Research—You're Doing It Wrong. How Uncovering The Unconscious Is Key To Creativity

If you think consumers are telling you what they want in traditional research, you’re wrong. Deutsch’s Douglas Van Praet argues that marketers must look to unconscious behavior for real creative breakthroughs.

Businesses invest billions of dollars annually in market research studies developing and testing new ideas by asking consumers questions they simply can’t answer. Asking consumers what they want, or why they do what they do, is like asking the political affiliation of a tuna fish sandwich. That’s because neuroscience is now telling us that consumers, i.e., humans, make the vast majority of their decisions unconsciously.

Steve Jobs didn’t believe in market research. When a reporter once asked him how much research he conducted to develop the iPad, he quipped, "None. It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want." And according to some measures, the iPad became the most successful consumer product launch ever and Apple went on to become the most valuable company of all-time.

Marketers are living a delusion that the conscious mind, the self-chatter in their heads and the so-called "verbatims" in surveys and focus groups, are the guiding forces of action. They are talking to themselves, not to the deeper desires of people, rationalizing the need for the wrong tools aimed at the wrong target, and the wrong mind. They have hamstrung an industry based upon backwards thinking by encouraging concepts that beat the research testing system, rather than move people in the real world. Not surprisingly, there is a sea of sameness and mediocrity and merely 2 out of 10 products launched in the U.S. succeed. The truth is the unconscious mind, the seat of our motivations, communicates in feelings, not words.

Einstein once said: "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift." Creativity, the indispensable fuel of economic growth, is being killed by a corporate culture of wrongheadedness. It’s time to stop the violence! It’s time to honor the gift of the unconscious mind!

I know this firsthand because I have been "that guy." I am a brand strategist, a market researcher, a sometimes bearer of bad news and unfortunately, a killer of creativity based upon flimsy reasoning and flawed research. "Don’t kill the messenger," I’d jest. "Let’s kill your idea instead," I’d mutter beneath my breath. My frustration with the tools of my trade led me to search for a more enlightening message.

I found it not in the research of marketers but in the research of cognitive authorities in evolutionary psychology, neurobiology, and behavioral economics. I became a behavioral change therapist specializing in unconscious behaviorism, helping people change their lives for the better, the same things they seek in brands. I reverse-engineered what I learned, starting with the things that were proven to yield real results in real people. I created a seven-step process to behavior change, one that I have been applying to ad strategies with remarkable success ever since.

These are the seven steps: 1) Interrupt the Pattern, 2) Create Comfort, 3) Lead the Imagination, 4) Shift the Feeling, 5) Satisfy the Critical Mind, 6) Change the Associations, and 7) Take Action.

These steps also explain the success of highly effective iconic campaigns created by those that have perhaps intuited these laws of influence. Take for instance the famous Old Spice campaign created by Wieden+Kennedy that leveraged the first of my seven steps: Interrupt the Pattern.

Freud once conceded: "Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me. Poets are masters of us ordinary men, in knowledge of the mind, because they drink at streams which we have not yet made accessible to science." Great ad people are like these poets. Fortunately neuroscience is now empowering access to the streams of our collective unconscious, a new view that will help create and sell better ideas. Let’s deconstruct a brilliant case of effective use of "pattern interrupts."

Brands are learned behaviors or expectations of outcomes based upon past experience that eventually become second nature. The pathway to our unconscious and the best way to learn something is through conscious attention. And nothing focuses our attention better than surprise and novelty. That’s because our brain is a pattern recognizer or prediction machine. It learns through the satisfying release of dopamine, the "feel good" chemical messenger of "wanting" behavior. And novelty activates this system. The purpose of this surge in dopamine is to draw attention to potentially important information and a possible new pattern by sending a signal to the brain to take notice and learn, which happens to be the key roles of advertising.

Old Spice transformed its stodgy image with an infectious campaign that was brimming with these pattern interrupts, creating a cooler contemporary image. It introduced the world to the charismatic hunk of Isaiah Mustafa or "the man your man could smell like." The magic behind this effort is not just the smooth pitchman of body wash, but the equally smooth and unsuspecting "interrupts."

