People believe that they know what moves them to act; marketers seem to agree.  To learn what people think and feel about a product or message, just ask them, right?

As a result, marketing research has long relied on questionnaires, surveys and focus groups. Research may also try to show that a message was attended to and/or recalled. It is simply common sense to assume that the more attention one pays a message,and the more remembered, the more effective it is likely to be. 

Unfortunately, both instances of common sense are wrong.  The “just ask” approach assesses only the tip of the iceberg but misses th elarge proportion of our mental functioning hidden below the surface.  It misses the unconscious and, as a result, often fails to predict consumer behavior.

Unconscious Processes

Marketers need to understand how the mind’s unconscious processes work.Cognitive, neuro- and psychological sciences have demonstrated that the brain is organized in networks of associations (networks of neurons). In layman’s terms, unconsciously we organize our mental world in terms of how the stuff in our heads is connected associatively. Artists and advertising creatives intuitively understand this and pitch their works at associative networks.

Recent science has proved that we are emotional beings to our core. This is literally true of the brain, where central regions are involved in emotional functioning, surrounded by layers of information processing cortex.  Because emotional circuits fire more quickly than cognitive regions, we react emotionally before we are consciously aware of what we have experienced.Simply put, emotion precedes, and trumps, rationality. 

Measuring Unconscious Associative Networks

The key to assessing unconscious associations lies in measuring reaction time.  Whatever is on our mind, whatever resonates the name of a product, watching a commercial, glancing at product packaging—captures our attention. If the phrase “captures our attention” sounds like something we cannot consciously control, it is. 

Market researchers can probe unconscious associations by assessing how quickly, or slowly (in thousandths of a second), people respond when these associations are presented. Reaction time essentially measures one’s involuntary, unconscious attention. 

Measuring Emotional Reactions

The key to assessing automatic emotional reactions is to present a stimulus (central aspect of a message) too quickly to be processed by the conscious brain, but slowly enough to be processed by the unconscious.  The result is some level of positive and negative emotional reaction, which people cannot talk about in focus groups or report on surveys.  This is followed by a relatively neutral stimulus that the person consciously sees (usually a generic product from the category, e.g., an “unnamed” glass of brown liquid or an unidentified person). 

As far as the participant is concerned, she only sees the second stimulus.  She is then asked to rate a series of statements.  The answers are biased emotionally by the initial stimulus, but the person does not realize this.  In other words, that unconscious emotional reaction “lingers” long enough to influence what the person feels toward the second stimulus. 

Marketing isn't a puzzle you can just solve by asking. Image link:

Making Sense of Unconscious Processes

By combining the results of these two measures, we can determine the associative strengths and weaknesses of a message,as well the emotional context.  Now we have the unconscious “story” of the message.

Conscious processes are not without predictive power but their influence is limited to focused, short-term behavior. In contrast, long-term and spontaneous behaviors are best predicted by unconscious measures.

Combining the results of conscious and unconscious measures allows us to more accurately predict how consumers are likely to behave.  Some messages will have a strong conscious impact but little unconscious effect and predict short-term, focused behaviors. Other messages may have a strong unconscious impact but little conscious effect, which predict long-term and spontaneous behaviors. Some messages will be weak on both levels; these are the losers.  And, some messages will have a strong impact on both levels.  These are win/wins.

The Bottom Line: Ask, But Don’t Just Ask

In sum, if we hope to better predict how a potential customer will act, we must address the whole person.  We need to understand how the person responds to messaging on both the conscious and unconscious levels. 

Only by taking a holistic approach to how the mind works can marketers and their creative partners hope to craft communications that have the intended effect.