The Mind of the Market: Extending the Frontiers of Marketing Thought

HBS Professor Gerald Zaltman makes metaphors come alive with his patented Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique or ZMET, a process that draws on psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and other disciplines to delve deep into the mind of the consumer. In this interview, Zaltman talks about the imagery and inspirations behind this unusual market research tool.
by Martha Lagace

"What is the nature of loyalty?" HBS Professor Gerald Zaltman asks.

But it's not brand loyalty he's concerned with: rather, it's loyalty in its most fundamental sense.

"What is the anatomy of loyalty?" he continues. "What is the meaning of privacy? Of security? What is the meaning of feeling good?"

And, it might seem appropriate to ask, how do such philosophical questions relate to marketing?

Zaltman's eponymous research tool, the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique, called ZMET for short, was designed to illuminate exactly these kinds of human conundrums, in order to observe how they might serve the study of consumer behavior.

An HBS professor since 1991, Zaltman's work actually cuts across a number of boundaries. He's a co-director (with Stephen M. Kosslyn, Professor of psychology at Harvard University) of the Mind of the Market lab, a state of the art center at HBS that utilizes ZMET in addition to digital imaging, for corporate clients as well as MBA and Executive Education students. He's also involved in Harvard's interdisciplinary initiative Mind/Brain/Behavior, and studies neuroimaging techniques as applied to market research: "interviewing the brain," he says with a smile.

ZMET, which is patented, grew out of his interests in anthropology, photography and cognitive neuroscience. It was sparked, in part, by a trip to Nepal and India ten years ago. On his travels, he presented villagers with plastic cameras and film — supplied by Kodak — and asked them a simple question: "If you were to leave this village, what pictures would you take with you to show others what your life is like?"

Zaltman later developed the photos, returned to the region, and asked the villagers to describe (through an interpreter) what the photos represented to them.

"When I saw the imagery and heard the stories behind the imagery, I saw that images represent quite complex thinking," he says now. "I was learning about the autobiographical nature of images. I also became interested in digital imaging technology, and saw that the use of the imagery generated in response to a question might be more revealing than people's reactions to questionnaires.

"Nearly all of our cognition is below the level of awareness," Zaltman says. "How can we surface it, and relate it to how we think of our jobs, an institution, a cause?"

Rather than peppering consumers with standard queries about the type of ketchup or laundry detergent they prefer, a ZMET interview at the Mind of the Market lab of HBS offers a far more creative approach. Typically, the ZMET interview combines elements of neuroscience, art, linguistics and psychoanalysis, with the aim of unlocking something deeper than the expression of mere preferences in brand. (See also the sidebar, ZMET and the Mind of the Market Lab.)

Already, more than 1,400 people have been interviewed with ZMET for such diverse clients as General Motors, Christian Dior, Hewlett Packard and Lifetime Television.

One recent study prepared for Mind of the Market's advisory council, for example, looks into the aforementioned concept of loyalty. Implications for marketing, according to the results, include the following: "Embody in brand communications the personality traits people seek in others when entering loyal relationships" and "Use mental models to develop new goals and destinations with respect to loyalty."

Core questions asked in a ZMET interview will vary greatly from use to use, Zaltman says. "Some companies want to understand the anatomy of the experiences consumers have with a product. Other situations might involve the consumers' experience with a prototype. Or ZMET might be used to study organizational dynamics in a company: the ability to innovate, for example." Still other uses can be found in advertising. And high tech can exploit ZMET too, in studying, for example, consumers' thoughts and feelings about shopping on the Internet.

HBS MBA students have even used ZMET to help them design Web pages. A current MBA marketing project involves students exploring the question "How do I solve messy or ill-structured problems?"

Questions apply everywhere there's a mental model, says Zaltman. "We try to ask the most fundamental questions possible. Even if we're interested in a very specific food product — and there are lots of specifics you could ask - it's more important to look into the larger context of the brand."

Depending on the product under study, this might be revealed through consumers' thoughts and feelings about basic conceptions of the home, transitions children go through, the meaning of a certain meal, or what mothers think about the food and beverages their children consume.

"By going to the most fundamental level," says Zaltman, "you can then go later to specific questions." One of the most important tasks with corporate clients, then, is figuring out what the right questions are. "Managers need to grasp something fundamental," he says.

The ZMET method is modeled after some basic theories of the human mind. The list of these theories is long, but includes the following ideas:

  • Conscious thoughts occur as images.
  • Most thought, emotion and learning occur without awareness.
  • Emotion and reason are equally important.
  • Cognition is embodied.
  • Memory is story-based and readily distorted.

A sample study does not require a huge group, either. This has led occasionally to some alarm on the part of companies that are used to dealing with large casts of characters, he notes. With these basic theories, Zaltman says, there is very substantial support for the fact that different people actually have much in common. "There is a huge list of human commonalities," he says. "Those are likely to be deeply rooted thoughts and feelings. So you don't need very many people to get at the phenomenon. Feelings we have in common might be the notion of escape, or anticipation, or fear related to personal security when we travel.

"Of course," he adds, "there are lots of shades of meaning, and it's important to preserve those. But it all grows out of a shared set of ideas." Twelve to 20 people in a sample is the standard, he says, "but ZMET gives the essence of what we get with still fewer people."

Despite his faith in ZMET, however, Zaltman continues to believe that traditional methods of research, such as surveys, can still play an important role in market research. Still, he is deeply skeptical of results culled from focus groups: "The average air-time for a person in a focus group is 10 to 12 minutes," he says. "It's like strip-mining."

Zaltman concedes, however, that every research method, no matter how sensitive, can't help but be something of a compromise with reality. "We need to let the consumer express his or her thoughts with minimal intrusion by the researchers," he says.

And ZMET might well be one way to aid that process.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.