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May 25, 2022

How can you use research to understand your brand perception?

Looking to raise awareness, increase visibility, and become a household name? Before any of this can happen, it is important to conduct research to understand your organization’s brand perception.  Farra Trompeter, co-director, and Ally Dommu, director of strategy, share tips on how to get started with research, ways to engage your community, and how to process insights to make changes.


Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. I’m your host, Farra Trompeter, co-director of Big Duck, and today we’re going to talk about how you can use research to understand your brand perception. I am delighted to be joined by one of my colleagues, Ally Dommu. Ally is Big Duck’s director of strategy, where she leads our team of strategists who conduct research, facilitate group discussions, and create tailored, mission-driven communications and branding strategies. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Ally for eight years, and before she joined our team, she worked at Sanctuary for Families in New York City, where she managed the communications and fundraising efforts to advance safety and justice for survivors of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and related forms of gender violence. Her experience in the nonprofit world and passion for progressive causes inspired Ally to pursue her Masters in Nonprofit Management from The New School, which I had the privilege of getting as well, though we were a few years apart. But Ally and I are very kindred spirits. We also used to play soccer when we were kids. Ally still plays it, is much more athletic than I am, but other than that, we’re like carbon copies. Ally, welcome to the show.

Ally Dommu: Thanks so much, Farra, always fun to be with you, and we really should get back out on the soccer field at some point.

Farra Trompeter: Oh yeah. So we get a lot of calls from organizations who want to raise awareness, increase visibility, become a household name, and before we can really turn up a volume on an organization’s brand or even change any aspects of how it communicates, we first try to understand their current perception. And from there, we get a sense of if and how they want to shift that based on where they’re going and the work that they’re doing. So let’s just start with the basics. What kind of research can an organization conduct if they want to understand what people think about it and get a sense of their brand perception?

Ally Dommu: Conducting research is always really helpful in understanding, especially, if an organization’s thinking about shifting its brand or communication strategy starting there. I like to think about it in terms of a couple different categories. Research can be organized in terms of qualitative and quantitative research. Those terms are probably familiar to you. Quantitative think more numbers and qualitative think more words. So quantitative research is more, you know, measurable in terms of, what is your brand perception now and what are you known for; where qualitative research is much more exploratory and descriptive.

Ally Dommu: Then, I also think it’s helpful to categorize research in terms of internal and external brand research. So, internal meaning like research activities that you would conduct with your staff, with your board, with other folks inside the organization, and then external brand research is those folks you’re trying to reach and communicate with using your brand to form connections with program participants, activists, funders, donors, partners, that kind of thing. And then in terms of specific research methods, there’s a really broad range. You’ve got interviews, individual in-depth interviews, which we conduct a lot at Big Duck, half-hour or hour-long phone interviews where you could really get into a lot in terms of brand perception, focus groups, more like group conversations. There’s public opinion research, which is more going out to a group of folks who have never necessarily heard of your organization before, may have, but hearing a little bit about, like, what does a representative sample of the public think or know about your organization? There’s tools like social listening, media scans, to understand other ways of understanding, what are the conversations happening about your organization? So those are just a few of the methods and some of the ways it’s helpful to just think about how to organize them.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, there’s definitely lots of different ways to conduct research. I’m actually just remembering research that we did together. We worked with an art gallery and we did some intercept interviews where we just kind of hung out at the space and started talking to people who were showing up there to get a sense of what brought them there, what was it about the space or the exhibit that they were interested in? Where else did they go? So sometimes even just doing on the spot in-person conversations can be interesting too, but you just rattled off lots of different kinds of methods, and I’m just curious, like, what’s the right mix or maybe the best place to start if you’re trying to determine what kind of research I should conduct if I want to understand my brand perception?

Ally Dommu: For sure. And this will vary for every nonprofit. There’s not one perfect mix of methods for that organization. You just mentioned the art gallery, the in-person conversations was really useful because they are gallery, a lot of people that were forming perceptions of that organization were doing so in person while they were, like, engaging with the art and the programming at the gallery. But the first place to start is really kind of taking a step back and writing out some of the research questions that you want to explore, that you want to try to answer. So really listing those all out.

Ally Dommu: For brand research, brand perception research, they often might be things about awareness and understanding. Have people heard of your organization before? What do they understand about your organization? What’s their level of familiarity with the kind of work they do? Maybe people have heard of it, your organization, but they don’t understand the full scope of what you do. That’s a helpful insight. Maybe you’re interested in understanding specific associations and perceptions that folks have with you related to your brand strategy. What do people think of when they think of your organization? What kind of personality traits come to mind or characteristics come to mind when they think of your organization? Do people think of you as, you know, welcoming and friendly and accessible or more cold or institutional in terms of your vibe? That’s an example of some type of perception you might want to study. You could also study things like, what are people’s perceptions of specific brand assets? So, what do people think of your name? What do people think of the tagline that you’re using or your logo? Especially if you’re coming at it and you’re like, we want to understand whether or not we need to change our logo. If that’s what you’re doing, conducting brand research for, let’s make sure we have an explicit research question about understanding the strength and challenges of your visual identity.

