Focus groups should be more like a therapists couch

Using the psychoanalytic tradition is more important than simply understanding consumer opinion, says Anna Peters, senior consultant at Promise.

Companies who want to understand what consumers really think would do well to consult Freud.

In his day, asking patients to recline on a couch was unheard of in polite society. But by asking neurotic patients to lie back on his chaise-longue, Freud succeeded in removing the shackles of convention and forcing his patients into a new position. There is much that marketers and researchers today can learn from Freud’s unconventional practices.

Unlike the psychoanalytic tradition that that pushes patients to think in new ways, the consumer opinion tradition is one of formality and process. The focus group has chairs in a circle, a glass mirror and a discussion guide.

In contrast, Freud laid patients down in an avant-garde position, sat within touching distance, and allowed space for free-association. In the focus group the conversation starts with the brand, but in psychoanalysis the conversation starts with the person. Indeed, Frankfurt school critics have described industries such as advertising as “psychoanalysis in reverse” (Adorono, cited in Leppert, 2002).

The cognitive product of each approach is wildly different and, for me, that’s where it gets interesting. In the glass mirror approach of customer opinion typically it is only conventional answers that are uncovered, and only socially pleasing responses heard. But Freud’s approach helped him to uncover the death instinct – the one underlying motivation that unites all human beings.

Uncovering these huge theories of human behaviour is incredibly powerful, and what we should be striving for every time that we speak to consumers. After all, straightforward opinions can only tell us so much about what an individual thinks about a subject in the here and now. Psychoanalytic models, on the other hand, let us grapple with the bigger questions of motivation, desire and the subconscious.

Culture industries should take note: the revelation of deep desires can help us to develop enduring brands, products and innovations. Brands which do this successfully are able to give people what they actually want, and not just what they say is needed.

Nike is an example that has used psychoanalytic principles (potentially without realising) to build an enduring brand. It has managed to do this by explicitly appealing to the ’id’ – the immature, desire driven part of the mind whose primary motivation is to discharge energy – through the command, “just do it.”

This command, combined with active images of gorgeous sports players, is too much to resist and the potent id overpowers the more rational ego and pastoral super-ego. Of course, brands can play to all three principles at one time and Aunt Bessie’s does this well: the flavours appeal to the id, the practical nature of the product and the price appeal to the ego, and the traditional style stirs up the super-ego.

Our co-creation work at Promise makes use of the ’psychodynamic’ tradition to uncover the unexpected for brands. We ask workshop attendees to produce ’art from within’ as a way of exposing the inner workings of the mind. In consumer research we avoid the one way mirror and instead encourage our clients to sit amongst their consumers. In our online community work we make the most of Freud’s projective techniques in order to reveal deeper, sometimes subconscious thoughts

This approach is more like group therapy than a focus group and this therapeutic approach to branding works. Clients whose business and brand challenges have been solved through our application of psychodynamic techniques include Danone and Orange.

Of course, there are criticisms of Freud’s approach, and modern psychoanalysts certainly don’t agree with all of his principles (I’m not sure if you’d find a therapist today that would claim you might fancy your Dad).

But psychoanalysts must be doing something right; by showing that they understand and care about their patients’ deepest desires, patients all over the world fall in love with their therapists. Perhaps if more brands took Freud’s avant-garde approach to lying on the couch and co-creating with their consumers, then deep desires and motivations would be revealed. And who knows, consumers might even start to fall in love.


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