Expert Marketer Magazine

Market Research

What marketers need to know about emerging research methodologies.

by Peter SteidlApril 2016

In previous columns I talked about the dominance of the nonconscious mind as a driver of purchase decisions.  The conscious and nonconscious mind work in parallel, with the nonconscious being faster, stronger and, importantly, the place where intuition and emotions reside.  Some scientists believe that some 95 percent of purchases are driven by the nonconscious mind.

In this contribution I want to explore the implications of these scientific findings for market research practices. 

Marketers are, of course, well aware that there are many new methodologies that avoid asking consumers direct questions about their likes and dislikes, preferences, loyalties, feelings, purchase intentions, likelihood of recommending a brand and other aspects that are processed in the nonconscious mind.  When asked, consumers will rationalize – that is, attempt to explain what they think, feel, do and plan to do in the future -but as they don’t have access to the nonconscious processes that ultimately drive their feelings and actions they cannot provide us with reliable insights.

This may look like there is no useful role for traditional research methodologies such as group discussions or surveys.  The situation is not quite so black & white.  There are situations where it is useful, even important, to understand the rationalizations consumers come up with, and in some instances it is important for the marketer to shape these rationalizations.

Imagine somebody asks a consumer for a recommendation or advice: in this case the consumer is likely to respond with the sorts of rationalizations they also use when responding in surveys or contributing in group discussions. Similarly, when consumers report their experiences with products and brands on social media or in their blogs (or, increasingly, vlogs) their attitudes will be shaped by their nonconscious mind but their descriptions, explanations and examples will be largely a product of their conscious mind’s rationalizations.
In other words, when you want to understand how consumers talk about your brand or product you may well use traditional market research methods.  However, when you need to understand what is driving their purchase decisions or the impact of your marketing initiatives on how they feel about your brand or offer, you need to adopt methodologies that can go beyond rationalizations.

There are a number of approaches we can take:  we can explore past experiences, focus on actual behavior, use physiological measures or measure the strength of brand associations directly.

Problem Detection, developed by BBDO, focuses on problems consumers have actually experienced.  We don’t ask consumers how they felt about these experiences or how these experiences may have changed their attitudes or behavior – we simply ask them to tell us about problems they have actually experienced.  Assessing the relative importance of and frequency with which problems occur provides the marketer with a prioritized problem list.  How is this useful?  Far too often marketers and their agencies address low-ranking problems in their R&D and communications efforts, resulting in a lack of impact.  A clear priority list can guide marketing and innovation decisions and thus focus strategies and their executions.

There are also methodologies that avoid asking the consumer any questions altogether.  Observation studies and econometric analysis of behavioral data (e.g., purchases and activities) are obvious examples.  Observations are also useful when combined with virtual stores and when observing customers using complex products.  Typically these studies explore the correlation between marketing initiatives (such as a change in price, a new product launch, or an advertising campaign) and sales, thus inferring the impact of these initiatives.

When it comes to testing marketing collateral such as advertisements, pack designs, logos or other exposures we can use physiological measures that are a direct expression of what is happening in the consumer’s mind.

Let me say at the outset that – contrary to what some researchers claim – there is no ‘buy button’ in the consumer’s mind.  In other words, these methodologies can’t tell you if your offer will be bought, but they can assess if an exposure to your offer or your communications will generate positive emotions or just cognitive engagement, if the consumer shows signs of approach or avoidance, and if a memory is being created. 

Importantly, you can monitor the impact of specific elements of what you expose the consumer to.  For example, when showing an ad you get an assessment of the consumer’s reaction on a second-by-second basis.  When showing a pack design, logo or other static design you can use eye tracking in combination with physiological measures to find out how the consumer reacts when looking at specific aspects of the design.

There is, however, a limitation: these methodologies typically measure the reaction to marketing exposures (ads, packaging, logos, etc.) but they can’t identify what sort of memory has been created by the exposures.  When testing an entertainment product like a movie, television series or music track it is sufficient to know that positive emotions have been generated.  But when you build a brand you need to know if these emotions are in tune with your desired brand positioning.

Importantly, it also not always clear if the emotions an exposure generates are related to the brand. 

Take for example an advertisement or engagement opportunity that generates strong, positive emotions and activates the part of the brain responsible for memory formation.  We can’t be sure that this leads to these positive emotions being linked with the brand memory in the consumer’s mind. 

To illustrate this point consider the Pepsi Challenge: Pepsi offered to spend $20 million to support worthwhile projects posted, and voted for, by consumers.  Some 80 million consumers engaged, but there was no positive impact on Pepsi’s sales. No doubt research would have shown strong emotional involvement, memory formation and approach rather than avoidance, but the exposure failed to create a stronger brand memory as it was linked to the engagement concept rather than the brand.

This takes us to methodologies relying on response time.  Let’s assume I show you the Apple logo and the word ‘creative’ and ask you to press a ‘yes’ button if that makes sense and a ‘no’ button if it doesn’t.  Most consumers will press the yes button without hesitation.  When I show HP and ‘creative’, however, they are likely to hesitate.  Why?  Because there is only a weak connection in their mind. 

Regardless of opting for the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ button the reaction time will tell me if there is a strong or weak connection between the respective memory patterns.  For example, if my advertising campaign is supposed to convince consumers that my offer is healthy I can test the strength of this association with my brand before and after the campaign.  If the campaign worked I will get a shorter reaction time.  This allows me to monitor not only if I have made progress in building the brand memory in the consumer’s mind but if this progress is in line with my brand strategy.

Finally, I should mention predictive markets.  Here we are asking consumers to participate in a trading game where they can invest notional money in brands, concepts or outcomes.  For example, I may have three advertising concepts and want to know which one will have the greatest impact in the market place.  The ‘traders’ can invest into these concepts or withdraw their investments while seeing how the value of each concept changes on a real-time graph (just like tracking the value of shares traded on a share market). 

Predictive markets focus the trader’s attention on what others might do rather than on what they would buy or respond to.  This means that we are not asking them about how they feel about the options or what they might do in the future, but rather get their intuitive mind to predict outcomes based on what others do.  At the same time we tap into the wisdom of crowds.  Predictive markets have consistently been shown to outperform traditional methods that simply ask consumers what they would buy or what would impact more strongly on how they feel about a brand or offer.

Clearly, this is a somewhat superficial overview on new types of market research methodologies.  My hope is that it will make you think about options more broadly when you are faced with a challenge that requires an investment into market research.  Too many marketers simply repeat what they did in the past due to their familiarity with these methodologies or a historical database that delivers benchmarks.  Yet there is no point in using unreliable benchmarks regardless of how many thousands of interviews they are based on.  Nor does it make sense to repeat doing what one has always done when there are new and better ways to gain reliable and actionable insights.  
Dr Peter Steidl is a marketing consultant and neuromarketing expert who has worked with leading corporations in 20 countries on five continents (
Paola Vargas B. is a Consumer Insights Consultant, Consumer Knowledge & Behaviour Psychology Expert (



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