Unfortunately, when it comes to market research, the common pitfalls of trying to measure consumer behavior factor in the results. People invariably are subject to cognitive biases that prevent them from revealing their true feelings whether they are aware of them or not. Or they simply are bad at predicting their own behavior. It’s still crucial to perform studies based on surveys that explicitly ask the opinions of consumers, however increasingly, measures that get at a person’s unconscious motivations or automatic responses can be a key piece of marketing evidence when trying to gain valuable and useful insights.

From a neurological perspective, decision making is based on two separate brain systems. System 1 is the brain’s automatic, associative, unconscious or implicit system. System 2 is deliberative, conscious or explicit. System 1 can be thought of as a person’s autopilot system and is immediately available and maybe even an underlying influence for system 2, the more analytical and reasonable side. This is why explicit answers sometimes don’t tell the whole story. A person’s idea of who they are may contradict the implicit structures that they have formed in their thinking through social learning and reinforced habits, unbeknownst to them.

Neurological and bio-measures are effective ways to try to gain a sense into what a person is really thinking, feeling, or what tends to motivate them, but fMRI machines and galvanic skin response techniques are costly and cumbersome for this type of research, at least thus far. Under this bio umbrella, eye tracking and facial coding are useful tools because they can reveal attention patterns which is extremely valuable for marketing and design, and they are thought to tap into the implicit systems of the brain. But what about more elusive concepts like brand loyalty and brand value associations? If you’re intending your brand to depict a sense of “safety” and “security” but instead it turns out that it is more strongly associated with “boring” and “cheap”, you might want to change how you market that product. Other implicit measures such as semantic or affective priming, and implicit association tests are emerging in marketing research to try and fill in the blanks of consumer motivation.

Affective priming involves a task that requires participants to sort stimuli. For example, a positive or negative word or phrase is flashed for a brief instant before displaying the target stimulus, the brand logo or product image. The word is flashed at around 100-300 milliseconds which allows for awareness without influence. When the prime and the target image are closely matched, the participant will tend to react quicker than when they are not matched in their mind.

The implicit associations test is the most widely validated method used in implicit research and can be useful when comparing brands to determine unconscious preferences. Like the priming task, the participants are asked to sort images with negative and positive words. The order of associations is varied and randomized to guard against learning effects, and the reaction times are evaluated for meaning. The strength of associations can then be compared for particular brands of interest.

Techniques such as affective priming and implicit association tests can be utilized in relatively cost-effective ways to collect implicit data on a larger scale by presenting a way to compare how your brand is perceived as it relates to your intent and how it may compare to others in the competing space. When used with traditional survey research, and other techniques such as eye tracking, a more thorough picture of the consumer can be revealed to better predict end use behaviors and those attributes that make a brand strong in the minds of the target population. Perhaps more importantly, a thorough approach to research can help companies adjust their marketing strategies to be more in line with their values and vision.

Jason Fly contributed to this article.






Also published on Medium.