A question of perception

What brand owners need from market research companies is not just simple mechanical data, but real psychological insight to help them understand consumers as human beings. By Alicia Clegg

In a market larded with choice, getting customers to dip into their wallets calls for more than innovation; it demands a full-scale assault on their hearts. That is the theory, although the reality may be more complicated – emotive ideas bring brands to life, but with ad agencies churning out “brand narratives” by the dozen, such stories are fast becoming as commoditised as the brands themselves.

These ideas can bear fruit, however, when a brand’s story has its roots, not in the fertile mind of a creative director, but in some part of the brand’s make-up that consumers feel is really special. That is why, more than ever, marketers are reaching for market research to guide product development and suggest interesting hooks on which to hang their branding. What brand owners need, however, is not mechanical data gathering, but genuine psychological insight to help them understand people, not simply as consumers wielding cheque books, but as human beings.

Spiritual Guidance
Sanjay Nazerali, founder and managing director of research agency The Depot, sees the developmental needs of the individual as the battlefield on which tomorrow’s brand wars will be fought. Nazerali urges brands to hire psychologists, not market researchers, to teach them how to become “peer mentors” and “spiritual guides”, and is dismissive of conventional focus groups: “You are not going to learn about the insecurities of teenage boys by sitting them together in a group led by a 27-year-old interviewer who studied sociology.”

“Brands are increasingly looking at the milestones of human development,” says Nazerali. “Research needs to understand the role that brands can play in helping people to grow: to get through adolescence, be a parent, pursue enlightenment or come to terms with ageing.”

Health, personal care and the like are the favoured playgrounds of brands that dress themselves up as life-coaches. One of the best known examples of this is Unilever’s “Campaign for Real Beauty”, which relaunched its established Dove brand on the back of a highprofile media offensive, spurning “unhealthy” stereotypes of beauty and promoting instead the idea of “self-esteem”.

Companies that hire psychologists to help them analyse their customers are, as yet, a minority. But the realisation that consumers use brands to express their personalities and aspirations, as much as to gratify day-to-day needs, is driving many more companies and their research agencies to bring the skills of the psychologist to bear on marketing. The trend is illustrated by the growth of research techniques that interpret people’s reactions to advertising through the prism of folk mythologies.

TNS uses an archetypal model based upon the deities of ancient Greece to spot the emotional, as well as the functional, needs that people are looking to satisfy when they buy a brand. To work out what individual brands are saying to people, its researchers ask consumers to match contemporary images of men and women – each corresponding to an “archetypal” personality such as Aphrodite, the fun-loving goddess of love, or Demeter, the caring earth goddess – to well-known brands.

Confidence Building
Gradually, the researcher builds up a picture not only of how the various brands are perceived but through which archetype, or archetypes, the participants are projecting their own personalities and emotions. TNS UK head of segmentation and positioning in the UK Josie Kearney cites a quantitative project based on archetypal research that gave a financial services client the confidence to anchor its brand and customer service in the values embodied by a core group of customers, defined in the research as “leaders and managers”.

“It enabled us to overlay the traditional life-stage segmentation model used in financial services with an understanding of the relationship that different personality types have with their money. That gave us the understanding to advise our clients on the emotional tone that they needed to adopt and how their staff should communicate the brand,” Kearney says. When confronted with questions that touch a raw nerve, most people seek refuge in stock responses, but archetypes help the researcher to delve deeper. Tony Wornell, director of specialist research company BDRC, favours the Zaltman elicitation metaphor technique – an approach that draws on visual imagery, story-telling and metaphors – to uncover the links between the brands people choose and their emotional inner life. “If you get a group of blokes to talk about cars they will say a lot of very rational things about technology and performance. With metaphors you get straight to the emotional content.”

The use of metaphor in research can also act as a stepping-stone into the creative process, suggesting imagery and themes that resurface as advertising. There is also the argument that by tapping into fundamental human archetypes, marketers can build global campaigns that straddle national boundaries. Nazerali says: “In our obsession with looking for differences, we sometimes forget there is a basis to all humanity that is common. Sometimes it’s better to find those core experiences.” But can any brand afford to brush aside cultural differences?

While the same basic instincts drive people the world over, lifestyle and history shape how emotions come out in different cultures.

“Consumers in all markets like to be carefree, but how that emotion is expressed in advertising will vary,” says Kearney. “In Japan the concept of carefree would be expressed as happiness and joy. In Spain it’s a lot more overt and best expressed through the idea of exhilaration and escape.” So how can research help brands tap into what we share with other cultures, without squeezing out the things that make us distinct?

Grammar Schooling
One way to develop an eye and ear for the nuances of culture is to check out the images and idioms with which consumers are surrounded everyday. Malcolm Evans, co-founder of Space Doctors, a consultancy with specialist skills in semiotics, gives an example of how what he calls “the codes and unspoken grammar of communication” can unearth subtle, but profound, differences in how different cultures see the world.

Ethnicity is not the only influence on how we see the world. What we reckon to be the ingredients of a good life, a healthy childhood or a fulfilled old-age is as much governed by the times we live in, as the culture into which we are born. To spot how cultural assumptions are taking on new shades of meaning, market researchers are more and more looking over the heads of the mainstream public, to groups and individuals at the far edges of consumer culture.

Research and innovation consultancy Sense Worldwide has a global network of 1,500 such people, continually feeding its consultants with ideas on what founder Jeremy Brown terms “the interplay between people and the future”. For a recent project undertaken for an “air-care” brand, selling air fresheners and air purifiers, Sense consulted a pagan witch versed in herbal lore and cleansing rituals, while for a household cleaning brand, its consultants worked with individuals ranging from “cleaning obsessives” to interior designers and aromatherapists.

Taking Delight
Brown says: “It’s about understanding how thinking around things — like the concept of a bathroom — is evolving. Ask yourself how your brand makes people feel. If you are selling a product, even something quite ordinary like flour, it needs to be useful and useable, but also delightful.”

His underlying point is a good one. Instead of fretting over making an emotional connection with consumers, the most successful brands combine engaging communication with the sort of customer service or creative product design that puts flesh on the bones of nebulous ideas.

“It’s as much about design as branding. The key is to understand where your brand fits into your customer’s life,” Brown adds, whether that’s an evening down the pub or a morning cleaning the house. As an example of a brand that had the gumption to put users’ needs at the centre of its design strategy, Brown cites Oxo Good Grips’ kitchen utensils: “They were designed to be useable, with the needs of people with impaired dexterity in mind, and through good design it got to be a brand that everybody finds delightful.”

Relationships with others, well-being and a sense of self-worth – not brands – are the things that really matter to most people. By fastening on to these primal impulses we all share, brands strive to implant themselves in people’s hearts. But to look credible in the role of friend and counsellor, brands need first to demonstrate an understanding of consumers through considerate design.