One of these spots has the great-smelling Isaiah go, in the span of a mere 30 seconds, from standing at an outdoor shower to log rolling in the wilderness, to carrying a gourmet cake, to remodeling a kitchen with a power saw, to swan diving off a waterfall into a hot tub, and finally . . . as the walls of the hot tub collapse, we are left with him straddling a classically cool motorcycle. Our brains are surprised and amused . . . again and again and again . . . with the reward of dopamine and the payout of attention. With an amazing 1.4 billion impressions, it captured more than attention—it changed behavior, spiking sales over a year ago by 27% in the six months since the launch. One of the original commercials for this campaign alone has generated a massive 43 million views on YouTube to date.

These are not creative self-indulgences but hardworking devices that universally galvanize our focus and spark a rush of good vibes that we all instinctively share. And that dopamine high is essentially that elusive viral "buzz" marketers demand from their agencies but also make so difficult to create.

Douglas Van Praet is the author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing. He is also Executive Vice President at agency Deutsch L.A., where his responsibilities include Group Planning Director for the Volkswagen account. Van Praet’s approach to advertising and marketing draws from unconscious behaviorism and applies neurobiology, evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics to business problems.

[Image: Flickr users Sarah Faulwetter, RawheaD Rex, and Sol Goldberg]

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  • Michael Aldridge

    Great article and I agree with pretty much everything, but I have to ask how can individual inventors expect to receive investment without market research? It is so ingrained in that business process.

    Also you could have the best product in the world, but if the consumer doesn't yet know they want it (as was the case with the iPad). Then how can you get the consumer to purchase it without the marketing might that Apple has?

    Its a shame, but so many incredible products will never become successful because they can't find there way into the desires of the consumer.

  • Marge

    What a brilliant article! Thank you,
    Marge Hughes - Co -owner and producer of AIR Films cc

  • Tanita

    I love your approach and agree that research needs to go beyond and dig deeper in uncovering 'real' truths. Thank you.

  • Richard Smith

    Interesting article...and I can see how your method might work.

    As a market researcher myself, I absolutely agree that a lot of market research is junk because it focuses on asking consumers direct questions...and receives post rationalisation as an output.

    Ask most people why they did something or bought something and you'll typically get one of two responses:
     1. an attempt to rationally justify what they did
     2. something vague like, 'it just seemed like a good idea at the time'

    I guess Steve Jobs, Henry Ford and friends intuitively knew that responses of type 1. were likely to be inaccurate, untrue and misleading. And they were probably right.

    Understanding type 2. answers should be what market research  (particularly qualitative research) does well. What often gets in the way of this is...
     - a desire from the client (or more likely the client's minions) to ask far too many 'micro level' questions. 
     - a continued belief in 'group-think' - when did you last make a decision with 7 strangers?
     - a lack of patience to truly understand people in their infinite variety and irrationality - it's much easier to put people into boxes

    The best way I've found of understanding how people think is to get them to tell stories and then listen closely as to how they connect things in their mind; ideas, themes, influences, identity states etc. I'm sure there are many other ways of making this happen, but we've found that the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET) is pretty good at this. 

    If I've learned anything over the past decade of using ZMET it's that you have to understand the person first if you're to have any hope of understanding why they do what they do and why they think how they think. It's the dislocation and arbitrary aggregation of data that distorts and misleads.

  • Guest

    "Great ad people are like these poets." Nope. Not even going to touch the science–

  • Jeffrey

    Nice critique on market research, but you should have researched your quotes better. Einstein was not a spiritual chap and almost certainly never said "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift..."

  • Ja

    No question the subconscious is a major factor in decisions. And this article offers much good perspective upon that fact and its' importance in launching or promoting any product. However, suggesting that marketing research is of little value is myopic. If done correctly, it has value. If done incorrectly, like anything else, it is without value. 

