For decades, the marketing community has been aware that there are emotional and psychodynamic factors that drive brand selection and loyalty. Even in today's price-sensitive economy, the imagery attached to brands goes far beyond product attributes, functional benefits and price to sell products. All products and brands develop personas in consumers' minds. All project varying user images, which differ by audience. Members of one audience may buy a product because it makes them feel affluent. Members of another, which values thrift, buy a brand because it makes them feel like smart shoppers. Taking this another step, consumers buy products with imagery that is either consistent with their positive view of themselves (“I’m sophisticated and therefore buy this type of wine to complete my image”) or which conveys a plausible aspirational model - something they would like to be and believe they could conceivably achieve (“I can be a real ladies’ man if I drive a sports car.”)


In fact, we have discovered that the essential component of Brand Character goes far beyond advertising slogans and packaging. The most powerful influencing factor in purchasing habits is the subtle, often-overlooked product/consumer relationship. A vital brand has a “relationship” with loyal users not unlike a healthy relationship between two people. People maintain ongoing affiliations as long as each person in a relationship feels as though the other contributes positively to his/her sense of self. Relationships fall apart when perceived negatives begin to outweigh the rewards of the association. For example, being coupled with a successful friend casts a positive halo onto someone who values success.

If you want to build a strong Brand Equity relationship, you must first understand the core values of your target market. In marketing, we often talk about this as “laddering up to emotional end benefits." These are the unspoken consumer values that are the glue to brand loyalty because they validate the user's self perceptions. But it’s not enough to know what emotional end benefits drive a category – to be truly effective at marketing we need to understand which concrete features and functional benefits of our brand (as well as the brand as a whole) ‘provide’ these feelings most strongly (more on this later), and which do so without simultaneously creating emotional anti-benefits (aversive feelings), where is the competition in this emotional terrain, and what does the multivariate field look like? (What SETS of features are most associated with desired emotions or desired SETS of emotions?)

If only! Unfortunately, understanding this picture has very much been marketer’s ‘Holy Grail’, long sought after as a treasured prize, but surrounded with a kind of religious mystique which defies logical pursuit. This is the case because there are MANY obstacles which prevent consumers from discussing with us their emotional reasons for purchase, and many that prevent us as researchers from perceiving when they do. To begin to approach the Grail requires a thorough understanding not only of emotional benefits, but of the psychology of the consumer’s resistance to telling you about them (and even to becoming aware of them themselves)

What Is An Emotional End Benefit?

An emotional benefit is a self-statement which supports some key aspect of the consumer's self esteem.

For example:

  • I'm an attractive person
  • I'm a creative person
  • I'm an accomplished person
  • I'm a responsible person
  • I'm a person who is in control of my life
  • I'm a free person, unrestricted in the expression of my desires.
  • I'm a person with integrity, true to my principles before my immediate desires.
  • I'm an athletic person.
  • I'm a healthy person.
  • I'm a spiritual person.
  • I'm a nurturing person.

There are as many emotional benefits as there are possible good things a person could say about themselves. However, Dr. Sharon Livingston created a list of 43 of the most common emotional self statements (see appendix - "The Livingston Paradigm of Self Esteem"), based upon statistical analyses (factor analyses) of emotional purchase motivation revealed in focus groups.

It's also essential to realize that the importance order of emotional benefits varies by product or service category. For example while “feeling like an attractive person” might be an important value for most people, there are only certain product categories that can provide features that support that benefit. "Feeling Attractive" might be a significant motivating emotion for eye-wear, fashion, deodorant, or automobiles because each of these categories have features that are perceived as supporting attractiveness. However, it probably isn’t an important emotional benefit for personal computers, stock-brokerages, or long distance calling plans because there are no features that directly link to that feeling (Macintosh users excepted).

The specific order of importance of emotional benefits varies by category. The differing product/service features in each category are each capable of supporting a different set of feelings. You need to know which feelings your category supports, and which particular concrete features of your product are most closely associated with those feelings.

Special Techniques are Required to Unearth Emotional Benefits and to Understand How They Are Linked to the Functional Features and the Overall Image of Your Brand:

While the importance of emotional end benefits is clear, it is very tricky to assess via direct questioning techniques. All but the most creative respondents are hard put to provide rich, detailed answers to straightforward questions such as "If this soda were a person, what kind of person would it be?" or "How does this soda can make you feel about yourself?” (Or even worse ‘Which color graphic on the can would make you feel like a sexier person when you bought it?’)

