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FEATURE7 October 2013

Don't ask, won't tell


Are consumers hiding their most important desires and motivations from marketers – and maybe even from themselves? Y&R’s Chip Walker considers the evidence and the implications.

What’s the big idea?

In a nutshell: The post-modern consumer is a bundle of contradictions who keeps secrets from us and sometimes lies. Specifically, we found that consumers appear to be hiding some of their most important desires and brand perceptions from marketers. We asked about consumer personal values and their liking of brands in two ways:

  • Traditional survey research, which reveals what people think consciously;
  • Indirect questioning, using an approach called Implicit Association that reveals unconscious attitudes.

We discovered that not only do conscious and unconscious attitudes not match – they are often the polar opposite of each other. For example, in the USA, consumers rank Google near the top on liking consciously, but near the bottom unconsciously. Globally the top conscious values are “meaning in life” and “choosing your own path,” but unconsciously it’s “sexual fulfilment” and “honouring tradition”.

Again in the USA, consumers say that helpfulness is their top-ranked value, but unconsciously it’s the bottom ranked value. Sexual satisfaction is number one unconsciously in the three countries we looked at: the US, Brazil and China. It appears that the life of the new consumer runs on conflict.

While some consumers find this state of inner conflict stressful and overwhelming, a large group takes these contradictions in its stride. Respondents’ top attitudes all reflect a comfort level with a fluid, evolving, multi-faceted identity.

  • Individualistic: 60% agree that “People should be free to marry, live and work however they want”
  • Empowered: 60% agree that “It’s up to me to get what I want in life”
  • Self-directed: 51% agree that “Success is about how you see yourself, not how other people think of you”
  • Ageless: 55% agree that “my age doesn’t define me; it’s not central to who I am”
  • Evolving: 53% agree that “my identity – who I really am – is a work in progress”

Our CEO, David Sable, has called this group “Generation World” – though they aren’t a generation in the age-driven sense. As David puts it: “People are more complicated today than in past generations. They defy traditional stereotypes within their own local cultures. You can’t adequately describe these people by placing them into traditional market segments, demographic or even geographic groups. That’s why we call them Generation World.”

Chip Walker

Chip Walker

What does this mean for my business?

There’s three big implications for marketers:

Rethink traditional research: Marketers who rely on traditional surveys and focus groups alone ( which in my experience is most of them ) are probably only getting half the story.

Rethink traditional targeting: As marketers we typical put target audiences into uniform segments and expect them to behave in consistent ways ( e.g., soccer mom drives a mini van and wears mom jeans. )  This research indicates she is much more complex than that.

Rethink traditional positioning: We’ve been programed to believe that ‘single-mindedness’ is the foundation of all good branding. Yet this research shows consumers aren’t singular today.  It may sound like heresy but…is it time brands move away from the single-minded idea and embrace conflict and tension?

OK. So what’s the plan of action?

At Y&R we are helping clients to go out and find their ‘brand tension’. This is the idea that break-away brands – like the new consumer – thrive on conflict and polarity ( e.g., Land Rover is both hardworking and luxury. ) Brands that are one-note ( e.g., K-Mart = cheap ) are simply less interesting to consumers today than those that show more depth of character by embracing a tension ( e.g., Target = Cheap + Chic. )

Patagonia’s new campaign ( not by Y&R ) takes this concept to an extreme – by embracing eco-friendliness while simultaneously acknowledging all the ways they currently harm the environment. It will be interesting to see if this bold approach succeeds.

Now we know all this, what questions should we be asking next?

Is there a ‘hidden’ ( unconscious ) side of brand equity that is completely unexplored? Can this new side of brand equity help us unlock brands’ hidden vulnerabilities ( e.g., secretly disliked brands like Google and Starbucks ) and/or hidden potential ( e.g., secretly liked brands like Exxon and Facebook )? That’s probably where we are going next with this research and thinking.

Chip Walker is executive vice-president and director of brand planning and innovation at Y&R, New York. The full Secrets & Lies presentation is available here.


3 years ago

Nice piece but it's nothing new. Implicit association testing started in social psychology c.50 years ago! It's been written up in scientific papers for last c.15 years. The application to brands is relatively new though. We've been doing this sort of work globally since 2006 and have a database of millions of responses. Care is needed on at least a couple of things; there are c.20 paradigms of testing so which one is appropriate for your needs? Also, implicit testing is certainly valid for certain constructs but not all - advertising comprehension, for example, is a controlled reflective mental process therefore a testing paradigm that accesses this is valid i.e. direct questions.

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3 years ago

Thanks Phil - you saved me the effort.

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3 years ago

Phil, I also agree with your comment.

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3 years ago

It's not that consumers won't tell. Often individuals may not explicity know their inner secrets themselves. Deep diving in specialist qual, we've run into situations where the respondent has a sudden wha-oh self-revelation moment - so not trying to hide things, just not fully aware of deeper processes and connections. But then researchers have been aware of this problem for decades...

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3 years ago

Ummm.. Freud's id, ego and superego?

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2 years ago

Let me start out by saying that I am an academic psychologist who has done work for almost 30 years on unconscious processes. I have even won an international academic award for doing so. And, to be transparent, let me also say that I designed and analyzed this study. I’d like to respond to what Phil Barden said. It seems to boil down to saying that nothing is new here. Saying that nothing is new is also nothing new. Ecclesiastes said it about 3,000 year ago (What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.). But the implication that not new means not worthwhile is completely unwarranted. There is much that is worthwhile and even new in these empirical findings as far as marketing is concerned. So let me get to it, along with pointing out a couple of minor misstatements and red herrings. Mr. Barden says that implicit association testing began in social psychology about 50 years ago (with an exclamation point, no less). That is not really true; the term implicit did not even exist to apply to this type of work until the mid to late 1980s and was introduced in memory and motivational research, not social psychology. I know since I was one of the people who helped introduce it in 1989. Real, systematic work began in the 1990s, which is when the term implicit association testing entered the field. So much for the historical record. Now to what is worthwhile and/or new. Implicit tests have never been applied to values as far as I know, until this study. That strikes me as worthy of being called “new.” More important, it is also meaningful. The work on assessing implicit emotional reactions to brands has also never been done before. Mr. Barden concedes that at least this is new. So what do we have? We have a technology that existed in some form for about 30 years but has never been applied in this way. It was applied to values and to brands for the first time and the study was multicultural. Results were obtained. They are dramatic, showing strong dissociations between conscious and unconscious processes. Implications were drawn and laid out. These are rather radical. The reader can judge for him/herself whether they are worthwhile and worth following up. But they are public. Now the red herrings. This study was not concerned with advertising comprehension. I am not sure why Mr. Barden introduces this area in his comments and then declares that implicit testing is not the way to go here. But as long as he does, what is the predictive value in terms of purchase or positive emotional reaction of advertising comprehension? As it turns out, not much. It may or may not be that it is better assessed via self-report, as he asserts. That is an empirical question and not one to declared via fiat. As to having a database of millions of responses collected since 2006, where is it and what has it shown? We have reported actual data publicly.

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