Brand Strategy Research. Pt 1: User Interviews

Image by Benjamin Sweet

When it comes to creating a killer brand strategy, research interviews can be an absolute game changer.

They provide a rare opportunity for precious one-on-one time with the people closest to the brand you’re working on, as well as the different audiences you need to speak to.

It’s a chance to delve inside the minds of those that matter most and feed what you discover back into the strategy, the identity and eventually the launch of the new brand.

Here’s nine things I think are worth paying attention to when doing research interviews for your next brand project.

1.Conduct the interviews face to face.

Clearly in-person meetings are a little bit tricky at the moment, what with the whole global pandemic and all, but I’ve always preferred to meet the people I was interviewing face to face.

A big part of being a good strategist is being a good listener. However, getting the insights you’re after isn’t just about what you hear. You might be familiar with the 7–38–55 rule. It was developed by psychology professor Albert Mehrabian and it states that 7% of meaning is communicated through spoken word, 38% through tone of voice and 55% through body language. So, as a strategist conducting research interviews, if you want the full picture, you’ve got to be there to spot those all-important reactions to your questions and know when to hone in on them. From the subtle nervous laugh to that slightly raised eyebrow, sometimes it’s the little things that can lead you to the most important discoveries.

Also, like most things of any value, good answers don’t come easy. In order to unearth the insights you’re after, the person you are interviewing needs to be comfortable talking freely and openly in your presence. For that to happen they need to trust you, and in order to trust you they need to be able to build up some kind of relationship with you. That’s not easy in a 30min conversation, but it’s a lot easier if they can see you and you can see them. So use the face-to-face time to get them relaxed, comfortable and ready and willing to offer up honest answers to even the most prickly of questions.

If you can’t physically be in front of them, then a Zoom, Teams, Google Hangouts, Whereby or whatever video conferencing tool you like, is the next best thing. If that’s not an option, then go for phone interviews. Personally I feel surveys or questionnaires on brand projects are a waste of time. You get very surface level responses, you can’t dig deeper into what they say and I’m not convinced the respondents don’t race through it as quickly as they can with not that much thought — I know that’s what I tend to do on surveys anyway!

2. Interview a variety of people from a cross section of your brand’s audiences.

When I’m doing research for a brand project I always want to make sure I hear as many different sides of the story as I can. If not, then my strategy is going to be lacking somehow. For the interviews, this means speaking to a variety of people from across different internal and external audience groups.

For internal audiences, first and foremost, I’ll speak to those who are primarily responsible for the brand. Often these are the people that have engaged me to work on the project with them and can include brand managers, people from the marketing dpt, internal comms teams etc. They should know the brand better than most, so understanding what they think and what they want to achieve is a must.

Outside of that group I want variety, so I try to select people from different departments or areas of the business or organisation. I’ll maybe ask to speak to people from the sales or customer support teams as they are the ones out there engaging with clients and representing the brand. I’ll maybe try to speak to the people responsible for delivering the brand’s offering. That could be lawyers, chefs, engineers, real estate agents or shoe designers. I might ask to speak to people who have been with the company for 30 years, but then I also might ask to speak to someone that’s only been there three months. I could ask for time with the CEO and also time with Ted from accounts. It’s all about picking people that have something different to say, collecting those diverse views and opinions and painting the most complete picture you can.

For external audiences, the most important group in my mind are the brand’s clients and customers. Again I ask to speak to a cross section that’s representative of the base. For example, if I’m working on a brand for a leisure centre, there’s a whole range of different audiences. You’ve got the gym junkies pumping iron at 2am, you’ve got the older ladies and gents there for their water aerobics, you’ve got parents who sign their kids up for swimming lessons, you’ve got local sports clubs that hire out the courts and so on. These groups will visit for different reasons, expect different things and have different motivational triggers for engaging with the brand. If you want to come up with a full proof strategy, you need to uncover and understand them all.

3. Look beyond the cheerleaders.

I always try to speak to people that won’t just give me a glowing report about how great the brand is or how much they love working for xyz company. For me an effective brand strategy is all about achieving objectives. In order to know what those objectives are, I also need to know what the problems are. So I like to line up interviews with people who will tell it how it is — warts and all!

4. Six as a minimum.

The number of people you should/could speak to for your research interviews very much depends on the size and scale of the brand strategy project you are working on. The bigger the project, the more parts there are to consider and the more research you need to gather. Big scale brand projects can involve hundreds of interviews, but for what is probably the majority of people working at the other end of the scale, I’d suggest you go for a minimum of six people for both internal and external audiences. Any less and you might not reveal enough to see particular themes or common issues rising to the surface.

5. Send some sample Qs ahead of time.

When setting up the interviews with both internal and external audiences, I think it’s a good idea to give them a heads up in regards to the objective of the interview and the topics you might ask them about by emailing them in advance of the interview. Don’t send them too far ahead, as you don’t want people overthinking it and crafting polished answers rather than raw responses. I like to send an email the day before, just so they can mull over some of the topics you want to cover. Not everyone can speak off the cuff about the things you want them to reveal, so if you don’t want crickets and tumbleweed, offer up a little prep time, you’ll get stronger, more considered responses as a result.

6. Be prepared to go off topic.

One of the benefits of doing these live interviews is that you can steer the conversation if you need to. So, if someone says, or hints, at something you feel is really valuable, don’t be afraid to ditch the script and delve deeper into it with the classic ‘Hmmm, tell me more about that.’

7. Ask big Qs with pointy tips.

Every band strategy project is different, so the best questions to ask will depend on the context of the project. It’s important that your questions are tailored to the specifics of the brand and geared around achieving what you need to know as part of the strategy you are creating. I ask big questions that allow the interviewee to be very open with their answers, but also pointed questions that force them to be very specific. Vagueness is your enemy in this situation, so always try to follow up incomplete answers with ‘Why do you think that?’ or ‘What makes you believe that?’

8. Avoid abstract questions.

‘If your brand was a car, what kind of car would it be?’ Oh please god no.

9. Record all the interviews.

If you spend the whole interview with your head down scribbling notes, then you’re doing yourself a disservice. Because you aren’t giving the person enough of your attention, you won’t be able to move away from a functional ‘Q and A’ format and into the roving conversation style where the real insights start to come out. A better option is to record the interview (always ask permission first of course) so you can listen back to it at a later date and hone in on the most revealing parts. I use a tool called Temi which transcribes the recorded interviews but also allows you to listen to the audio at the same time, so you don’t miss the intent or tone behind what is being said. It’s more accurate than a lot of the others I think.

Personally, it’s when I’m listening back to all the interviews, highlighting certain bits and connecting the dots between what I’m hearing and what I’ve learned from the rest of the research, that the direction for the strategy really starts to become clearer. Like they say, ‘research is what you do when you don’t know what you’re doing!’

So, there you go — a few things to try/consider when you’re doing research interviews for your next brand project.

Let me know how you approach it and if there are any hints or tips you can share in the comments.

Cheers

Richie

An independent brand strategist based in Melbourne.