By Dr. Sharon Livingston

During a recent airline flight, I sat beside an advertising account manager who told me about his involvement in a series of brainstorming sessions for a client's foundering paper-matchbook business. In the middle of one such session, the manager's mind wandered to the home gardening he'd been doing the day before. When he refocused on the meeting, he astutely linked the topic of discussion and his daydream about gardening and came up with the ingenious idea for creating seed sticks, packaged and delivered in convenient matchbooks, a product that has since become popular in England and extremely profitable for the company.


The manager was surprised that I did not consider his solution in a daydream to be merely a fortunate accident or at the other extreme, some kind of magical intervention from the hinterland. Instead I nodded and said, "Yeah, that's a great example of a valuable problem solving technique! Good, for you!"

Increasingly, market researchers are using "projective techniques" that deliberately stimulate a relaxed free flow of associations that can uncover and identify, deep, normally unacknowledged feelings to a degree not usually achieved in a standard focus group. This kind of research bypasses our logical minds and critical "censors" to plumb the depths of emotions that have a crucial effect on consumers? purchasing decisions and brand loyalty. Because these techniques are specifically designed to bypass people's built in self editing mechanisms, they are particularly useful in eliciting honest information about sensitive or embarrassing topics and products. They also allow us as researchers to delve into brand and user imagery, bypassing typical intellectualized responses to touch true feelings and images.

The attitude and level of experience of the interviewer conducting this type of inquiry is critical if projective techniques are to be used effectively. Equally important are the subjects themselves. Although it is true that given sufficient time and talent, virtually anyone can be drawn out, it is most cost effective to screen for creative-articulate respondents, who see themselves as spontaneous, willing to take risks, flexible, imaginative, nonconforming to strict rules an structure, able to get along with different people, and uncomfortable with routine activity and wasting time.

In contrast, those people who are screened before the research are likely to describe themselves as quiet, peacemakers, neutral group members, most comfortable with structure, and committed to tried and true solutions.

In selecting naturally expressive and creative individuals, is the research biased? Experience says that's not the case.

Deeply personal emotions are usually the emotions shared by human beings across the board, no matter what their personality. Moreover, although research screen for creativity and a willingness to recognize and verbalize deep emotions, they must be careful to include representatives from a variety of appropriate socio-economic and educational populations. AND, importantly, creative people are found in all sectors.

In general terms, a projective technique is the use of any vague stimulus that an individual subject is asked to describe, expand on, or build a structure around. For example, market researchers sometimes employ the "Modified TAT" an adaptation of the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) used by psychologists, in developing print ads and billboards.

The participants are first shown an unbranded visual that is under consideration for the ad and asked to create a story around it. A story has a beginning, a middle and an end, they are told. The moderator or interviewer encourages respondents to go beyond the literal and release some of the more elusive feelings and associations that the imagination stirs up.

What is happening in this picture? What are the characters doing, thinking, feeling? What happened before? What happens next? What will the outcome be?

Participants do not directly address their feelings about a product or brand, but reveal them indirectly through their responses to visuals and changes in the visuals. Even a slight change in presentation "a tilt of a model's head in a photograph", for example can evoke a substantially different response.

The picture might be shown a second time with a brand name and a tagline. The participant is asked whether he or she sees the same scenario and how well the picture and the brand match. Sometimes an appealing story loses its intrigue when a less than popular brand is added.

On the other hand, a neutral visual can become more exciting when a well liked product or tagline is brought to bare. The interplay of brand and visual can then be explored.

Because most people view these exercises as fun, they take the opportunity to express themselves more fully and openly. One interesting finding is that people from different segments of the population tell similar stories about the same photos or images, suggesting that perhaps there are cultural "truths" in our reactions to the images we see.

Another approach is Guided Imagery. Instead of asking participants to appraise a product or brand directly, they are asked to concentrate on creating and experiencing as associated image. This technique takes pressure off the respondents because they do not have to come up with a rational or right response.