In some situations, it is possible to simply ask about these relationships. For example, the relationship between eyewear and attractiveness is not particularly threatening. Most consumers probably would not be uncomfortable telling you that they consider how attractive they look in eyewear before purchasing. However, most often you do need special techniques to probe emotional benefits:


People are often frightened of being judged and will only say what they think is socially desirable. For example, some people are uncomfortable verbalizing the desire to feel attractive. To them, Feeling Attractive is something to be quietly pursued, not publicly acknowledged. This is particularly true for older women, many men, and those from Asian cultures. When someone of this ilk is asked for an emotional connection, they will tell you something more socially desirable like "it makes me feels practical" or "it makes me feel safe."

While social desirability bias is a small problem for 'Feeling Attractive," it is a much bigger problem with many other motivators like "Feeling Sexy," "Feeling Excited," "Has a Sense of Belonging," and "Feels in Control."


The conscious experience of emotional benefits is usually vague. People have difficulty articulating their underlying motivations and even more trouble specifying how product features are related to these emotional benefits.


Most consumers want to think of themselves as logical, rational buyers. The idea that feelings influence purchase threatens this perception. Consumers don't realize (or don't want to admit) that advertising images affect their purchase decisions. Indeed, most consumers want to believe that they purchase based solely upon rational facts such as price, value, taste and performance. Moreover, since consumers tend to deny that emotions (and the product imagery with which they are associated) affects their decisions, they can become anxious that their answers to direct image-related or emotionally-laden questions are a reflection of their personality. The result of all these dynamics is a relatively quiet respondent, who gives sensible, general, barely useful responses.


Finally, some respondents are concerned that if strangers really knew what made them tick, we would take advantage of them and sell them things they did not really need.

Despite these inherent difficulties, many market researchers (who are unaware of alternative approaches) attempt to ask direct questions to assess imagery in focus groups and in-depth interviews. However, a handful of qualitative market researchers have borrowed techniques from psychology called ”projectives” in order to obtain richer, more detailed descriptions of product imagery. (Note - see Dr. Sharon Livingston’s article on projective techniques for a more thorough treatment of the subject).

Using projective techniques to assess imagery in qualitative research

A technique is projective when it indirectly encourages the expression of psychologically motivating material (imagery) of which the respondent is otherwise unaware. Most projective techniques do this by presenting the question so that the consumer believes her response is part of a game which could not possibly reflect on her personality. Projectives allow research participants to sit back, relax, and to view their responses as if they were watching a movie screen, unaware, for the moment, that they wrote the film and that they hold the projector. Returning to the soda can example, instead of simply asking the respondent "If this soda can were a person, what kind of person might it be?" the moderator positions the question as an experience. She tells respondents they are about to engage in a fun exercise, uses some sort of relaxation technique, helps them imagine the soda can in their mind (as opposed to directly looking at it) and then says something like "Now imagine you see a hand reaching for the Diet Sunkist . . . what does the hand look like? Describe it in detail. Now, what about its owner? Their occupation? etc." (She continues to get a rich description of the image).

While on the surface, this question may seem quite similar to the more direct question asked above, there are some important differences in the way it was presented. The primary differences are (1) the degree of intellectualization required of the respondent, and (2) the emotional state the respondent is in when the question is posed.

A projective technique doesn't require intellectual reasoning. For example, the respondent is instructed to imagine a hand, then to imagine the rest of the person. Properly presented, projectives are experienced like a game -- like playing make-believe as a child. This is markedly different from the direct, rational question "If this soda were a person, what type of person would it be?" To answer that question, most respondents feel they need a rationale to support their conclusions, which severely restricts their ability to respond. Projectives remove the need for rationale and make it much easier to elicit potent imagery which the respondent might not really understand (and therefore cannot rationalize). Another example of a projective technique is presented below:


The moderator takes respondents through a brief relaxation exercise, followed by guided imagery where they imagine seeing a door with a soda can on it. When they walk through the door, they are told they will find themselves in an entirely different scene. After having them explore that scene thoroughly, the moderator tells participants that they will find a person in that scene. They can observe a typical moment in that person's day, knowing that this particular moment is just a snapshot. After thoroughly observing the person in the moment, they can imagine what their day was like before and after that moment. When they open their eyes, respondents are asked to talk about the people they observed. Following are two sample responses. (The results are for illustrative purposes only, and are based upon only one respondent's answers).

Diet Sunkist -- "I saw a young woman in her 20s drive up to a local convenience store. She was driving a red sporty convertible (I guess it was a Mustang) with the top down. She had just finished a game of tennis and was very thirsty. She wanted something light, sweet and sparkly. She went into the store and got the Sunkist. At the register, the guy flirted with her. She smiled at him, paid for the soda and jumped back into her car. It was a Sunday, the weather was warm, but not too hot. She took a long drink of her soda, felt refreshed and drove off to spend the afternoon with some friends."

