Developing a perceptual map is an important element in determining marketing strategy for your firm, especially when it comes to finding the optimal positioning for your brand. A perceptual map takes consumer attitudes toward your brand relative to their attitudes about your competition to help you plan more effective strategies that explode your ROI (return on investment).
Once you have a clear idea of where you stand vis-a-vis your competition, you develop strategies that allow you to dominate your niche by manipulating your product, your advertising messages, or both.
In this post, we’ll walk you through the steps needed to create a dynamite perceptual map capable of guiding marketing strategy and exploding your ROI.
What is a perceptual map?
First, what are perceptual maps? According to Alexa,
Perceptual mapping is a visual representation of where a brand, product, or service stands among competitors. It is also known as positional mapping.
This type of competitive analysis framework generally consists of two key attributes as a basis (e.g., price and quality, as seen in the example below). Once you’ve chosen the attributes you want to focus on, the next step is to plot the brands, products, or services to see how they’re positioned among these attributes.
Although perceptual maps (also called product positioning maps) may display any number of dimensions thanks to the wonders of modern computers, we present in this post a paired-down perceptual map graphed on 2 dimensions for clarity and simplicity. Also, multi-dimensional perceptual maps are 3-dimensional, which makes them impossible to display accurately on a page like this. Here’s an example:
Next, why do you want a perceptual map?
Perceptual maps help you understand what consumers think about your brand and how your brand fits with the perceptions of other brands that compete with yours. Thus, building a perceptual map helps you understand what consumers think about your competitor’s brands along the dimensions (or attributes) they use to decide which product to purchase.
Perceptual maps help you build an effective marketing strategy, especially in determining how you should position your brand to stand out from your competition based on the attributes real consumers use to inform their decisions.
- maps help you build a competitive strategy
- maps help you build a communication strategy
- maps help you identify potential new products
- maps help you build a brand strategy
Example of perceptual mapping
This example maps automobile companies based on 2 criteria; sporty versus conservative and practical/affordable versus classy/distinctive. However, mistakes in this image, as well as the one at the top of this page, limit their utility. Here are the critical mistakes made:
- The size of each manufacturer’s bubble should represent the brand’s current market share relative to other brands, which this image fails to accomplish.
- I prefer to have my axis much cleaner than practical/affordable or high quality versus low quality, which I see as pretty fuzzy. But Wikipedia doesn’t have a Ph.D. in Marketing as I do. Perceptual maps work best when the dimensions used have meaning to consumers. For instance, with candy, great taste often outperforms quality as a determinant in consumer choice. Similarly, with cars, practical and affordable might reflect different attitudes. A car is seen as affordable when it has a low price, good gas mileage, and low maintenance costs. A car is practical when it’s easy to park, has good pick-up for merging on highways, and enough seating for normal operations. Hence, a car might be affordable but not practical. Avoid this at all costs.
- The key element of perceptual mapping, from the standpoint of marketing strategy, is the axis should measure attitudes related to consumer choice. So, if most consumers decide to buy cars based on American-made versus foreign and luxury versus economical, then the lovely map Wikipedia designed is totally worthless to auto manufacturers as they build their marketing strategy. In fact, choosing the wrong attributes for your perceptual map leads to making decisions that might damage your brand or waste money. Choosing the right attributes to map guides you toward marketing strategies that explode your ROI.
The carmakers using this perceptual map likely need to go back to the drawing board, er, the marketing research firm, and redo the survey questions based on dimensions that actually determine which cars consumers buy.
Now that we understand what a perceptual map is and why we should want one, let’s talk about constructing one. Here are the 5 steps, in order, necessary to develop a perceptual map.
Steps in building a perceptual map
1. Determine which product attributes are consumer hot buttons
Literally, you can use any factors important for your target audience to build a perceptual map. But, don’t guess which factors have the most influence over consumer decision-making. We call these hot buttons. Ask. And, it may be that different market segments within your target market have different variables that influence buying decisions.
While new perceptual mapping software allows you to build maps on more than 2 axes, you still need to pick those factors that have the most influence on buying behavior. It means doing preliminary research before you even start collecting data for your perceptual map.
Consumer hot buttons, those attributes with the greatest impact on choice, are a function of your market, so the attributes consumers use to determine which car to buy are entirely different from which doctor to use. In choosing a doctor, the criterion might be reputation (high versus unknown) and location (near versus far) and the price might have no impact on purchase decisions. While for candy bars, the occasion impacts choice (gifts often use very different choice criteria), as does availability, and taste.
You can’t guess on this stuff, because if you have the wrong criteria, then the rest of your efforts are wasted. So ask your market what is important to them. You can do a survey or a focus group to find those hot buttons that direct consumer decision-making. There are also ways to use a customer relationship management system (CRM), if properly designed, to see what consumer hot buttons are based on actual purchase behavior.
