Marketers Can’t Just Ask, Consumers Can’t Just Tell

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Joel Weinberger
Joel Weinberger



question-ladyPeople believe that they know what moves them to act; marketers seem to agree. To learn what people think and feel about a product or message, just ask them. As a result, marketing research has long relied on questionnaires, surveys and focus groups. Research may also try to show that a message was attended to and/or recalled. It is simply common sense to assume that the more attention a person pays a message, and the more s/he remembers of it, the more effective it is likely to be.

Unfortunately, in both instances, common sense is wrong. The “just ask” approach only gets at part of customers’ minds. This approach assesses only the tip of the iceberg but misses the large proportion of our mental functioning hidden below the surface. It misses the unconscious and, as a result, often fails to predict consumer behavior.

Unconscious Processes

Marketers need to understand how the mind’s unconscious processes work. The cognitive, neuro, and psychological sciences have demonstrated that the mind and brain are organized in networks of associations, created by networks of neurons, resulting in ideas, thoughts and feelings. In layman’s terms, unconsciously we organize our mental world in terms of how the stuff in our heads is connected associatively. Artists and advertising creatives intuitively understand this and pitch their works at associative networks.

Recent science has proved that we are emotional beings at our core. This is literally true of the brain, where central regions are involved in emotional functioning and are surrounded by outer layers of information processing cortex. Because emotional circuits fire more quickly than cognitive regions, we react emotionally before we are aware of what we have experienced. Simply put, emotion precedes, and trumps, rationality. That’s why creatives use poetry, create metaphoric tag lines, craft abstract logos, and add music to their messages.

Measuring Unconscious Associative Networks

The key to assessing unconscious associations lies in measuring reaction time. Whatever is on our minds, whatever resonates —hearing the name of a product, watching a commercial or glancing at product packaging— captures our attention. If the phrase “captures our attention” sounds like something we cannot consciously control, it is. So if our task is to ignore something that is on our mind, we cannot simply “turn the volume off.”

Market researchers can probe unconscious associations by assessing how quickly, or slowly (in thousandths of a second), people respond when these associations are presented to them. This reaction time essentially measures one’s involuntary or unconscious attention.

Measuring Emotional Reactions

The key to assessing automatic emotional reactions is to present a stimulus (central aspect of a message) too quickly to be processed by the cognitive, conscious brain, but slowly enough to be processed by unconscious, emotional circuits. The result is some level of positive and negative emotional reaction, which people cannot talk about in focus groups or report on surveys that rely on conscious filters. This is followed by a relatively neutral stimulus that the person consciously sees (usually a generic product from the category, e.g., an “unnamed” glass of brown liquid or an unidentified person).

As far as the participant is concerned, she only sees the second stimulus. She is then asked to rate a series of statements about it. The answers are biased emotionally by the initial stimulus, but the person does not know it. In other words, that unconscious emotional reaction “lingers” long enough to influence what the person feels toward the second stimulus.

Making Sense of Unconscious Processes

By combining the results of these two measures, we can determine the associative strengths and weaknesses of a message, as well as its emotional context. Now we have the unconscious “story” of the message. Although we can’t ask directly about things beneath the respondent’s consciousness, we can measure them through these methods.

Conscious processes are not without predictive power but their influence is limited to focused, short-term behavior. In contrast, long-term and spontaneous behaviors are best predicted by unconscious measures.

Combining the results of conscious and unconscious measures allows us to more accurately predict how consumers are likely to behave. Some messages will have a strong conscious impact but little unconscious effect and predict short-term, focused behaviors. Other messages may have a strong unconscious impact but little conscious effect, which predict long-term and spontaneous behaviors. Some messages will be weak on both levels; these are the losers. And, some messages will have a strong impact on both levels. These are win/wins.

The Bottom Line: Ask, But Don’t Just Ask

In sum, if we hope to better predict how a potential customer will act, we must address the whole person. We need to understand how the person responds to messaging on both the conscious and unconscious levels. Only by taking a holistic approach to how the mind works can marketers and their creative partners hope to craft communications that have the intended effect

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