Diet A&W Root Beer -- "A man in his mid 40s pulls up to the same store in his pick-up. He feels depressed and upset because he had an argument with his wife this morning. She told him he was getting fat and flabby and looking just like his father. They had a blow up about it. He gave her a hard time, but he really felt bad. He walked into the store wanting to soothe himself with some ice cream. On the way to the freezer, he passed the soda case and noticed the Diet A&W. He remembered how much he used to love root beer when he was a kid. He picked up the diet soda and paid for it. He opened it up and took a swig and was surprised at how good it tasted. He got back in his truck and headed home, feeling hopeful and excited to tell his wife that he had taken a first step in the right direction."



A little imagination should convince the reader that projective exercises like this one can yield a wealth of imagery, and frequently some very useful creative insights. However, many in the field have raised concerns over the interpretation of projective techniques. Their concerns are:

  • The complicated manner in which the questions are asked and the indirect manner in which they are answered makes it very difficult to translate responses into concrete, useful marketing information.
  • A commonly agreed-upon purpose of qualitative research is often to develop hypotheses which later need to be validated in quantitative research. Traditionally, the rich imagery uncovered in projectives has been very difficult to quantitatively verify. The most common practice is to revert back to direct questions about attributes in a quantitative questionnaire.
  • Because of the difficulty in quantifying projective methods, it has also been challenging to determine which specific aspects of the imagery elicited from these techniques actually drive purchase interest.

The question then is, how can projective imagery and the links between product features, brand names, advertisements, and emotional drivers be validly assessed quantitatively? How can we marry the creative brilliance of good qualitative work with the rigors of quant?

Non-Projective Attempts to Quantify Emotional End Benefits

Traditionally, rich imagery obtained from projectives done in focus groups or individual interviews is quantified via simple attribute checklists or semantic differentials. These are limited direct methods that leave little or no room for the respondent's free associations and imagination. It also, re-introduces social desirability bias and other confounds which we went through so much trouble to remove in the qualitative phase. In our opinion, using attribute checklists for emotional end benefit quantification effectively remove the "soul of research" in an attempt to achieve statistical stability.

Another (better) method of attempting to uncover emotional benefits quantitatively is referred to as ”laddering” or the “benefit chain” (also implemented qualitatively). In this technique, the moderator probes with the question ”what is the benefit of that” until an emotional end benefit is reached (a statement supporting the user's self esteem). Consider the following fictitious example:

  • M: Why do you purchase Sunkist?
  • R: I like the orange taste.
  • M: What's good about the orange taste?
  • R: It reminds me of eating real oranges.
  • M: What's good about eating real oranges?
  • R: They are good for you and they also taste good, that's pretty rare because usually if something is good for you it tastes like sh_t
  • M: What's good about eating something good for you that tastes good?
  • R: Well, I guess it makes me feel like a healthy, responsible person while I get to indulge a little bit.

In this (admittedly simplistic) example, through a series of direct questions, the moderator was able to identify two emotional end benefits associated with the Sunkist brand --> "makes me feel like a healthy person” and ”makes me feel like a responsible person.” When done on a large sample and if the initial stimulus and end benefit are tracked, correspondence analyses can be conducted to determine the level of association between them in the population. Maps can also be drawn showing hypothetical relationships between multiple sets of stimuli and end benefits.

Laddering is an extremely useful qualitative technique for understanding HOW and WHY a particular feature links to a particular emotional end benefit. However, laddering is limited as a method for quantifying emotional end benefits because:

  • It too is non-projective in nature, relying upon direct questions which are subject to social desirability biases and the other response-inhibiting factors noted above. (The consumer is aware of the relationship being investigated).
  • Assessing the strength of the association between the functional features and the emotional end benefits in each respondent is essentially limited to a YES/NO response. (Either a stimulus will lead to a particular emotional response or it will not). There is no provision for assessing the LEVEL OR STRENGTH of the association.
  • Each functional benefit/brand name/concept, etc. is artificially associated with only ONE emotional benefit (usually the strongest link) in each respondent. In reality, a given functional benefit may be associated with SEVERAL emotional end benefits. There is often no provision made for computing the relationship between a given feature and the many emotional benefits with which it is associated ON THE INDIVIDUAL RESPONDENT LEVEL. (It is possible to see these relationships over a large population - but there are limitations to how this data can be used in predictive multivariate techniques)
  • Laddering tells you the relationship between features and emotional end benefits, but it doesn't necessarily tell you which emotions are most important! (So how do you know which features and functions to highlight?)

Projective Quantitative Techniques.