Ally Dommu: And then after you’ve kind of established those research questions, you’ve really prioritized them, then we could say, okay, what’s the best method in order to answer that question? Who do we need to communicate with? Who do we need to reach in order to answer those questions, as well, that will help guide the research question? So, perhaps for some of the more, like exploratory conversations related to what do people think about you, and what are people’s motivations for being involved with you, what are barriers? Perhaps more qualitative research like interviews or focus groups might be a better fit. If you’re interested in understanding, what are levels of awareness among a huge population of people, something like a survey might be better suited to your research needs?

Farra Trompeter: Great, and I want to just shout out a previous podcast episode that our founder Sarah Durham did with our former senior strategist, Laura Fisher, all about interviews, focus groups, surveys; you can definitely tune into that episode. We’ll link to that in the show notes. Ally, one of the things I really appreciate about the processes that our strategy team conducts is really looking at, where does equity show up? How do we think about inclusion in the research process, where are we bringing in an antiracist lens, and I’m just curious if you could talk about how that has been showing in and the research processes that our strategists lead.

Ally Dommu: Definitely a good question. I think the first place to start is just understanding that your design and process of how you do go about research does have equity implications. So just knowing that and naming that upfront, so then it’s, how do we be intentional with advancing our goals and commitments to diversity, equity, inclusion in this research process itself? I like to start with kind of breaking down, well, what do we mean by diversity in this research process? What do we mean by inclusion? What do we mean by equity? Each of those things mean different things in the context of research. So, for diversity, we’re talking more about the presence of different identities in our research process. Whose voices are we hearing from? Who’s included in the research. So, the actions that you could take in terms of advancing diversity in your research process include being really intentional with recruiting folks across a wide range of identities that compose your community or folks that you want to be reaching as an organization.

Ally Dommu: I’m thinking about a client that we worked with, KIPP, which is a nationwide charter school network. From a diversity standpoint, we wanted to make sure we heard, in a brand research study that we were conducting, we wanted to hear from educators and teachers, we wanted to hear from parents and family members connected to students, we wanted to hear from students themselves, we wanted to hear from administrators, we wanted to hear from a diverse community of folks that are connected to KIPP. But not just that, we also wanted to make sure that we were getting a representative sample of folks from different geographies across the country. Urban settings versus more rural settings, in this case; race background, ages. So we were, you know, really intentional with making sure we had a very diverse research pool. That’s what diversity is all about in research. Inclusion is more about making sure people with different identities feel valued and welcomed in the process itself.

Ally Dommu: So how do you make sure people feel welcome and included in a research process? Well, for one, it’s thinking about, what do we need to do to make it easy and engaging for folks to participate, or folks to feel like I can share my voice here? This is a space I could feel safe in. So, some of that is about lowering barriers to participation, compensating folks for their time, for their efforts in participating in the research process. Maybe it’s offering translation services, which we’ve done in the past so it’s possible for folks to participate in the language that they feel most comfortable with. Offering different ways to participate. Maybe some folks don’t feel comfortable in a focus group, but they’d feel more comfortable typing in their answer, so maybe having that option. Creating spaces for anonymous input as well so that people can share candidly and as openly as possible. So those are just a few actions that we take to advance inclusion. And then, finally and probably most importantly, and I think is sometimes the hardest and most abstract to think about, is equity in the research process. And that’s really about using your research process to level the playing field so that underrepresented voices or community members, their voices are elevated and centered in the research process, and then ultimately in decision-making that comes out of the research process.

Ally Dommu: And a helpful example of this is we did some work with the Campaign Finance Board. They’re a New York City government agency that focuses a lot on voting in New York, and we wanted to learn a little bit about, what are the perceptions of New Yorkers in terms of the organization and in terms of just voting, the process of voting in New York City. So, we sought to make it an equitable process when we were conducting this brand research by centering the voices of those who were least likely to engage in New York City elections. So rather than hearing from folks that show up time and time again to New York City elections, whose voice is already heard, we wanted to make sure that we were elevating the voices of those that were least likely to have a say in terms of elections in New York. So we’re thinking about young people, newly eligible voters, immigrant voters, those whose first language is a language other than English. So in terms of recruitment and participation, that was our intention, and then it’s not just about whose voices are we hearing from, it’s centering and elevating their perspective. So we’re making sure that we are prioritizing their input when we’re investigating, exploring the research findings, and then figuring out what should we do with what we’ve learned.

Farra Trompeter: That’s great. And I want to just shout out to the last thing you mentioned, our work with the New York City Campaign Finance Board. We’ve got a case study about that, if you’re curious. Also Ally did a great podcast with Charlotte from the New York City Campaign Finance Board all about whether or not government agencies should think about branding. So if this topic, specifically, is intriguing to you, be sure to check that out.

Farra Trompeter: But let’s move toward wrapping things up. Ally, one of the things that you said, I think was really crucial when we were talking about equity, specifically with research, was not only about making sure underrepresented voices participate in the process, but also maybe help determine what you do as a result of that. So how do you figure out what happens when research is done and what to do with the implications of that, both kind of, how do you process those implications, and then who do you involve in that to make the decision about what to move forward with?

