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I've been asked a lot lately about brand positioning.

Executives and owner/operators want a point of view on their perceived position in the market. One request came from a telecom client, another from a university, and another from a distiller. Not a lot in common among them, yet the implicit question seems to be: "Is our brand correctly positioned for the coming economic recovery?"

It's good to see businesses looking ahead again.

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It's hard to understand how to shift a brand without a solid grasp of where the brand is positioned now. A brand audit is a good tool to employ.

A brand audit is a holistic way of looking at a business, and more specifically a company's value proposition married to the way it interfaces with the world. The orientation is definitely around the brand/messaging/promise portrayed inside and outside the firm. The audit involves putting together a framework that allows the right questions to be asked of everyone involved, from employees to customers to suppliers.

Brand audits are designed to sort out perceptions around what a brand stands for and the perceived value proposition. They also end up touching on internal culture, customer experience and host of other related issues. For example, a brand audit on a premium furniture manufacturer might turn up concerns over production quality and showroom presentation, in addition to uncovering positive perceptions of the position of the brand relative to competitors.

A thorough brand audit compares internal and external perspectives. There are inherent objectivity risks tied to brand audits, so mitigating these risks is important. The most obvious option is to get outside help by hiring an independent third party to design and conduct the study. This eliminates bias. For some businesses, this can be cumbersome and/or cost prohibitive. A second means of eliminating or at least minimizing objectivity risk is to conduct the audit in-house, but around a well designed and rigorous process.

Who should be involved?

The owner/operator/business-leader should be involved, but not head the study. There is too much risk of personal opinion clouding any questions or analyses then undertaken. The project leader should come from the ranks or the management team.

What should the process look like?

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It principally involves asking a lot of questions. Questions about "how are we doing on…?" will be asked repeatedly. Many groups need to be engaged to get maximum perspective. Each of the groups must be asked the same set of questions, so that answers can be compared. The questions should be designed by more than one person, and then vetted by many stakeholders in the business – looking for leading questions.

For example: a leading question would be "how valuable are our services to you?" An unbiased version would be "on a scale of one to 10, where one = poor and 10 = excellent, what rating would you put on the value of our services?"

What are the components of a basic brand audit, and how they are deployed?

1. Metric design. An old engineering adage is: it is a bad idea to measure without the right measuring stick. This is the stage to build the measuring stick – to decide what is going to be included in scope and what is going to be left out. These elements will be central to all aspects of the audit, so that results can be compared later. Some good elements to include and measure are:

• Clarity of value proposition

• Clarity of strengths and differentiators

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• Brand recognition

• Effectiveness of sales and marketing materials

• Appropriateness of pricing

• Perception of quality

• Corporate image effectiveness

2. Study/question design. The next step is to design study areas and questions that will yield data. A good study design includes six areas:

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• Internal analysis

• Competitive assessment

• Supplier perspective

• Current customer analysis

• Past customer analysis

• Potential customer assessment

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In other words, no matter how simple or complicated the audit design, many perspectives generate better results. The questions posed should flow from the metrics outlined in step one. For example, clarity of value proposition could merit more than one question asked to each group – questions here could include: "If you were to describe our services to someone else, what would you say?" And: "What makes us better than our competitors?"

Other important questions to ask, regardless of study design specifics:

• If you had $1 million to spend on my business, what would you spend it on?

• What are we worst at? How could we fix it?

• Is our branding consistent with what we do and how we act?

• Does our website and do our marketing materials/ads accurately "sell" our message?

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3. Study execution. At some point the planning has to end and the doing has to start. Executing the study means assigning the appropriate party from within the organization the task of carrying out interviews with people from each group or study area identified. The exception to the rule is on the competitive side, where a more guerrilla approach is required to see how competitors are doing business – a topic for another day. Internal interviews tend to be longer than those with customers and other outsiders. Internal folks will normally have stronger opinions and more context – plan for 45 minutes to an hour for each.

External interviews with customers and suppliers can be as short as five minutes over the phone, although a wide spectrum of current and past customers is important. In terms of numbers, surveying as many as thousands of potential customers is an option, although about 20 interviews with each of current and former customers tends to garner the most important trends.

4. Study analysis. The analysis should be fairly straightforward. There are two main elements: themes and differences in answers between groups.

Thematic analysis can only be done manually – someone experienced with trending should pick through all the raw data, particularly quotes, looking for common messages such as "your sales materials don't really tell me what you do." (Note, there is software available, but the investment is likely not warranted given the number of times this audit will be performed.)

A good way to start the comparative analysis is to use the answers from the internal interviews as the anchor (since what employees believe is where the business is starting from), and then compare the answers from the other groups against this data. The point is to compare the points of view. Some call this a gap analysis. Clearly if customers or potential customers, for example, don't see the value proposition the way the company does, there is an issue to correct.

The ultimate goal of branding is accuracy and consistency: everything a business does should accurately portray the brand/value proposition, and the branding and messaging should be delivered consistently. A brand audit, whether basic or complex, can be a powerful tool in starting a brand repositioning.

Mark Healy, P.Eng, MBA, founder of Torque Customer Strategy, is now a partner at Satov Consultants – a management consultancy with practice areas in corporate strategy, customer strategy and operations strategy. Mark's focus areas inside the Customer Strategy practice include consumer insights, customer experience, innovation and go-to-market strategy. He is a regular speaker and media contributor on topics ranging from marketing to strategy, in telecom, retail and other sectors. Mark is known as much for his penchant for loud socks and a healthy NFL football obsession as he is for his commitment to Ivey and recent Ivey grads. He currently serves as chair of the Ivey Alumni Association board of directors. Mark lives with his wife Charlotte and their bulldog McDuff in Toronto.

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