of the brand, customer judgments and feelings about the brand, and the resonance of the brand. You’ll want to look at these things when doing a brand audit.
Knowles: The approach depends on which of the four types of audit you are conducting. Are you interested in consistency, presence, legal ownership or business impact?
My primary interest is in the impact of brands on business performance and valuation, so I believe that the single most important measure of a brand is relevant differentiation. Relevance determines the size of the audience you can reach. Differentiation determines whether customers perceive a compelling reason to pick you over alternatives.
There’s an argument in the industry around brand differentiation versus brand distinctiveness. Differentiation — standing out — is what the creative camp believes to be most important, because they believe this drives customer purchase. Distinctiveness — being instantly identifiable — is what the pragmatic camp wants because they believe that most customers value the convenience of being able to locate products easily.
My view is that differentiation matters in high-involvement purchases where customers are actively considering the social signaling of their purchases. Distinctiveness matters in low-involvement categories where customers want to make a quick decision and move on.
The result is that there is disagreement about how brands should be evaluated, and so you’ll find that it’s sort of a mess out there. Hopefully recent work by the International Standards Organization will result in more consensus around how brands are evaluated.
What Are Some Practical Steps to Take When Doing a Brand Audit?
Harris: Start with internal stakeholder interviews, and ask people how they perceive the brand, how the brand aligns with the company’s mission and values, and how they see the culture. And don’t just ask members of the C-suite; you want people who are serving in the day-to-day trenches of the business to tell you how they’re relating to the brand, how they see you showing up in the marketplace.
And ask your customers and your clients. Because often you’ll find the greatest insights there. Maybe you think you’re good at building a widget, and your client says, “What we love about you is your strategic input,” and you’re like, “Oh, I thought you really just love the widgets.” And they’re like, “No, it’s the strategy.” You uncover those inputs that will make you reevaluate the messaging, visual representation, and voice and tone of the brand.
There’s also a quantitative side. You can develop a brand scoring process, and there’s several methodologies out there in the marketplace.
Klein: There’s a common methodology where you just ask consumers what they think of your brand over time. You just keep asking the questions, and then over time you get a timeline of sentiment. A lot of brands just rely upon that and say, “Well, we’re not doing great right now, it’s a bad month.” The problem with this methodology is that it’s very superficial and one dimensional. You don’t have the why of context behind that. And without that, you’re not able to do things differently.
So if you’re a brand performing an audit and you really want to speak to your consumers, you actually have to double down and speak to consumers to understand why are we performing well, or why aren’t customers liking us right now. Scratching beneath the surface gives you the answers.
What About Logos and Colors?
Harris: In the process of a brand audit, maybe some messaging points and tone needs to shift, but that doesn’t automatically mean you need a new logo with new colors.
I think it comes into play if there’s a radical departure from what you started out as to what you have become; that’s often when you need a refresh. General Motors, for example, changed its logo after many years. But that’s because the company is leaning into a new business around electric vehicles, going after that Millennial/Gen Z population. It wanted to shake off much of the previous history and legacy and turn very front footed into the world of electric automobiles. So the logo, the tone and the messaging had to shift drastically in order to get in front of that kind of position.
But you can also look at a P&G, Unilever, Target, Walmart — their logos haven’t changed very much, and they’re constantly shifting their positioning and messaging, trying to marry their businesses with their purpose, and it’s done in different ways, through how they use the tone and voice of their brands.
Marrs: You’ll want to look at all the branding materials, logos, color palettes, typography, photography style; you’ll want to do an audit of all of your social media accounts, website and recruiting materials.
Kimbell: Evaluate the brand throughout the entire customer journey, and look at it on a consistency level, with the words, graphics and logos you use, where the brand is being represented, and how those are all pieces that say, “We’re this kind of brand, this is who we are.”