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OPINION6 February 2017

Using laughter to find new brand stories

Opinion UK

Consumer theatre workshops are more interactive and co-creative than other qualitative research technique and are producing improved responses as Steve Hales explains.

The benefits of a good laugh go beyond the mooted health gains, such as lower blood pressure. Laughter also brings us together in agreement and alignment, helps us bond, and reduces feelings of anxiety. The power it holds to help people ‘open up’ makes it an effective qualitative research tool, allowing us to delve beneath rational and cognitive responses to access authentic motivational drivers for consumer behaviour.

Many approaches to uncovering these elusive, subliminal drivers – in particular enabling and projective techniques – still require participants to rationalise their responses in some way, in either the elicitation or post-analysis phase. Exploring new ways of unleashing instinctive responses unhampered by any form of conscious or rational filter has led us to develop the Consumer Theatre approach.

The technique works by stimulating laughter from research participants, focused through the creative influence of improvisational comedy. ‘Improv’ has been proven in studies by Professor Charles Limb of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to reduce inhibitions while increasing self-expression.

Breaking down barriers

A Consumer Theatre workshop brings together a brand and a facilitator with groups of target consumers and specialist improv performers, who act out a number of scenes relating to specific aspects of issues relevant to the brand. The process is co-creative and highly interactive – think Whose line is it anyway? – with performers using consumers’ responses to guide the sketches. Qualitative researchers then examine with the consumers what they connected with, building rapport and engagement and exploring key questions in increasing depth and focus.

Triggering laughter in a ‘safe’ environment helps participants to fully immerse themselves in the experience, connecting emotionally with each other and the topic. The process removes inhibitors and encourages people to freely disclose instinctive thoughts and gut feelings without an engaged cognitive filter.

Stimulated by the actors, the consumers provide fast, authentic and often visceral responses to what they see and hear, enabling us as researchers to probe deeper without the associated trappings of traditional qualitative research.

Getting under the skin

In particular, the Consumer Theatre approach creates a platform on which stories – which are at the heart of both comedy and branding – can be displayed, experimented with and built on. Laughter signals when the improv has hit on something that truly resonates, but we then need to go further to understand what it is about the participants and their lives that created the empathy from which this response came.

Rather than questioning them, we ask them to tell us stories about their own lives prompted by the improvisation they’ve seen. We find they do this in an unadulterated manner, using heartfelt language and highly personal characterisations. Improvisation is by its very nature often tangential, so we end up plumbing new depths that are surprising to us, and even the participants themselves!

In a recent Consumer Theatre event on the intersection of personal privacy and targeted communications, for example, we discovered that ‘people are now more worried about cyber-attack than physical assault’. This has many potential implications for brands’ digital communications strategies and implementation.

The ‘theatre’ is followed by a workshop during which the brand team and facilitator explore where the understanding gained could take the brand, and identify new stories that can be fed into campaign development to create strong connections with target audiences.

Presenting qualitative research participants with overly-contrived questions and dry stimulus will frequently fail to evoke expressive reactions or lead to a new understanding about who they are or how they relate to the subject matter. Creating a scenario where a group of people are laughing together, and sharing what they really think and feel about themselves and the world they interact with, has great potential for drawing out fresh and meaningful insight.

Steve Hales, head of Firefly Kantar Millward Brown

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