The Emotional Complexity Of Coffee And Donuts

Understanding what people do (or what they are about to do) has been the lynchpin of behavioral targeting for the last decade, at least -- and the underpinning of most market research for, well, forever. Understanding why people do what they do, however, far transcends the bounds of modern marketing. It is a question for the ages and it runs deep -- down into basic human needs, wants and motives.

But according to Dr. David Forbes of Forbes Consulting, the messy, complex realm of human motivation can be understood and harnessed in the service of marketing and merchandising. Interestingly, the smartphone is one of the best ways to do it.

Forbes has divided human motivation into nine types along a 3X3 matrix. The full map is a bit too involved to explain fully here, but generally the idea is to identify key motives that compel people to seek change – the things that move them to some action, large or small. These motives are searches involving the self (security, identity, mastery), actions in the world (empowerment, engagement, achievement) and relationships (belonging, nurturance, esteem). Each of these categories of motive also tend to work in a sequence or set of tiers. So motives surrounding a sense of self often progress from the most fundamental (security, safety) to a sense of identity and then to mastery.

In order to tie these core motives to marketing, Forbes used his neuroscience background to create a catalog of images that trigger these emotional meanings. He used test subjects responding to the images in sub-second time frames to place the images into one of the nine motive boxes. The key is to do this in a nano-second. “When you show a picture, there is the activity of recognition – what is the picture?” he says. “Then the second piece is, the limbic system of the brain lights up -- the part of the brain associated with feelings and emotion. You recognize the picture and then have an emotional response, and then you intellectually reflect on the picture.”

Armed with a  catalog of 30 positive images and 30 negative images associated with each of the nine motivation boxes in the matrix, the MindSight model can then be used to test how people associate ads, merchandising experiences or even branding with foundational motives.

MindSight and Forbes used the model to help a Dunkin' Donuts franchisee in the Boston area understand why some of its outlets were performing considerably better than others even though staffing, infrastructure and locations were similar.  Using a mobile Web site, visitors to the store were asked afterwards to complete a positive and a negative sentence about their recent  experience at the location with a rapid-fire series of images. Mobile is the perfect tool for this, since it can capture people anywhere, immediately after almost any encounter with a brand. The highly engaging touch screen also allows for quick surveys without a third-party interrogator.

What the Dunkin' Donuts survey discovered is that no one feels especially positive in the morning, and the coffee ritual is a part of moving the emotional barometer upward. Motives of achievement, engagement and empowerment are associated with a morning coffee run, and those motives registered for both sets of Dunkin' Donuts outlets. But other values are also associated with the coffee run, including a sense of belonging and nurturance. On that part of the matrix the underperforming stores were not registering as well with visitors. “In the positive stores people felt that they were being taken care of,” says Forbes. The underperforming stores were associated in the tests with considerably more feelings of low self-esteem and even feelings of incompetence. The underperforming stores needed more of a human touch, more friendly interaction at checkout.

The intersection of cognitive and behavioral sciences and  modern marketing has a long history, and the marriage has not always been happy. John B. Watson, the father of modern behaviorism in the U.S. was a controversial figure in the 1920s for denying that humans had cognitive processes. He ended up an executive at J. Walter Thompson and is often cited for popularizing the “coffee break” for client Maxwell House. But generally Watson and his theories were relegated to a minor role in each mass media advertising. And then there was the explosion of interest in “subliminal” messaging in ads provoked by Vance Packard’s questionable book of the '60s, “Subliminal Seduction."

But in Forbes’ model here, neuroscience and psychological theory are not being used to influence specific actions, but rather to understand consumers' deeper responses to messages and experiences in order to reveal positive or negative aspects that otherwise would have been too subtle to detect. Perhaps a remarkably insightful marketer for this Dunkin' Donuts franchise could have detected the difference in tone and mood between the two sets of stores. The results only become obvious in retrospect. You need to know where to look, not necessarily at the order and cleanliness of the store, but at the intangible reasons people enter the door.   

Coffee, it turns out, is complicated. 

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