The Subconscious Mind of the Consumer (And How To Reach It)

Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman says that 95 percent of our purchase decision making takes place in the subconscious mind. But how does a marketer reach the subconscious? Zaltman explains in this Q&A.
by Manda Mahoney

Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman's latest book, How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market, delves into the subconscious mind of the consumer—the place where most purchasing decisions are made. The question: How can marketers understand unconscious consumer thinking? HBS Working Knowledge staffer Manda Mahoney questioned Zaltman about the new book, published by Harvard Business School Publishing.

Mahoney: You state that 95 percent of all cognition occurs in the subconscious mind. How can marketers begin to understand behaviors and attitudes of which customers themselves are not aware?

Zaltman: There are several helpful approaches. One is to double check stated beliefs with actual behavior. For example, many consumers report handling competing brands and comparing prices at the point of purchase. However, observations of these same consumers often reveal that they don't even look at alternatives to the chosen brand. Another option uses physiological or response latency measures. These often reveal that what consumers actually believe or think, as measured by unconscious physical reactions, contradicts what they say when asked directly. Another very productive approach is to study the metaphors consumers use to express their thoughts and feelings. This involves in-depth probing in one-on-one interviews for the hidden meanings contained in their metaphors.

Q: The idea of exploring the subconscious of the customer is traditionally linked to advertisers. Is this an expanding advertising strategy, or something different?

Many researchers tell us that one-on-one interviews are superior to focus groups.
— Gerald Zaltman

A: Probing the unconscious mind of the consumer has tremendous value beyond advertising. For example, learning that a communications device or even a personal care product invokes deep thoughts and feelings about social bonding can be very helpful to R&D experts. In the case of a communications device, this suggests that tactile experiences of social bonding be "engineered in" through the design of how the product is gripped in the hand and in the choice of finish in the device's housing material. In the case of a personal care product, colors and scents known to be evocative of social bonding experiences can be used. In both cases, the basic idea of connection is central to the product's value proposition and becomes a more profound basis for developing marketing strategy than, say, technical superiority or long-lasting benefits. While the latter attributes are important, it is because they serve the deeper needs of connection or social bonding.

Q: Your research points to the ineffectiveness of focus groups. What techniques should managers be employing to elicit information from customers?

A: Many researchers tell us that one-on-one interviews are superior to focus groups. That is, even a few conventional one-on-one interviews yield essentially the same data as several focus groups. Additionally, there is now a lot of evidence that personal interviews yield deep insights that can't be obtained from focus groups. So, my preference is to conduct in-depth, one-on-one interviews that are enriched by using various techniques from clinical psychology and sociology. Often, the results of such interviews can be used to design more comprehensive surveys. And properly designed surveys, when subjected to careful statistical analyses, can yield further insights into unconscious consumer thinking.

Q: At what point in the product life cycle are these insights most helpful? Is this a product planning strategy?

No matter how radical a new product is, it will always be perceived initially in terms of some frame of reference.
— Gerald Zaltman

A: The insights offered by methods that probe the unconscious mind are relevant at all stages of the product life cycle. For instance, when introducing a radically new product, it is necessary to understand how consumers currently frame their experience of the problem addressed by the new offering. That is, no matter how radical a new product is, it will always be perceived initially in terms of some frame of reference. It is essential that this frame be understood, especially if it is an inappropriate one detrimental to early trial of the product. For a mature product, insights about the category or a specific brand can lead to modifications that will extend its life and sustain its economic value to the firm. One firm with a very "tired" brand explored consumers' hidden thoughts and feelings and discovered a relevant, basic emotion that had been overlooked by all brands in the category. They were able to connect this emotion with their brand giving it a major sales boost. Other firms use the hidden treasures of the unconscious mind to identify new product opportunities. Using metaphor-elicitation techniques, firms providing farming supplies, home appliances, office systems, and beauty care have identified important unmet needs. R&D departments use information about the architecture of these needs to identify opportunities for new products and services.

Q: What do you say to those who may be upset by the idea that businesses are privy to the inner workings of the human mind?

A: All knowledge can be used in constructive, socially responsible ways just as it can be used harmfully. The more knowledge we acquire, the more we are faced with this dilemma. If we want the opportunity to use knowledge to benefit consumers we should not shy away from learning more about the inner workings of the human mind. This also runs the risk that some people might use that same knowledge in ways we consider inappropriate. Here I think all of us have a special responsibility to making clear, to consumers and managers alike, what we consider appropriate and inappropriate uses of knowledge. This at least will help lessen inadvertent misuse of knowledge.

Q: Are there companies that are ahead of the game? How do these companies use these techniques effectively?

The use of scientific advances requires the imaginative translation of scientific findings into effective practice in the marketplace.
— Gerald Zaltman

A: There are several companies that are ahead of the game in terms of acquiring advanced knowledge about consumer behavior and in using that knowledge to benefit consumers. These firms include McNeil Consumer Health Care, McCann-Erickson, Procter & Gamble, Hallmark, Bank of America, Kraft, Samsung Electronics, IBM, Pfizer, J. Walter Thomson, and General Motors among others. Their use of these techniques range from the development of new product ideas all the way to the repositioning of established brands. One of these firms just recently used the techniques mentioned above to identify an opportunity for a new product line and to guide the actual design of products within that line. The same research was helpful in crafting a communication strategy for the new line and in selecting a name for this new offering.

Q: We hear a lot about how technology is revolutionizing our ability to understand customers. Is this aspect overrated? Is science the future of marketing?

A: Technology is indeed revolutionizing our ability to understand customers. Insights about the workings of the cognitive unconscious including memory, attention, information processing, the nature of human universals, and socially shared cognitions, and the neurobiology of figurative thinking, for instance, have already outdated most thinking and current practices among managers. Many of these advances are the product of advances in research techniques. Still, the use of scientific advances requires the imaginative translation of scientific findings into effective practice in the marketplace. This is the art that goes hand-in-hand with science. Imaginative thinking by managers and market researchers is required to successfully apply insights from metaphor-elicitation and neuro-imaging techniques, for example, to generate helpful new products, more informative communications, and more rewarding in-store experiences.

About the Author

Leonard A. Schlesinger, a co-author with James L. Heskett and W. Earl Sasser of The Value Profit Chain, formerly taught at Harvard Business School. He is now Chief Operating Officer of Limited Brands.