There are a very few techniques available to the marketing research community which provide the benefits of projectives (removing social desirability bias, hiding the variable, etc.) in a quantitative environment. In this article, we will briefly highlight what we believe to be the best ever devised, our proprietary Interface Research Methodology.(TM) was designed as a projective alternative to laddering. (If you would like to read about our method for quantifying the projective technique of guided imagery – as described the qualitative example given above - please see our article published in Quirks Marketing Research Review "Making Projective Projectable"). Interface ™ aims to:

  • Determine which feelings are most motivating in your category
  • Link your product's full spectrum of features/benefits as well as the brand image and/or concepts to a comprehensive profile of emotional benefits. (Providing you with a table that shows the level of association between each functional benefit and each emotional benefit)
  • Provide perceptual maps of what your consumer's emotional world looks like. (Where your brand, the competition, and each functional benefit in the category stands).
  • Do all of the above projectively, without the consumer's awareness, in order to remove the confounds discussed throughout this article.

Interface uses facial pictures as placeholders in order to provide consumers with the protection necessary for emotional probing. A brief review of the technique is shown below (for a detailed review, demonstration, and case example please see the Interface Research website.)

How does Interface use projective techniques?

Suppose you were shown a set of pictures (photos?) of people's faces and were asked:

  • To get a sense of their personalities
  • To choose four pictures with very different personalities
  • To provide a lot of imaginary detail about each of these four pictures until you felt like you knew the people. (How old are they? Are they married? Have kids?
  • Once you felt like you knew these four people, what if we asked, "How important do you think it is to each of these people to feel attractive?"
  • Finally, what if we also asked, "Assuming each of these people was about to buy a piece of eyewear, how important do you think having transparent frames would be?"

Since we would then have both functional and emotional data about your perception of each picture, we could take your answers and see if the people who you assumed highly valued feeling attractive were thought more likely to prefer transparent frames? (Of course we could do this on a larger set of functional and emotional benefits). We could do this math "behind the scenes." We would never have to ask you ANYTHING about your own feelings, nor ANYTHING about how these feelings linked to specific features, although we would nonetheless be able to quantify the association between feeling attractive and transparent frames in your mind. Later, if we knew how important each functional benefit was to you (”transparent frames,” “sharp vision,” etc.), we could combine that with the associations computed above in order to determine the importance of the emotional benefits.

That's how our technique works. The participant assigns emotional values to a set of pictures and is asked to rate product features, brands, and concepts overall using this same set of pictures. Statistical links are calculated behind the scenes. We then combine these links with the importance assigned to functional benefits by the respondent to derive the importance of the emotional benefits.

Interface™ produces three very important types of output, all based upon projective data. All tables can be run or compared for ANY defined demographical or market segment.

  • The Emportance™ table rank orders the importance of the emotional
  • The Emotrix™ table shows the direct link of features and functional benefits to the emotions shown in Emportance.
  • The Emotional Field Map™ graphically displays the position of your product or service, each of its features, your competition, the ideal company, and ANY additional advertising stimulus such as concepts, names, commercials, etc.

In addition to the three tables above, Interface™ can also produce "EDEAL™ DISTANCE CALCULATIONS." Edeal distance is a multivariate analysis which assigns a single number to each product feature. This number represents the extent to which that feature is associated with ALL of the most important emotional benefits identified in the Emportance tables. Of course, all output can be directed to a standard SPSS or SAS file to be analyzed in any conventional manner.

How is Interface™ Administered?

Executive Solutions has built an Internet-ready custom software protocol for administering the technique. Interface ™can be administered to an online audience (we have partnered with and linked our system to their national panel), or, for tighter quality control it can be centrally recruited and supervised by interviewers in person. You can review this technique and its administration in detail at

What type of quality controls are available in Interface™?

Inteface™ has several functions and mathematical formulas built into it to ensure quality input AND output, regardless of whether it is administered online or in person:

  • MEASURES OF ATTENTION: Because respondents tend to become fatigued when taking surveys, Interface ™ monitors the degree of attention they are paying to the test throughout. It not only reminds them gently when they need a break (if their ratings become more random later in the test as compared to the first few questions), but it also records their level of attention. This way, output can later be produced which filters out people who responded too randomly or showed other signs of fatigue. (You can also weight the data to give the most importance to good attenders).
  • GOODNESS OF FIT: The formulas upon which Interface™ is based require that the pictures chosen are perceived as fairly different from one another. (The statistical links are based upon correlations which are not as accurate if the range of observations is restricted). The system not only encourages the user to choose different pictures, but records how well this task was accomplished. This statistic “goodness of fit” can be used in the output to filter out respondents who chose pictures perceived as too similar

How do I learn more?

Interface was developed by consumer psychologist Dr. Sharon Livingston, owner of Executive Solutions, Inc and The Looking Glass Market Research Facility. Click the contact link at right and shoot us an e-mail or give us a call.

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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