  • mtowers

    This article is just another example of ignorance of the market research industry and its roles in product development.  Good qualitative research is all about uncovering unconcious needs and the language that consumers use to express those needs.  Most research is used to inform developers, marketers etc about how and what is most palatable to potential customers.  IT IS NOT ASKING customers to create or design new products.  Bad research is an entirely different issue - don't use it and stop using as your only reference point.  "unfortunately, a killer of creativity based upon flimsy reasoning and flawed research"  Don't do bad research or use poor reasoning.

    I have found more often that the problem is that stakeholders often misuse research so it often is not the research findings but how they are used. 

    The whole field of qualitative market research was started by
    psychologists figuring they could use their education to help businesses
    better understand their customers perceptions, attitudes, opinions and
    behaviors (POBAs- from RIVA training). 

    Another flaw in the thinking is to use the exception to confirm the rule.  Jobs, Old Spice etc are exceptions.  The majority of sucessful products and services use some form of consumer feedback before they launch.  For every Iphone there are thousands of products that failed because consumers did like them, or they were poorly positioned of messaged. 

    Just an idea but maybe Apple hires exceptional designers.  Not all companies do or can hire the best designers.  Last word on Apple, for most of its history, it has been a minor player in the PC market with the more prosaic companies owning market share.  It has some nice designs but really, its profitability, marketing and stock price are what much of the hype is about.

    Bottom line if you want to really delve into the creative realm unfettered, by the irksome requirement for someone to actually buy your idea or product, be an artist.  If, on the other hand, you need to actually sell products to the mass market do some good research before dumping millions into a new product.

  • mtowers

    Qualitative research encompasses a wide range of methodologies and techniques that are the outgrowth or extension of psychology and sociology.  It isn't just focus groups.

    "Consumers in focus groups can't guide product development because they
    don't know what is palatable to them outside the context of the focus
    group"  So are saying that consumers in a focus groups somehow are so mezmerized by the context that they no longer have valid opinions about what they like and don't like.  Sorry that is just absurd and arrogant.  Consumers can easily say what they like and don't like in a focus group.  What designers are often confused about is that most consumers are not very helpful in suggesting design solutions.  Consumers can suggest features and tell you they prefer large fonts to small fonts but they are not good a redesigning or creating products.  If you are asking consumers to create a new product, you are doing product development not research. 

    Even if you believe the qualitative research cannot help consumers and researchers uncover subconscious thoughts, the larger point is that they provide information that companies can use/or not when developing and marketing their products.

    "The best route forward is to test and learn.  Develop your business so
    that it can take more ideas further, rather than falsely pinning your
    hopes on one that is supported by a set of internal and research-based
    biases that have no psychological validity." - First the qualitative research industry was started by psychologists and many researchers have a backgrounds in psychology or are trained by them.  Secondly, what basis or validity does your testing method provide?  One of the things that external research does is to remove internal biases (and sometimes politics) by engaging an objective observer trained in asking questions and interpreting responses. 

    You may have researched extensively and concluded that consumers don't know what they want but the vast majority of consumer facing customers have concluded otherwise and invest billions of dollars to hedge their bets.

  • Philip Graves

    The flaw in this (MTOWERS') argument is that what we're talking about here is the unconscious mind.  Consumers in focus groups can't guide product development because they don't know what is palatable to them outside the context of the focus group.  Human beings are extraordinarily contextually-sensitive creatures: the context created by the focus group is so dramatically distant from the actual consumer context as to render what people say there meaningless.  

    The unconscious mind is processing massive quantities of contextual information every second, the conscious mind is totally oblivious to this and has no access to the filtering that is taking place.  The consequence is that the 'feelings' people voice in the artificial context of research have no connection to the 'feelings' they will experience in the consumer world. Instead we get over-rationalisation and post-rationalisation - the stories we like to tell ourselves to protect our delusions of being conscious agents.

    There are research alternatives to focus groups that are better, but they still aren't very good.  That's worth knowing because there is every chance that good ideas are killed off in a research-led innovation process: balancing this risk is important.  It's also worth knowing because there is no crystal ball and it is far better to take ideas to market with the awareness that they may or may not succeed.  This has implications for how you structure innovation, how you test, how far you commit to a new idea, and how you learn from what happens.

