Best Practices

Best Practices: Using Perceptual Maps Correctly to Drive Brand Differentiation

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Find more meaningful points of difference with perceptual maps.

Competition continues to intensify across all industries, resulting in consumers having more choices. That’s why the ability to clearly articulate brand differentiation is as critical as ever.

In addition, marketers are under increasing pressure to communicate these differences to their target audiences in a manner that is compelling, relevant and efficient. Given this business environment, it’s easy to see why finding a meaningful point of differentiation is more essential now to ongoing success than at any time in the past.

Unfortunately, identifying these differentiating benefits and features is not always straightforward from a market research perspective. Some researchers use simple descriptive techniques, such as rating or ranking exercises to assess a brand on a list of attributes. In these cases, they are using performance as a proxy for differentiation, arguing that a brand that performs well on an attribute differentiates on that specific one. This information is often coupled with a measure of attribute importance into SWOT-styled analyses to help guide strategic brand decisions.

While this approach may be useful in some applications, we continually find perceptual mapping to be a more powerful and insightful technique for identifying and extracting meaningful differentiators. Perceptual maps like the one shown below go beyond simple performance-importance comparisons by showing the broader ecosystem of a brand, including:

  • The differentiating strength of an attribute
  • The relationship of attributes to one other and to brands
  • The relationship of brands to one other
  • Potential opportunity for a brand in terms of unclaimed attributes

However, perceptual maps are frequently interpreted incompletely as well as inaccurately. Often, researchers interpret the “closeness” of attributes to a brand in a perceptual map as an indication of that brand’s defining characteristics and the closeness of brands to each other as a reflection of shared brand qualities.

Perceptual map


Using the example above, we note that brand attributes are displayed as vectors (or lines), with the length of the line reflecting the degree of differentiation:

  • By using a straight-edge and holding it at a 90 degree angle from each vector, one can determine which brands are differentiated by an attribute, as these will intersect with the straight-edge.
  • Attributes which are less differentiating have shorter lines, while attributes which are strongly differentiating have longer lines. In the example above, Trust is more differentiating than Reliability.
  • Attributes will also tend to group together. Those that are strongly correlated will group together in the same quadrant of the map, while those that are considered mutually exclusive will push out toward opposite sides of the map. Transparency and Conservative Culture are seen as mutually exclusive.
  • The length of each vector represents further levels of differentiation by each attribute – but not necessarily stronger levels of brand performance on that attribute.
  • Brands will tend to group with specific attributes to the extent that they are differentiated by that attribute. In the example above, Brand A is differentiated by Trust and Strong Customer Relationships.
  • Brands which are not strongly differentiated will group toward the center of the map. Brand is not strongly differentiated above.
  • Brands which are strongly differentiated will be displayed further from the center, in the direction of their differentiating attributes. At the same time, they are pushed away from attributes at the other side of the map.

When interpreted correctly, perceptual maps can provide companies with a comprehensive and powerful understanding of their brand’s points of differentiation in a competitive context. Importantly, this research approach can guide you to opportunities for driving brand differentiation and effectively leveraging brand strengths.

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