I can certainly think of a more pleasant way to spend an evening than sitting behind a two-way mirror listening to focus group after focus group pick apart your new branding campaign (believe me, it can be brutal). On the other hand, I can’t think of a more valuable tool to access exactly what your audiences think about your brand concept, messaging and creative, and most importantly why. The insights are extremely valuable, and depending on the outcomes, can be used to reinforce or alter the positioning and concept, make needed adjustments, refine some creative elements, and hone your messages appropriately—all prior to the public launch.

Of course, these days there are many less-painful and inexpensive ways of assessing the effectiveness of some advertising thanks to the internet. For example, you can purchase online networks and test the effectiveness of different sites within the network, along with different messages, creative executions, offers, and calls to actions to see how they resonate with your audiences. You can also make immediate changes to your ad buy and creative based on the feedback. Those same insights can help inform your more traditional print, outdoor, radio and transit advertising. This type of testing is extremely valuable when it comes to direct response advertising for things like graduate recruitment, information sessions and event advertising, but falls way short when it comes to understanding how your customers perceive your brand campaign, what they’re internalizing and why. That’s where good old-fashioned creative testing comes into play.

I’ve conducted creative concept testing on several occasions for brand and advertising campaigns prior to developing the deliverables and the public launch, and each time I gained insights that I never anticipated. After taking some time to digest and analyze the feedback, we made relatively minor, but very important changes that helped us avoid potential pitfalls and ultimately made the campaigns much stronger. Here are some things to keep in mind when testing your branding efforts.

Have a clear understanding of what you’re testing.  Creative testing should be less about whether your audiences like or don’t like the creative, and more about whether they get, recall and believe the messages you’re putting forth. So don’t focus on subjective things like design, colors, typefaces and images, but rather on whether your brand concept captures their attention, reigns true to the institution, and delivers messages that relate back to the goals of your branding effort.

Years ago, when we put the University of Maryland’s ZOOM campaign through creative testing, we gave focus group participants a chance to openly discuss the pros and cons of the brand concept and the creative execution. Initially there was quite a bit of conversation about the design, images and headlines, but eventually we got them to focus on what they recalled and took away from the campaign elements. Participants overwhelmingly talked about the progress and momentum of the institution, new things they learned about UMD, and even recalled specific copy points related to the quality of incoming students, faculty awards and new facilities. Sure we heard and addressed some issues related to imagery, design and copy which were helpful, but the true benefit of the testing was knowing that we nailed one of the top priorities of the campaign—to increase perceptions of quality and progress.

Do it right, and that usually means working with a professional that understands creative testing and the nuances of branding.  If you’ve been part of the development of the work, you’re probably not the right person to the lead the testing. Professional market researchers bring a lot to the table and can help you through the process. They are unbiased and therefore will probably be perceived as being more credible. They’ll work with you to design a test study and methodology that meets your needs, which could include a combination of methods like personalized interviews, focus groups, physiological techniques and quantitative methods as well.  They have the ability to steer the conversation and keep things on track, which is important given how invested our audiences are in the brand. They also understand the value of branding and can be your ally in the process. And, they can help you interpret and deliver the findings to a skeptical administration.

Make sure all your key audiences are appropriately represented.  In higher education, we cover the gamut from a 17-year-old prospective student to a 90-year-old donor, and everyone in between. And each of our audiences (you know them all) wants and values different things from our institution. Talking with key audiences separately will provide insights that will enable you to hone your efforts by audience sector.

When testing American University’s WONK brand concept, we noticed varying reactions to the campaign by audience segment and age based on their familiarity and associations with the term. Although the overall results of the WONK creative testing were quite positive with the strengths clearly outweighing the negatives, we did make sure to adjust the creative and messaging for each audience segment. These insights were extremely helpful and guided us during the launch and implementation phase.

Don’t let yourself get too far off course.  By the time you come to the point of creative testing, you should be in a pretty good place. You’ve done your research to understand how your brand is perceived, you’ve identified and tested its strong points, you’ve aligned the marketing and branding goals with the institution’s strategic objectives, you’ve gotten buy-in on the brand platform and positioning, and created an authentic, relevant and distinct brand concept with sample deliverables that are ready for testing. If you’ve taken all the rights steps throughout the process, the outcomes of the creative testing will most likely lead you to doing some minor course corrections and refinements. So although you may hear some pretty strong feedback, both pro and con, don’t lose site of the original goals and objectives and all the good work you’ve done thus far. If you haven’t done the right things, creative testing will point that out as well, but better now, then later.

Interpretation and presentation of the findings are key.  Let’s face it most people rarely admit to liking or being persuaded by advertising and are unlikely to be overly enthusiastic about your institution’s new brand campaign. That’s especially true in higher education where our audiences are very invested in the brand with each having very different associations with it. For example, the experience and expectations of a 55-year-old alum and that of an 18-year-old student are going to be vastly different. You need to keep these things in mind when analyzing the feedback and determining next steps. Look at the data as objectively as possible, both collectively and audience-by-audience. Don’t get too mired down in the data, but rather look for big trends and patterns, positive and negative associations, and potential pitfalls. And when it comes to actually presenting the feedback to your team, advisory committees and administration, call on your market research expert for help.

Lastly, creative testing can be expensive, but in most cases, well worth the investment. There are, however, some creative ways to keep costs down if you’re willing to take on some of the legwork yourself. Let us know if we can help.