    The best route forward is to test and learn.  Develop your business so that it can take more ideas further, rather than falsely pinning your hopes on one that is supported by a set of internal and research-based biases that have no psychological validity.

    Having researched and written extensively on this topic, the evidence that people are poor witnesses to their own wants and needs is overwhelming: as is the evidence that asking people about new products is fraught with risk.  I'm not against a designer talking to consumers as he or she develops a product, it can be very useful, but the pseudo science that market research interjects is bogus: aggregated opinions are worthless and the designers involved would do much better not to pay someone to 'moderate' the interface between the consumer and their ideas.  

  • bwe

    I couldn't agree with you more, mtowers. Research should be used as directional feedback. Marketers who don't understand that either take it literally or avoiding it altogether (Jobs). Completely flawed logic either way.

    That said, I do agree with pattern interrupt point. It works. At Netflix we had trouble getting people to understand that we had TV shows when we said "unlimited movies & TV episodes". Simply reversing the order, "unlimited TV episodes & movies" did the trick. Another great example on-air today is the Discover Card commercials that end with a rhythm-breaking "5% cash back".

  • Jeanlouis Papier

    It's too easy to explain things afterwards with made-up processes ! Example : Old Spice worked because it followed my 1 step strategy : be fun.  

  • Gettom

    I just saw Douglas give a presentation of Deutsch's Volkswagen Campaign. Brilliant.

  • Linda Williams

    I'm intrigued.  Could these steps be applied to help people with Parkinson's Disease create more Dopomine???? 

  • Justin Masterson

    Spot on, insightful, and tremendously relevant.  The more I read about new discoveries in our behavioral mechanisms and path-to-decision-making (if it can really be called a "decision"), the more I am convinced that contemporary question-and-answer market research should be relegated to the small (yet still meaningful) role that conscious thought plays in the decision-making process.  The market researchers who will add the most value moving forward are those who know how to evaluate that which the consumer cannot tell you, but which exists and as a fundamental, deep and probably longer-lasting truth of the subconscious.  Kudos for your boldness in establishing the problem!  Now for the pesky issue of what to do about it.  Market research in its traditional form may be less relevant, but market research in its evolving form will be more necessary than ever... and it will be a Wild West land-grab for those who can successfully tap the unconscious.

  • Ben Doepke

    interesting discussion linking neuroscience to collective unconscious. keep up the good work. first response: in context of activating the unconscious, ritual is a key component. commercially, no one has defined ritual sufficiently, so no one is using it well; the opportunity to brands and the lives of their (potential) consumers is astonishing. second response: market research should serve the function of identifying tension in the life of the consumer through post-interview analytics (relying less, if at all, on verbatim). marketing then works iteratively and imaginatively to resolve that tension through a singular benefit. then in MR, these benefits should simply "create comfort" and "satisfy the critical mind" as you've said. expecting more than that from the consumer's conscious response certainly puts leading-edge ideas on the chopping block. i hope to continue the conversation.

  • EmilyOpines

    I think great marketing has always tapped into the consumer unconscious, whether by accident or design on the part of the marketers. I agree with previous comments that note the issue is an over-reliance on fundamentally flawed research methods without a healthy amount of gut-checking.

  • Insider

    Agreed about Steve Jobs. You can't rely on having truly talented people with gifts of strategy in any industry (e.g. consumer products, world domination, etc.) Look at Apple now that he's gone? They're a mess! The iPhone5 royally screwed up the Maps feature and got horrendous and deserved PR for it. Look at Polaroid - started by a genius, now being sold for parts. I don't believe in this neuroscience stuff either, certainly not for every product. People lie, to everyone. Family>Friends>Hairdressers>Therapists. The problem with research is the company isn't ready, but they do it anyway. Look at Google - they use the world as their beta-tester and suffers brand image for it (remember Wave? Buzz? +?) The number of times I'm being asked to get feedback on a product held together by tape...Your product or idea above all needs to be READY to test -if you haven't thought of your customer's questions, you're not ready. Get talented people, give them space and pay them enough to create good products and ideas, then TEST their ideas. It's simple, but it's not cheap.