Researchers’ Voice: Research Techniques that Drive Human Understanding

The Focus Vision Researchers’ Voice blog series highlights first-person stories from researchers from around the globe. Each account offers unique perspectives on collecting insights across disparate environments.

Research Techniques that Drive Human Understanding

By Frank Gabbert, Principal, Sapphire Brand Builders

Humans, much like animals, have certain behaviors, features, and characteristics. Their wants and needs, while similar, influence the relationship they have with brands and products. When brands commission qualitative research, their goals are often to uncover the hidden emotions that influence decision-making, buying behavior and brand perceptions.

One of the most challenging aspects of focus groups is to elicit verbal and non-verbal cues. These cues reflect the emotional environment consumers inhabit, as well as the subtleties of language, among others. Select research techniques can be used to identify verbal and non-verbal cues and get to the heart of how respondents feel about a particular brand or product.

Here are four techniques that can be used to uncover hidden emotions and provide richer understanding within research:

Projective Techniques

Projective techniques rely on imagery “projecting” emotion and being calibrated and scored based on various psychological principles. When projective techniques are employed, focus group respondents react to the images they select and those selected by others in the group. Images associated with a brand provide consumers with the opportunity to crystalize depictions of their emotions. As participants project meaning and emotion onto these images, we can better understand how the individual relates to the brand and the cultural context in which the brand functions.

In Practice: An example of this was the use of abstract patterns to indirectly determine product effectiveness for an over-the-counter cough, cold and flu medication. Once the point of emotional reference was established, we were able to determine the impact colors had on the packaging. For instance, blue was soothing and led to symptom relief, while red represented fever or a sore throat. As a result, the client altered the colors of keywords on the package to reflect efficacy, dosing, and duration.

Metaphorical Techniques

Humans use metaphors every day to describe the way they think and feel. This can be an effective way to understand the relationship between a product and the end-user. This is accomplished by asking respondents to react to visual metaphors representing their thoughts and feelings about a particular brand, through implied comparison. In a focus group setting, metaphors can be used to understand “want-to-be” or aspirational personality aspects. This provides an opportunity to examine a person’s behavior, as they strive to achieve or accomplish specific things. Metaphors also provide a way to identify the important aspects of a brand by the features most strongly related to others in the group.

In Practice: An application of this effectively drew together the essence of Harley-Davidson motorcycle clothing. Millennials were asked to describe, vis-à-vis images, clothing that looked young, hip, and rugged, and that looked and felt like motorcycle clothing. This information helped to inform product design and development.

Storytelling Techniques

Storytelling helps to provide an overall vision of the brand and its behavior. It can be a highly effective technique for communication assessment, brand strategy expansion, and concept development. For example, respondents can be asked to develop stories related to the images their minds consider when thinking about a brand. These stories are frequently conjured through verbal similes and metaphors.

In Practice: An example of this technique was used in the development of communication cues for a new insulin delivery device. Using research, improved language was created that drove better patient and clinician response, distinguishing it from other delivery systems on the market.

Anticipation Techniques

These techniques deliver simple descriptions of likes or dislikes about a brand. They serve to collect information on what respondents think and feel about the brand in positive and negative terms. Anticipation techniques reveal the contradictory extremes that allow perceived elements to exist. In addition to likes and dislikes, we can also use anticipation techniques to examine the gaps between perceived brand positives and negatives. Anticipation techniques also uncover sources of truth among group respondents and contribute to mapping out key consumer touch points in the brand journey.

In Practice: This technique was used to identify the essence of a prescription medication for smoking cessation. As a result, the “true” pros and cons for success and failure were determined, and the manufacturer was better able to tap into the emotions of the smoker. Coming out of this research, a more informed and distinctive communication campaign was developed.


About the Author

Frank Gabbert specializes in discovering the emotional journeys that are the foundation for vibrant, targeted strategies and messaging. As an accredited social scientist, Frank uses a variety of diagnostic approaches to uncover the range of fundamental human needs that shape behavior, influence choice and ultimately impact brand and product decisions. He is highly regarded as an innovative methodologist, providing insights and strategic directions that utilize emotion based methods in response to key brand and business challenges. Frank has extensive experience working with a wide range of partners, including brand managers, insight leaders, marketing teams, creative agencies and market research agencies.

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