Understanding Perceptual Maps

What is a Perceptual Map?

A perceptual map is of the visual technique designed to show how the average target market consumer understands the positioning of the competing products in the marketplace. In other words, it is a tool that attempts to map the consumer’s perceptions and understandings in a diagram.

The word ‘perceptual’ comes from the word ‘perception’, which basically refers to the consumers’ understanding of the competing products and their associated attributes. (Note: In some textbooks, perceptual maps are referred to as positioning maps, but for our purposes they essentially have the same meaning.)

The most common presentation format for a perceptual map is to use two determinant attributes as the X and Y axes of a graph, however there are also other formats that are sometimes used.

Difference to positioning maps

Perceptual maps aim to demonstrate the perception of the consumer’s understanding of brands. When mapping consumers understanding, we are actually mapping how they see the brand’s positioning.

The reason they are NOT correctly referred to as a positioning map is because they are mapping the consumers understanding only – which may or may not be technically correct.

For example, you could ask a consumer to score their perception of quality of different types of cars from high to low quality. This is just their perception, as they are not technical experts in the product category. We may get quite different scores if we had the different brands of cars tested by engineering experts.

Definition of perceptual maps

Most definitions are fairly consistent in their description of perceptual maps, as follows:

  •  “Perceptual maps measure the way products are positioned in the minds of consumers and show these perceptions on a graph whose axes are formed by product attributes.” (Kardes, Cronley, & Cline, 2011).
  • “A perceptual map represents customer perceptions and preferences spatially by means of a visual display” (Ferrell & Hartline, 2008).

You will note that both definitions highlight that the information is visually presented on some form of graph or display. And that a perceptual map is designed to examine consumer perceptions and understanding, primarily of products and their associated positioning.

The main types of perceptual maps

There are three main formats for a presenting a perceptual map.

Using two determinant attributes

The first format (which is the one presented in the majority of introductory marketing textbooks and most probably the only format an undergraduate student would need to know) simply uses two determinant attributes on the graph. Below is a simple example of a perceptual map for soft drinks in this format.

The main advantage of this presentation format is that it is very simple to construct and interpret. You will note that only two product attributes have been considered. In this case, they are ‘to what extent does the consumer consider the product to be high/low in sugar’ and ‘to what extent is a product considered high/low in caffeine’.

The simple combination of these two scores (probably obtained from a consumer survey) places the product offering onto the map. For example on this map, the 7-Up product offering is perceived as having a moderate level of sugar and being relatively low in caffeine’.

Using many product attributes

The second approach to perceptual mapping used to use a statistical technique called correspondence analysis. Using a computer, a statistical program (such as SPSS)  has the capacity to map multiple product attributes at the same time. This type of map is a little bit more confusing and difficult to interpret, but it does provide a good overview of how the target market views and connects the various attributes.

You will note that there are no defined axes in this type of perceptual map. Instead the various product attributes are scattered throughout the map, along with the perceived positioning of the various product offerings. (How to interpret these maps is discussed in another section of this marketing study guide.) The following is an example of a perceptual map formed by correspondence analysis:

Joint perceptual maps

Occasionally you will see a perceptual map that also maps the preferred needs of different market segments, based on the same attributes. These types of maps are sometimes referred to as joint perceptual maps, as the perceived product positioning is jointly presented with the needs of the segment.

The addition of market segment needs being placed on the perceptual map allows the firm to identify how well they are positioned to relative to their particular target markets. The following is an example of this type of a joint perceptual map, showing age and gender demographic segments.

Why use a perceptual map?

There are multiple reasons to use perceptual maps, some of these include:

  • We get a true understanding of how our brand is perceived in the marketplace
  • We can track how the perception of our brand is evolving over time, with new products and campaigns
  • We can track the perception of competitor products and measure the impact of their marketing strategies
  • We can identify positioning preferences (i.e ideal combination of product attributes) for different market segments
  • We can identify possible gaps and opportunities for new products
  • We can identify possible opportunities for repositioning our brand

Further resources

Visit Perceptual Maps for Marketing for a free Excel template to automatically produce and format perceptual maps.