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Image Research In Industrial Marketing

Image is how others see us. It is the cornerstone of the success of any business. If a company's image is right everything else will follow easily.

Image research is only one part of attitudinal research, other elements being measures of awareness and experience. If, for example, 50 per cent of buyers of office equipment are aware of Bisley and only 20 per cent are aware of Railex, it is clear that the latter is at a relative disadvantage, assuming both companies are selling a range of goods which most companies are likely to need at some time or another.

It is obvious, therefore, that for a company to possess an image, buyers or specifiers must be aware of them. It is not vital that they should have had experience of the product or company. Although you may never have driven a Skoda car, you are likely to have heard of the car and have some sort of image which will influence your likelihood of buying one. It is because image is such a strong influence on the propensity to purchase that it is the cornerstone of a successful business. A good image will encourage sales, a poor image will work against them.

What is a good image? This depends entirely on what face the management of the company wants to project. The BSC may find it advantageous to be seen as a big manufacturer of steel plate. This image of size may place them in a position to compete for very latest orders at home and overseas. Spartan Redheugh of Gateshead on the other hand, is a plate mill which aims to build an image of flexibility – they can handle any sort of plate , in small quantities if need be. To them an image of size would be counter productive as it would discourage the type of customer they seek – one who requires service and is prepared to pay a premium for it.

It is important that every company should ask themselves what image they wish to project and at whom. This article concentrates mainly on researching image among customers, but it is of course possible that a management's chief concern is its image in the City, with employees, or even among households around its factory.

Customers and potential customers, being the lifeblood of a company, are the most common target for image research. Actual customers should be considered separately from potential customers in an analysis of image as they are two very different groups. Customers have a first hand knowledge of the company, its sales presentations, prices, product design, reliability and after sales service. Their image of it is likely to be more accurate since it is born of experience. Potential customers may have an image which, for all that it is not based on experience, is nevertheless real to them and likely to influence their inclination to buy from the company.

The questionnaire which is used to measure the image of potential customers is likely to be the same in construction as for actual customers but it is more difficult to administer. Potential customers find it hard to understand why they are being questioned about a company from which they do not buy. To their mind it would be far more interesting and sensible to discuss the companies from which they do buy.

The researcher has three techniques for carrying out image research – personal visits, telephone interviews and postal questionnaires. Bearing in mind the need to have a database of at least 200 completed questionnaires (below this figure little confidence can be placed in differences between each company’s image scores), the research sponsor must select the research method after balancing budget against the number of topics to be covered.

The telephone has some limitations for measuring image as it makes difficult the use of prompts – and these are required to stimulate a response. However, the telephone provides a fast and relatively inexpensive check on the more important aspects of image, even though it is not conducive to probing in depth.

"which companies are you aware of that supply twist drills?" FOR EACH COMPANY THAT IS KNOWN "What do you consider to be the strengths of this company as a supplier of twist drills? And what do you consider its weaknesses to be?"

Postal questionnaires have seen more limitations. Their chief advantage is the opportunity which they provide for the respondent to reflect on each question. There is no pressure for an instant reply as is the case on the telephone or face to face. (The instant response is not necessarily the best as it could be ill considered). Decisions to buy industrial products are deliberated long and hard.

The postal questionnaire can be designed to make its completion interesting and even fun. Layout, typestyles and pictures can all be used to liven the questions and improve the quality of the response. However, without complicated and often expensive checkbacks, it is impossible to say whether or not the response is truly representative. A postal survey carried out among truck operators to establish their image of the types of chassis on the market generated a very acceptable 40 per cent useable response, reflecting the interest of the target audience in these products. But a postal survey on industrial cartridges filters produced only a five per cent useable response, even with the backing of a small incentive. Cartridge filters are unfortunately of little interest to industrial buyers.

Face to face interviews provide the opportunity to explore image from many different angles. Respondents can be asked to study prompt cards and even complete certain questions themselves under the "supervision" of the interviewer.

The design of a questionnaire for an image survey is one of the most difficult tasks in industrial market research. The researcher must be aware of four important points before he even puts pen to paper.

A respondent may have an image of a company which varies from the very broad ("I think ICI is a good company") to the specific ("I think ICI's sales team is well trained"). The questions should be designed to elicit a broad or specific response, as is appropriate to the survey.

Care must be taken to distinguish between the respondent who simply agrees that a statement is correct and one who has actually evaluated the subject.

If a company achieves a good image it does not mean that the respondent will buy from them. There is no point in asking a respondent to score a company on aspects of its image which have little or no influence on his personal behaviour.

The terminology used in the questions should be appropriate to the jargon of the respondent. This can only be determined by discussions with respondents prior to designing the questionnaire.

The questions which are used to measure image can take a number of forms. They can be verbal rating scales in which the respondent is asked, on a scale, to indicate how strongly he agrees or disagrees with a statement. The question might read:

"I would like to read out a number of statements which people have made about the XXX. Please tell me how much you agree or disagree with each one".

Some researchers argue that a better distribution of response is achieved if the scale begins with "Disagree strongly" and works down to "Agree strongly".

A variation on this approach is the numerical rating scale where the respondent is asked to give a score out of 5,7 or 10 on a specific attribute of a company. For example: "I'd like you to give ERF a score out of five for the reliability of their trucks." The respondent should, of course, be told that five is equal to excellent and one is equal to unacceptable.

Ranking can be used to provide both a measure of image and an indication of the likelihood of purchase.

"I shall now read out to you a list of suppliers of solenoid valves. Which company's products would you be most likely to buy? And which would you be second most likely to buy?"

This type of questioning lends itself very conveniently to the probe - "why is that?" after each response.

In circumstances where it is unclear what attributes are linked to a company, a long list of adjectives are presented to the respondent to select those which most aptly describe it. This is a prompted word test.

Image measurement can also be obtained in more obtuse ways. In a truck survey respondents were asked to nominate commercial vehicle manufacturers they thought would grow in the future and those which they thought would decline. The results correlated perfectly with other more orthodox questions on image, showing the favourable image companies to be associated with good growth prospects.

Image is a relative measurement. Knowing a company’s image is useful only against the benchmark of its obvious competitors. To know that a company has a good image may lead to complacency unless one is aware that a competitor has an even better one. It is this knowledge of strengths and weakness which is the reason why image research is so valuable. Given such information the marketing team can advise how to improve the company’s products and services , they can correct misconceptions about the company, make capital of its strengths and can hit competitors where they know they are vulnerable.

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