Perceptual maps are often used in brand research to represent consumers’ perceptions of brands or products on two or more dimensions represented by X- and Y-axes, each with ends that have opposite meaning (e.g. bitter vs. sweet, cheap vs. expensive). Each brand has a position in the perceptual map space that reflects their relative similarity or preference to other brands with regards to the dimensions of the perceptual map. With the help of perceptual maps we can transform consumer judgments of similarity or preference into distances represented in a multidimensional space.
Perceptual maps are most appropriate if we want to:
- Explore and identified unknown dimensions affecting behavior
- Compare evaluations of brands when the basis for comparison is not known
As you set the objectives for a perceptual map, there are some practical considerations to have in mind:
- Similarity vs. Preference: Determine whether the brands will be compared on the basis of their similarity or of their preference. Similarity-based perceptual maps reflect brand similarities and dimensions of comparison, but don’t provide any insights into why the brands are chosen. Preference-based perceptual maps, on the other hand, reflect preferred choices, but consumers may compare brands on different dimensions that don’t match the similarity-based perceptual maps. Two brands can be perceived as different in a similarity-based perceptual map, but similar in a preference-based perceptual map (e.g. two brands of hair products perceived as different, but equally preferred).
- Relevancy: All relevant brands in a product category should be included as the omission of key brands or inclusion of inappropriate brands will have an impact on the derived dimensions and the relative positioning of the brands in the perceptual space.
- Comparability: Make sure that the brands or products are comparable in the eye of the consumer. Brands should have a common characteristic (objective or perceived) that consumers can use for comparison (e.g. clothing brands, snacks, alcoholic beverages, etc.).
- Number of brands evaluated: It is important to strike a balance between the required number of brands to find a stable multidimensional map, an acceptable level of model fit and the effort required on the part of the respondent to evaluate a number of brands. It is recommended to have more than four times as many brands as dimensions to obtain a stable solution and avoid overfitting problems, so trade-offs are necessary regarding the number of desired dimensions and the burden put on respondents so that data quality doesn’t degrade too quickly as it happens with long surveys.
- Approach: Perceptual mapping includes a wide range of techniques, which can be grouped in two categories:
- Attribute-Free: In this approach, typically associated with Multidimensional Scaling (MDS), respondents provide an overall evaluation of each brand, which is used to derive spatial positions in a multidimensional space that reflect these perceptions.
- Attribute-Based: This approach usually employs several multivariate techniques (e.g. Correspondence Analysis, Factor Analysis, Discriminant Analysis, etc.) that require respondents to provide evaluations of specific attributes, which are used to derive an overall evaluation of the brands and spatial dimensions along which brands are positioned.
Each of the approaches you can use for perceptual mapping has advantages and disadvantages:
- Aggregate vs. Dissagregate Analysis: Perceptual maps can be generated for individual respondents or for combinations of respondents using some process of aggregate analysis. If we are interested in understanding the overall perception of brands and the dimensions on which they are evaluated, an aggregate analysis is the most appropriate. If, on the other hand, we want to understand individual variations, the disaggregate analysis provides better insights.
On the whole, perceptual maps are useful tools to infer underlying dimensions from similarity or preference evaluations provided by respondents about brands. They can help us determine:
- How brands are perceived in relation to each other, which is important in competitive market analysis
- What dimensions to evaluate brands are used, which allows to identify messages that resonate with the target audience
- How many dimensions may be at work in specific evaluation situations, which helps to focus brand positioning and helps identify potential marketing tactics to reach our target audience
Make sure you use a perceptual mapping approach that provides marketing managers with insights that can be put into action.