Focus groups and questionnaires have been the standard tools of market research, but experts advise builders to look beyond words and mine the uncsonsious to reveal answers hidden in consumers' minds. By Christina B. Farnsworth

Have you paid attention to the Hallmark Card ads or seen the Coca Cola television spot featuring a Buddhist monk meditating in a soccer stadium during a game? Or bought a bottle of Fabreze?

Febreze is the odor-neutralizing spray product that wasn't even a brand category until Procter and Gamble launched it. In its first year, Fabreze generated $230 million in sales, twice what had been projected. ZMET, the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique, helped that happen by delving into and revealing consumers' unconscious wants.

ZMET--which meshes elements from psychology to neuroscience plus linguistics and art theory to tap into the illusive preferences people have but are unaware of--was developed by Gerald Zaltman, a Joseph C. Wilson professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and co-director of Harvard's Mind of the Market Laboratory.

The practice reaches deep into perception, using visual techniques that deliver what Zaltman believes are more accurate results than more traditional techniques such as focus groups or questionnaires. Hallmark, Coca Cola, Procter and Gamble, DuPont, General Motors, Motorola, Nestle, Reebok, and ATT are just a few of the 200 or so mega-companies that have based successful advertising and marketing decisions on ZMET.

Dig deeper

ZMET and its developer get a lot of media attention, but Barb Nagle, founder and president of Marketscape Research and Consulting in San Diego, notes that there are other "projective" and "expansive" research techniques for reaching deep into consumers' minds.

Photo: Bill Rieser

These techniques include in-home ethnography (following folks home and observing how they live), projection (having participants draw pictures and then interpreting the pictures), and perceptual mapping (having participants take photos or collect clippings and analyzing the results). ZMET combines projection and perceptual mapping techniques. Builder is working with Nagle and her client Pardee Homes using some of these techniques to research consumer preferences to determine how to design the "Ultimate Family Home," a show home for the 2004 International Builders' Show.

Why do Zaltman and Nagle delve below awareness to answer marketing questions? Accuracy is one reason. Zaltman, who is also a private consultant with the firm Olson Zaltman Associates, says that focus groups and questionnaires are the primary methods used to develop and launch most products, yet 60 percent to 80 percent of all new products fail. Their failure may be because the right questions weren't asked or the right participants weren't chosen. In some cases, a few focus group participants can dominate the group leading to inaccurate results.

Each of these veteran techniques looks easy but is difficult to do well. Though experts can design appropriate questionnaires and can better moderate and manage focus groups, even the best is not good enough, Zaltman and Nagle agree. Often those questioned may not really know the answers because those answers may be buried below the level of their own consciousness.

Photo: Courtesy Pardee Homes

Cognitive techniques--from drawing pictures to collecting pictures to creating collages--help researchers delve deeper into buyers' psyches.

Market research techniques have evolved over time and become more sophisticated. Focus groups have been around since 1941, when Columbia University sociologist Robert Merton conducted the first one. Zaltman has reservations about focus groups, saying there is little scientific foundation for using them. He notes that each focus group participant has little time, often only a minute or two during the session, to express his or her views and certainly not enough time to express them in depth. A few participants and even a poorly trained moderator can dominate the group. Thus results can be biased and inadequate. Developing questionnaires is a science. How the surveyor words the question and the order in which questions appear add their own potential levels of inaccuracy and bias. And then there is the difficulty in finding out why those surveyed answered the way they did. Traditional focus groups and questionnaires done well can get at the "what" (the subject at hand--what those surveyed say they did). These techniques, however, are not necessarily able to reach the "why" (why those surveyed did what they say they did).

Why people choose and buy is often more important than what they choose in a world crowded with decisions on what to buy. Zaltman feels these old techniques may at best be a waste of time and at worst lead to misdirection and failure.

Tapping the subconscious

Unconscious thoughts, says Zaltman, account for marketplace behavior. And those thoughts are primarily visual. Cognitive scientists, he says, know that human beings think in images, not in words. But most market research techniques use words, not images.

Deriving meaning from images is complicated. Poets and psychiatrists who interpret dreams understand metaphor, the key word in ZMET. The literal meaning of metaphor is "a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them." The Merriam Webster dictionary quotes the phrase "drowning in money" as an example. But what does that phrase mean? It could mean good or bad things to different individuals.