Ally Dommu: In terms of how to process it, so let’s just imagine we’ve collected a lot of research, maybe we’ve done some surveys, some interviews, maybe we did those intercepts. We have a lot of data, now we’re analyzing it, and now what we like to call is we’re pulling up insights from the research findings. Insights are more about what does this data tell us we might do as a result? Really, I think the first place to start is looking okay, what did we learn, and how does that map to what we’re trying to achieve as an organization? So are there any gaps in what we’re trying to achieve with our brand, our organization strategy, our communications, with what we’ve learned?

Ally Dommu: For example, maybe you are, as an organization, trying to reach a particular audience group. It’s really important for you to make sure that a particular population segment understands what you do, feels strong, positive connections with what you’re doing, feels motivated to get involved. What do you do when you recognize that there’s not a high level of awareness amongst that group? Or perhaps that group is not deeply familiar with what you do or has some misperceptions? That gives you insight and input into, oh, yeah, maybe we need to make some changes in terms of how we go about structuring our brand or communicating with that audience group.

Ally Dommu: We could also use the findings to set goals for organization strategy. I think one of the things that’s really helpful about brand research for nonprofits is that it provides kind of like a benchmark that you can assess yourself against. Because if you’re trying to be the leader in your space, you want to create this perception that you’re a leader in your space. Well, how will we move the needle on that over time? Brand research provides sort of a point in time that you could go back to and say, well, from this study, you know, this is where we were at the time. Maybe five years later, look, we’ve really shifted our perception about ourselves in this way. We’ve implemented some strategies that are useful. So, taking that research and really assessing what could stay the same as a result of what we’ve learned, what maybe needs to radically change, maybe what needs to evolve from all things, like, your brand strategy. , what is it? Really being intentional with what we’re trying to change. We like to talk about positioning and personality at Big Duck. Maybe it suggests something about needing to change your visual identity or your approach to your messaging for your organization. So those are all things that could happen.

Ally Dommu: And then you also asked about who should be involved? And I think it can be really helpful to have a working group that’s involved. We all have bias, I think when it comes to conducting research and then analyzing research as well. So having a group of people at your organization, maybe folks that are in your communications team, maybe folks that are in your programs team, maybe even audience members, themselves, are part of this. To really take a look at what we’ve learned and draw out insights. At Big Duck we like to, when we’re looking at research, have more than one set of eyes on a set of research findings because when I read an interview transcript, I might pull out and surface different kinds of findings than someone else. We want to make sure we’re being really, like, intentional and methodical about trying to mitigate bias when we’re making these kinds of analyses and setting some roadmaps for the future based on the research.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I’m also thinking as you talk about that, a research process that we did for the TSC Alliance all around tuberous sclerosis complex. And part of the process was really important, to interview family members connected to this rare disease, and not only were they interviewed and part of the conversation, but when we had insights, our team presented that at a gathering of family activists, and they were part of the final decision as to what was then actualized or activated based on those results. And I think that felt really important to who they were as an organization and to really centering the community, and it was a natural fit into where we’re going by really trying to think about, how do you bring your community in a way that is genuine and throughout a process, not just at one point in time. So I just want to underscore everything you said.

Farra Trompeter: And the other thing I really love about what you just said is the idea of benchmarking. You know, whether you work with an agency like Big Duck or you work in-house and create some kind of research to get a sense of your brand or your communications, don’t just do it once and snooze it for another five years. Try to take away with what research was really helpful and set a reminder for yourself, maybe every year to go back to that survey, go back to those interview questions. Maybe either ask the same people or different people and just get a sense of what’s changing over time. I really appreciate what you said about that, too.

Ally Dommu: Yeah, I really appreciated what you said about the TSC Alliance example and how you intentionally involved community members, family members who are impacted by the disease, and it makes me think about this important sort of ethos of equitable research, which is about being mindful of conducting research with community, not on community. And the difference of conducting research in an imposing way on your community, extracting information versus conducting research with, alongside, in partnership with community, and what are the actions that we could take as a result of really thinking about research as a collaborative partnership, where everyone feels like they’re getting value out of it and feeling like they’re being respected as part of the research and not like a research experiment.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I feel like we can do a whole other conversation on ethics and research, and that idea of, again, not exploiting the people you’re talking to is really important. Well, Ally, thank you so much. I always love talking with you. If you’re listening to this and you’re interested in the aspects of brand strategy and understand what that perception is, you might even be trying to measure, we’ve got a whole e-book on brand strategy that Ally co-authored. We also have a great blog that Ally wrote about creating an inclusive and equitable research process. So if you’re trying to wrap your head around these ideas, go to We always have lots of resources for you. We’ll link to them in the notes. Ally, thank you so much for joining us.

Ally Dommu: It was my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

Ally Dommu

Ally Dommu is the Director of Service Development, Worker-Owner at Big Duck

More about Ally
Farra Trompeter

Farra Trompeter is the Co-Director, Worker-Owner at Big Duck

More about Farra