For example, in using "The Looking Glass Technique" our own registered brand of guided imagery, we ask participants to imagine the kind of door that would bear the imprint of a particular brand name. Subjects are then asked to walk through their imagined doors and experience what's behind them.

People tend to forget themselves in their involvement with the process, allowing them to be more imaginative in their reveries and ultimately more honest in revealing their inner thoughts and feelings; their hearts and minds.

Here, too, common responses are frequently found. Positive feelings about a brand name usually generate images of a solid or carved oak or mahogany door with a brass lever handle. Negative usually conjure up a plain or shabbier door that lacks a handle and simply pushes open.

"The Benefit Chain", also called "Laddering", is most effectively used in an in depth interview. It generally begins with a functional benefit or product feature in response to which respondents are asked to name two new benefits or advantages. For each benefit identified, they are asked for two more, until the end of the ladder or chain is reached.

The progression goes from the practical to the emotional. The key decision here is when to stop probing. In our Sharpen The Focus Moderator Training program (, instructors tell trainees to listen for references to enhanced self-esteem. The experienced interviewer knows (s)he has reached the end of the ladder, for a particular starting point, when the respondent says something to the effect of "I feel better about myself!", or "Makes me feel good about myself!"

After years of "Laddering", we evolved a structure for analyzing the emotional end benefits derived from these exercises that we call "The Livingston Paradigm of Self Esteem(tm)". Using a technique called "Category Sculpting" moderators encourage product users to project colorful imagery onto brands. In this exercise, an entire category of products and brands is considered an extended family. Each brand within the family is assigned a role and characteristics, such as the "cute child", "the irresponsible uncle", "the domineering mother", "the powerful granddaddy", "the needy cousin".

The relationship of one brand to the other is clarified with probes, such as, "Where do people congregate for holidays?", "Who is the favorite in the family?","Who is always in trouble?", "Who is the family problem solver?", etc. The brands specific niche begins to become clear.

Participants also discuss what traits all the family members have in common. This helps articulate the category's strength and weaknesses as a whole. Other useful psychological techniques include sentence completions, synesthesia and "ScentSations".

With sentence completion, e.g., "Mother always said toothpaste ___________", participants are encouraged to fill in the sentence several times, quickly, instead of just once. Research demonstrates, the more they fill it in, the more likely they are to identify a real but perhaps subconscious thought or feeling which may be an important motivational driver in the category.

In Synesthesia, participants are asked to deliberately fuse their senses and answer questions such as: "What does a smooth shave Sound, Look, Smell and Taste like?" Our proprietary ScentSations(tm) technique was built on the fact that the perception of scent and emotion both reside in the temporal lobe. This accounts for the finding that scent can be used to trigger feelings about a particular aromatic product such as coffee, cologne, soap, popcorn or pizza.

During all sessions involving projective techniques, the moderator and backroom staff can be and should be key participants rather than just casual, "objective" observers. You can maximize the value of the project by utilizing your subjective reactions.

While listening to the presentation of the exercises and the material offered by the front room group members, all should become alert to and aware of their own images and associations. Theodore Reik, a famous clinician, called this "listening with the third ear." He found that he was able to help his patients make significant improvements in their treatment and lives by immersing himself in their stories and then utilizing his own free associations in the interpretations and counsel he gave them.

Very often moderators and observers are able to identify innovative solutions or draw insightful conclusions by taking part in the exercises themselves as they are in progress, paying attention to their own imaginations, and respecting their own mental ramblings. Like the manager who was "distracted" by his garden, an enormously valuable idea may be hidden among our most unfocused day dreams. The end result of the combined effect of hearing the groups? perceptions and feelings, and exploring the marketing teams? reveries is strategic thinking that is potent, inspirational and persuasive.

Contact Information

Phone: 646-600-6566

email: The Livingston Group for Marketing

The Livingston Group for Marketing, Inc.
347 W 57th St., Suite 25C, NY, NY 10019

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