Using one of the expansive visual techniques that looks beyond mere words to explain the metaphor would extend its meaning and give it context. Imagine a research participant asked to select pictures describing how they felt about money. Choosing Niagara Falls or a still pool as visual metaphors would likely result in very different meanings. With images, the market researcher has the potential to flesh out the participant's opinion about a product or service and, even better, find out why he or she has that opinion.

Home study

But ZMET is not the only visual market research technique.

In-home ethnography, a technique that Nagle uses, literally follows participants home. Just as anthropologist Margaret Mead visited New Guinea so does in-home ethnography observe how people live "in context"--how they really live compared to how they tell researchers they live. "And it shows how people use [your client's type of] product, such as a home," Nagle says.

Using the technique, she discovered homeowners with small children were often converting their formal dining rooms into playrooms despite the fact that the home had a family room. A researcher might not have known to even ask such a question about use of space, and a participant would be unlikely to volunteer and might even be sensitive about admitting that their formal rooms were so informal.

The technique also gives insights into understanding the lifestyles and decorating preferences of various ethnic groups, Nagle says. Research participants may have no idea that their everyday world and the living choices they make have value in researching their needs and producing homes that meet their needs.

Nagle's firm sometimes uses a video camera to record observations. And participants may later become part of a focus group. But Nagle is wary of using only a focus group; participants may use the group as internal validation, justifying to themselves "why I made a smart decision," she says.

One of the projection techniques Nagle uses asks participants to draw a picture. Say the challenge is to gauge the appeal of one master plan community over another. Nagle's team would give participants specific instructions of what to draw. The challenge, she says, is analyzing the resulting drawings.

In a focus group setting, the group discusses these drawings, and when asked, the research participants are often startled at their own answers--something about the drawing process unlocks answers hidden in the subconscious.

Visual world

Perceptual mapping, like ZMET, involves participant homework--two weeks to take pictures and/or compile clippings. Armed with disposable cameras, participants take pictures that have meaning to them about the subject being studied, such as their home. "We shy away from clippings from home magazines," Nagle says. Her firm is not looking for design ideas as an architect might but at a deeper meaning.

Unlike ZMET, perhaps 12 participants gather in a neutral setting to discuss the photos and clippings. "We have found amazing stuff," Nagle says, especially in groups in which children are participants. The results become collages--pictures into an inner world.

Zaltman is as much for researching the client as he is for researching the consumer. "Research can never tell you what to do," he says. "It can only give you the basis for being creative in what you do. If managers don't know their own minds, they're not going to understand the mind of the customer."

How do Zaltman and his team ZMET consumers?

Zaltman's company sends a letter inviting participation in market research. The firm uses standard random techniques to reach consumers. Once the person agrees to participate, he or she typically spends a week collecting pictures from magazines, catalogs, or any other source that captures his or her feelings about the product being studied. The pictures are about the emotions the product category elicits rather than the product itself. For example, if the product were a home, Zaltman says, none of the pictures could be of homes. (No home builder has yet used ZMET.) The point of the study is to find out how the participant feels about a product through imagery.

Photo: Courtesy Harvard Business School, Mind of the Market Laboratory

Through careful interviewing, researchers tap into a participant's subconscious, which results in a collage created by a ZMET graphic artist.

Next the participant meets with a carefully trained professional interviewer and a computer graphic artist for a one-on-one, two-hour, recorded private interview. The artist creates a digital collage with the participant's images, and the researcher records a short text about its meaning. Several researchers participate in the coding and analysis to avoid researcher bias. Each interview results in its own collage. "We probe participants' thoughts, as opposed to prompt for answers," Zaltman says. "We help consumers open windows into their own thinking and encourage them to look in, and share with us what they see," he says. Participants are often surprised to find out what they know and how strongly they feel about a subject. And sometimes those images, based on emotions rather than logic, turn into ads. In the case of Coca Cola, a ZMET digital collage of the meditating Buddhist monk in the soccer field became, in a sense, the storyboard for the unusual but successful ad.

As Zaltman's research has progressed to include different ethnic groups and different countries, he has been impressed with its universality. In countries as diverse as England and Japan, Zaltman's technique reaches core variables shared among very different people. For example, concepts such as respect, honesty, and dependability often score high in his studies.