Brand Alchemy: Perception is reality

Accelerating brand growth by developing a deeper understandingof what your consumers think

Accelerating brand growth by developing a deeper understandingof what your consumers think

Brand Alchemy: Perception is reality

Accelerating brand growth by developing a deeper understanding of what your consumers think

May 2024 • SSG Perspective

Summary: As consumers slow down their spending, brands need to work harder to find relevance in consumers’ minds. We showcase how SSG’s ‘Consumer Perceptions’ approach equips marketers with deep insights on their brands that they can use to efficiently respond to evolving demand.

Increased price-sensitivity requires new brand strategy

In contrast to 2023, consumer spend in 2024 is expected to slow down as shoppers become more conscious of their wallets1,2. To continue growth, brands need to understand how to differentiate themselves and target needs of price-conscious consumers. Moreover, they need quick results given the increasing pressure marketers are facing to deliver nearer-term performance3,4.

We believe that companies must balance short-term efforts with long-term strategies to drive sustainable brand growth5. To drive momentum, we recognize the importance for marketing teams to demonstrate ‘quick wins’ for senior leaders. In this article, we discuss how SSG’s turnkey approach – our Consumer Perceptions work – helps shape brand communication strategy and identifies growth levers that can be actioned quickly.

What do consumers really think of my brand?

Our goal when answering this question with our clients is to first understand the full spectrum of applicable consumption occasions (i.e., the consumer’s ‘frame of reference’) – how the consumer experiences the occasion, and what they deem to be relevant product choices for that occasion. This understanding has helped clients expand the aperture of their competitive set to include not just traditional category competitors but also alternatives in adjacent categories or unpackaged options.

At a client working in the shelf-stable food condiments space, this meant expanding their competitive set beyond their core categories (sauces, soups, and broth) into a much broader consumer-led definition (“what do I need to prepare simple meals”). This led them to expand their market definition to include frozen and fresh categories, yogurts and spreads, canned meals, and certain snacking categories. This view helped them identify a new growth avenue for their brand.

Once we identify the market scope, we conduct large-scale consumer studies, surveying thousands of consumers* to understand what consumers associate with the brand across highly-nuanced emotional need-states (how your consumers feel about the brand) and functional benefits (what the product is or does for the consumer). The key here is understanding what your brand stands for, relative to other players in the expanded ‘market’ of categories and associated brands. This approach accurately reflects how consumers make decisions and trade-offs in real life – since people do not make purchase or consumption decisions in a vacuum, but rather choose across categories and brands to fulfil their needs for a particular occasion.

Note: This resulting view can sometimes conflict with existing beliefs of what the brand’s equity is. We have seen internal brand equity trackers that focus only on close-in competitors. However, not expanding the equity trackers to include the full competitive set reflecting the ‘true’ choices and trade-offs of consumers risks painting an incomplete picture of the brand’s strengths and weaknesses.

We then use robust statistical modelling to evaluate the extent to which consumers associate brands or categories with different emotional needs and functional benefits. We normalize these results to adjust for brand- and need-size, thus enabling a fair playing field across big and niche brands, and when comparing more established need states with newer emerging ones. Figure 1 provides an excerpt of the output from perceptions analytics. In the next section, we will showcase a few ways that we use these data to drive insights and action.

Figure 1: Perceptions output

How can I use perceptions to accelerate brand growth?

We highlight three ways in which we have used perceptions to help find growth opportunities:


Refining our view of the competitor and establishing who to source vulnerable volumes from


Outlining where we have differentiated brand strength to drive targeted brand messaging


Identifying whitespaces for innovation (longer-term unlock) to future-proof the business

We illustrate each of these using examples from select client industries.


Reframe the competitive set and source from at-risk volumes: When working with a client in the adult beverages space, we discovered that they had limited their competitive set to only include categories that met certain ABV thresholds. By expanding their frame of reference to be more consumer-centric and thereby including all social drinking occasions, a key adjacent category with lower ABV was added into the consideration set as an area to unlock growth. In doing so, we uncovered an important insight using consumer perceptions (detailed in Figure 2 below ): while the consumption of this adjacent category was significantly over-indexed in certain occasions, it did not fully meet consumer needs and therefore its volume was vulnerable – i.e., the category was at-risk of losing those volumes to a competitor that could better deliver against those needs.

