AS MARKETS GROW more competitive, companies need to improve their understanding of their target customers’ needs, attitudes, and buying behavior. They must design their offers and their images to be competitively attractive. The target customers carry images in their heads about each supplier’s product quality, service quality, prices, and so on. The images are not always accurate, but nevertheless they influence supplier selection.
Suppliers sometimes attempt to measure their image among target customers. A manufacturer of stereo components, for instance, found its share slipping. The president commissioned an image study to learn how his company was perceived relative to its two main competitors. The president thought that the company would rate higher than its two competitors on product quality and customer service. In fact, his company ran a weak third. His first reaction was to attack the image study as flawed. But when he looked at several of the transcribed statements from customers, he began to realize that he was not seeing his own company the way the customers were seeing it.
Although many companies commission an occasional image study, few do it systematically and on a regular basis. We would argue that companies should design and operate an image tracking and management system, which we define as follows: a system of periodically collecting, analyzing, and acting on information that describes how different publics view key attributes of the company’s performance.
The main advantages of an image tracking and management system are that (1) the company can detect unfavorable image shifts early and act before they hurt the company; (2) the company can identify key areas where its performance lags behind its competitors and work to strengthen those areas; (3) the company can identify key areas where it outshines its competitors and can capitalize on those strengths; and (4) the company can learn whether its corrective actions have improved its image.
While numerous articles describe the nature and importance of images and image measurement, the literature gives little guidance on designing and developing an image tracking and management system. Some Fortune 500 corporations have designed such systems but their features differ and they are not widely known. Since these systems are costly, they need to be designed correctly, if their value is to exceed their costs.