Understanding Customer Perceptions
Also Known as "Positioning Maps"
How do your customers really feel about your product or service? For instance, do they think that your product is a luxury item or a budget purchase? Do they see it as stylish or utilitarian, essential or novelty? And how do they compare it with your competitors' products?
No matter how well you think you know your customers, you might be surprised by their answers to these questions.
It's important that you understand how your customers see your brand, and that you know how they view your competitors. This directly affects how you market and position your product.
In this article, we'll discuss perceptual mapping – a simple, visual tool that you can use to understand how your customers view your product or service, compared with your competitors' offerings.
What Is Perceptual Mapping?
Perceptual mapping*, also known as positioning mapping, helps you analyze visually how your target market perceives your product or service.
A perceptual map, an example of which is shown in Figure 1 below, is a simple graph with a vertical and a horizontal axis. These axes represent the dimensions that you want to analyze, and you label each with the criteria your customers use to decide whether to buy your offering.
For example, imagine that your organization sells breakfast cereal. You want to know how customers perceive your cereal, and how they see your competitors' cereal; and you think that healthiness and and a feeling of fun are dimensions that your customers use to make their purchase decision.
To explore this, you would label the left side of the X-axis "unhealthy" and the right side "healthy." You would then label the top of the Y-axis "fun" and the bottom "boring." You would plot your cereal, along with your competitors' cereals, on the graph, according to what your customers say.
Figure 1 – Perceptual Map
When you know how your customers see your product compared with how they see your competitors' products, you can make an informed decision about how to position it within the market, you can develop an effective marketing strategy, and you can think about future product development.
You can also use perceptual maps to decide whether to go ahead with a potential product, as you can see whether it has a clear, distinct and valuable market position. And you can use the tool to develop new products, launch new brands, or find new target markets, based on gaps that you've identified on your map.
Most perceptual maps are simple, two-dimensional graphs that compare two criteria. However, some software products allow you to create more complex, multi-dimensional maps, with a number of different attributes.
How to Use the Tool
Follow the steps below to use the perceptual mapping tool.
Step 1: Determine What You Want to Measure
Before you create your map, it's important to understand the attributes that your target customers use to make a purchasing decision, so that you can measure what's important to them. You need to understand the questions that they ask – sometimes subconsciously – when they compare your product with your competitors' offerings.
For instance, if you manufacture a food product, your customers might compare attributes such as flavor, quality or price. When your customers make a purchase, they might also use more emotional triggers, such as "fun" or "self-indulgent."
Then, decide which dimensions you want to represent on your map. For instance, if you sell espresso makers, you might decide to measure how usable people perceive them to be, and whether they see them as "attractive" or "unattractive."
Step 2: Survey Your Customers
Next, you need to find out how your product and how competing products rank on the dimensions that you decided to measure.
The simplest way to do this is to use a survey to ask your customers to rate the products. Ask them to score your product and other products, based on your pre-chosen dimensions, with a number between, say, -5 and +5.
For example, you might ask, "How would you rate our espresso maker for usability on a scale of -5 to +5, with -5 being extremely unusable and +5 being extremely usable?" and, "How would you rate our espresso maker for 'attractiveness,' with -5 being unattractive and +5 being extremely attractive?"
You can then ask these same questions for each of your competitors' espresso makers.
You can also create a perceptual map on your own or with your team, based on your own perceptions. Unfortunately, these perceptions are likely to be biased – you'll get much better results when you survey prospective customers.
Step 3: Plot the Results
Once you've surveyed your customers, you can create your map.
Download our worksheet, or draw a simple grid with an X-axis and a Y-axis. Label each axis with the dimensions you've chosen.
After you've created your map, use the results from your survey to calculate each product's average score on each dimension. For example, if your customers gave your product an average score of three for usability and an average score of two for attractiveness, plot this on your map. Then, calculate the average scores for each of your competitor's products, and plot these on the grid as well.
Figure 2 – Perceptual Map With Scores
Step 4: Analyze Your Map
Look carefully at where you've positioned the products on the map. Consider the following questions.
Does your product have a distinct, attractive position, compared with its competitors?
If there is an overlap, your customers might not understand your product's unique selling proposition (USP). Conduct a USP analysis, and make sure that your marketing and communication efforts highlight the product's uniqueness.
What else can you do to make your product stand out? Consider adjusting the quality, price, packaging, and standard features.
If you measured your product against another product offered by your organization, does each have its own, distinct space? If your company's products overlap, you might have too many similar offerings for any one of them to succeed fully.
Is your product's placement on the grid where you want it to be?
Think carefully about your product's position on the map. If you consider your product to be high quality, but your customers see it as low quality, you'll want to take steps to address this discrepancy.
Do your customers view your product positively or negatively? Does its current position fit with your organization's marketing strategy?
If you think that your product's position should be different, it's important to find out why customers see it in this way. Perform a root cause analysis, use customer experience mapping or try the 5 Whys technique to find out why your customers responded the way they did.
Next, determine where you want your product to be. What changes must you make to get this result? How can you change your customers' attitudes?
Are there any market gaps that your organization can take advantage of?
You might find that large sections, or even entire quadrants, of the market are vacant. Depending on your industry and on the attributes that you explored, these vacant spaces could indicate a significant market opportunity for your organization.
For example, imagine that you measured the quality and healthiness of your organization's product. Once you have analyzed the completed graphs, you realize that none of your competitors offer a low-cost, healthy snack: everyone is focused on premium-quality, expensive snack bars. This could be a great opportunity to reach a new target market with a new product!
Think about how you could take advantage of the open areas on the map. Does your organization have a product under development that you could adjust to address this gap? (Clearly, this will only work with some dimensions – no one wants an unattractive, unusable espresso maker!)
You can use perceptual maps, also known as positioning maps, to look at how your target market perceives your product or service.
A perceptual map is a simple graph with a vertical and a horizontal axis representing the dimensions you want to measure. You label each axis with an attribute that your customers use to evaluate your product before they buy it.
To use perceptual mapping, run a focus group with your customers to find out what criteria they use when they compare your product with your competitors' products (for instance, healthy/unhealthy, stylish/utilitarian, sporty/family-oriented). Then, survey them to understand their perceptions, and plot the results on your map.
Take time to analyze the results: gaps in the grid could indicate new market opportunities, while heavily clustered quadrants could indicate that you need to work on communicating your product's USP.
* Originator unknown. Please let us know if you know who the originator is.