In the digital world we live in, social media may provide all the insight you need to determine which dimensions or attributes of the brand determine product purchase decisions. Available software easily scrapes social media posts from your market (consumers who buy products in your product category), then uses NLP (natural language processing) to count how many times users mention words reflecting product attributes to guide the construction of the perceptual map.
2. Survey your market
Once you’ve identified consumer hot buttons, you must find out how consumers rate your products, as well as how they rate your competitors, across these hot buttons. My preferred way of doing this is to have consumers identify competing products, and then rate them based on hot-button criteria. Remember, you not only want their perceptions of where your brand fits in the multi-dimensional space of your perceptual map but also where your competitors fit. In some cases, you’ll also want perceptions about close substitutes for your brand.
I commonly use a Likert-type scale to collect data because it’s richer than a bi-polar scale and easier than a semantic differential scale. But, any type of data will do, as long as it represents your entire target market.
It’s also good to get demographics, some geographics, and some psychographic information to determine whether there are segments within your market that possess different importance ratings or evaluations of your brand. For instance, using our automobile example, likely different segments of the market have different attitudes regarding what’s important in making their buying decision as well as how they evaluate cars. Affluent buyers may evaluate the brands making up the car market very differently from young families with lower incomes. You may need different perceptual maps for each relevant market for your products.
3. Graph results
Maybe the best feature of perceptual mapping is data visualization — being able to see the data graphically helps in making appropriate decisions. Depicted in this map is the positioning of your brand relative to its competitors. Good software for perceptual mapping generates a figure like the ones we showed earlier that clearly models where your brand fits in the minds of consumers, as well as where your competitors fit. Good software also displays brands in sizes relative to their existing market share — with brands that sell more displayed larger than brands that sell less.
Computer programs make graphing the results from your survey a lot easier and, if you have more than 2 dimensions you want to graph, computers are necessary. You can use Excel for 2-dimensional perceptual maps, although special software for perceptual mapping exists and may perform better. Or purchase SPSS, which is more expensive than tools designed for perceptual mapping, but SPSS provides functionality to perform multiple types of statistical analysis so it might work best if you want other insights to guide your marketing strategy.
Regardless of your chosen software, the map should not only display the position of various brands, but the size of the brand on the map should reflect its market share (so you’ll need to gather this info from secondary sources).
4. Interpret the perceptual map
This step is where you get strategic value from the map. First, look at your brand’s position relative to other brands. Next, determine which brands occupy the same space as your brand (or a nearly identical space) based on consumer attitudes. Here are some things to look for on your map.
- Do consumer attitudes toward my brand match what I want them to think about my brand?
- Do consumer attitudes toward my competitors match what I thought about them?
- Who are the competitors consumers see as closest to my brand?
- Are there holes in the map indicating the potential for new brands?
When consumers hold nearly identical attitudes toward your brand and a competitor, choosing your brand is a coin toss. You want consumers to have a clear preference for your brand, so you must distance yourself from your competition to push consumers toward your brand. A great example is Apple versus PC commercials like the one below that make a clear distinction between your brand and your competition.
5. Change your marketing strategy
If consumers don’t see your brand in a favorable way, you need to make changes. Sometimes, there’s really something wrong with your brand leading to poor consumer attitudes, which you must fix ASAP. In the case where consumer attitudes toward your brand aren’t accurate, changes to your advertising and promotional campaign will help moderate these attitudes.
When consumers view competitors as being very similar to your brand, think about how your brand can stand out — you really don’t want to go head-to-head with competitors and price is the last tool you should use to differentiate your brand. If there are holes you think represent viable products that fit your company’s capabilities, think about introducing a new brand or moving your brand into an unfilled position by modifying its features and attributes.
Making decisions based on your perceptual map
First thing, your preliminary research tells you what’s important to your target market (or target markets) — if you didn’t already know.
Next, you want to avoid head-to-head competitions, if at all possible. So, if your brand is perceived as too similar to a large competitor (for example if you’re Cadillac, you’re too much like Lincoln and Mercedes), think about re-positioning your brand to fit on the perceptual map where there’s little competition. Cadillac did a good job of this with its redesign of the CTS as both a high-performance and sexy automobile, while Lincoln and Mercedes stayed in the same space.
If you’re working on a new product, try to find one where there’s a free quadrant ( or part of one) on the perceptual map. But, you also need to consider WHY there’s no one in a blank spot on the perceptual map. Maybe that area is not possible — such as a cheap luxury car. More likely, the space is empty because consumers really don’t WANT a product in that space.
Pitfalls in perceptual mapping
Two big pitfalls to perceptual mapping lie in wait of the unwary or unschooled.
First, market research is complicated and expensive. Done wrong, market research is less than worthless. Market research relies on doing a good job of sampling your entire target market, avoiding bias, and the reliability and validity of your measures. Ask a question in a way that leads respondents to an answer and you make decisions that not only don’t help your brand but might hurt it. The popular press and literature are replete with examples of companies that zigged when they should have zagged because market research gave them the wrong answers.
Second, interpretation can be a little tricky, especially given the politics in some firms.
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