Figure 2: Vulnerable volume

Using this insight, we helped reframe how our client envisioned their growth ambition. Previously, our client went head-to-head against the traditional “core” competitors, thus narrowing their growth runway. Now, they realized that going after vulnerable occasions was the “low hanging fruit” for their brand to accelerate its growth trajectory. This untapped opportunity reinvigorated marketing team efforts and led to the development of new creative as well as in-store commercial activation.


Identify and play to brand strengths. Integrate into brand communication: This is the ‘bread-and-butter’ of perceptions insights in that it reveals the relative strength (or weakness) of a brand in relation to the full pool of other brands vying for saliency with consumers.

Our client at a major soup and snacks company had executed a yearslong ad campaign focusing on several need states – fun, joy, convenience, taste, health – as the brand was trying to drive relevancy across a spectrum of occasions, ages, and consumption locations. Perceptions uncovered that while the brand was seen as a ‘convenient’ option in the quick and hot meals space, consumers had negative perceptions of the brand on every other dimension; however, the brand had a unique strength in ‘nostalgia’ and ‘nurture’ (see Figure 3). The brand team had thought of nostalgia as only being relevant to older consumers who, coincidentally, formed the majority of the brand’s consumer base. Given that the brand team was tasked with bringing in the new generation of consumers, this territory was not deemed as lucrative enough to pursue.

Our occasions segmentation disproved these pre-existing beliefs: we identified that nostalgia was an important need state for younger cohorts as well. And our perceptions work quickly showcased that, in fact, all cohorts viewed our client’s brand as delivering on nostalgia.

Figure 3: Identify brand strengths

This new finding allowed the brand teams to redirect their efforts to tap into new demand occasions: they incorporated relevant messaging to dial-up elements of nostalgia in their new ad campaign and adapted existing promotional materials to bring in iconic combinations of their products to evoke the feeling of good times as part of the overall brand experience.


Identify consumer ‘whitespaces’: A multinational company playing in the frozen sides and appetizers category wanted to understand how to grow its footprint globally into meal accompaniments as well as into more snacking occasions.When evaluating consumer perceptions of US and international consumers, we uncovered that there were universal unmet needs in the markets. Figure 4 outlines an example of a compromise that was being made by consumers in most countries surveyed.

Figure 4: Illustration of consumer whitespace

Our client was keen to expand into at-home social gathering occasions where ‘Connection’ and ‘Show I care’ were important needs. However, our perceptions work identified that there was a core consumer compromise being made – some categories delivered on the ‘connect’ need, while others delivered on ‘show I care’, but no category delivered on both.

This finding has since reinvigorated the client’s innovation pipeline – triggering deeper consumer qualitative and R&D work as well as technical product development by evaluating product proxies in markets and categories outside their industry. They are also in process of conducting global test-and-learns with promising country-specific offerings to help them get closer to their goal of playing to the shared meals occasions and tackling this huge whitespace.

Takeaway: There are three ways we can leverage perceptions to refocus marketing efforts and accelerate brand growth: (1) reframing the competitive set to tap into vulnerable volumes, (2) integrating brand strengths into communications, and (3) identifying innovation whitespaces.


In this article, we discussed our approach to developing strategy unlocks that drive brand growth in the near-term by leveraging Consumer Perceptions to provide impactful and quick-to-action insights for our clients. In our next edition of “Brand Alchemy”, we will discuss how we use our proprietary Path-to-Purchase approach to develop a deep understanding of shopper behavior and how to use that to influence commercial execution and investment decisions for your brands

Our experts



Strategy Group’s Demand HD® suite of analyses allows you to see your consumer like never before. The granular detail provided will make it possible to predict consumer choice, reveal consumer perceptions, unearth patterns, and uncover underserved demand. Turning on this powerful tool can outline complete path-to-purchase and associated decisions and create direct links between choice drivers at consumption and at point of purchase

Alcohol by volume: standard measure of how much alcohol is contained in a given volume of an alcoholic beverage

Full set of needs used in client study not shown


1. Chase, J. M. (2022, December 8). 2023 economic outlook: Insights for what’s ahead.
2. Chee-Read, A. (2023, October 26). Predictions 2024: Consumers embrace calm after the revenge spending storm. Forrester.
3. Stengel, J. (2023, April 10). How brand building and performance marketing can work together. Harvard Business Review.
4. Dennis, S. (2022, November 21). Under pressure: CMOs feeling the push to prove short-term marketing ROI. Performance Marketing World
5. Binet, L., & Field, P. (2013). The long and the short of it. Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.

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