Commentary

Probing The Unconscious

Traditionally marketing research has relied on assessments of consumers’ conscious reactions to creative concepts, animatics, commercials, package prototypes, etc., through questionnaires, surveys, and focus groups, as well as on evidence that the message was attended to by assessing recall of ad content.

But, in my opinion, market researchers make several faulty assumptions in taking this approach. One is that respondents (people) can honestly tell you how they feel, and will behave, towards a product. Another is that if the ad has been attended to and consciously processed, it will be effective.

Unfortunately, the problem is that no matter how thoroughly the research is conducted, it often does not successfully predict consumer behavior. For example, political surveys invariably find that voters hate negative ads. But it soon becomes clear that attack ads and negative campaigns work. CNN and Good Morning America aired studies showing this as far back as 2008. And, marketers will recall the launch of “New Coke,” which passed all of the research and taste tests with flying colors but provoked an immediate consumer backlash. Can these discrepancies be explained? And can we do anything about it?

The Importance of Unconscious Processes

Leading marketers are beginning to attend to a key insight that the cognitive sciences, neuroscience, and psychological science have shown for 20 years — a great deal (but not all) of our mental functioning lies below our conscious awareness. So simply asking people what they think, how they feel, and what they remember, provides incomplete answers. For better answers we also need to understand what is going on in our unconscious minds.

But what do we know about these unconscious processes? Researchers seem to understand two things pretty clearly. First, the mind (ethereal), like the brain (physical), is organized into networks of associations. This means that our thinking processes do not follow logical, linear paths; instead, they are organized by how they are connected associatively. Successful creatives know this intuitively. That’s why they create mascots and tag lines like the GEICO Gecko and "Just Do It."

The second thing we now know is that people are basically emotional beings and our first reaction to any stimulus is emotional. All the recent research shows that emotion trumps rationality. Going back to New Coke, reaction to its’ launch was not logical, rational, thoughtful, or even sensible; it was highly emotional and immediate. And, it colored any further conscious reaction to the new product.  

Another important insight provided by science concerns the relationship between conscious and unconscious mental processes, as well as what kinds of behavior each can predict. Perhaps, seemingly more confusing, conscious and unconscious processes need not be in agreement. In fact, they are independent of one another. They may agree or disagree but understanding both are important to predicting different kinds of behavior.

Conscious processes predict behavior in the immediate situation, when we are reflecting on what we ought to do now. Unconscious processes predict spontaneous and long-term behavior patterns. It’s the default setting, which means that conflict is part and parcel of the consumer mind. We should not expect consistency from consumers but we should be able to predict when one process is likely to hold sway and when the other will dominate the decision-making process.

What’s Next?

We are still in the early stages of research probing the unconscious and there are still many unanswered questions, such as, how to effectively leverage the ‘hidden’ (unconscious), unexplored, side of brand equity. Can research into this new dimension of brand equity unlock a brand’s hidden vulnerabilities or potential? Only continuing research, in both the academic and commercial spheres, will illuminate the true relationship between the interplay of the conscious and unconscious mind as it relates to patterns of consumption.

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