Jaisy Desai

We have come a long way in qualitative research in unearthing the consumer’s subconscious and deep diving into their motivations. Most of our discovery of the consumer’s mind is largely through verbal responses aided by validated projective techniques.

The next milestone in qualitative research is our attempt to focus on the unsaid, the un-deciphered and somewhat unfathomable …  the secrets– what consumers didn’t say.

Some of the best musicians play fewer notes than you actually hear. They play in such a way and leave enough space that your mind fills in. While artists understand that negative space carries weight. The ‘white space’, as referred to by graphic designers, enhances content, even though they are empty of content.

In consumer research the ‘white spaces are those moments when consumers are unable to express themselves, which will be referred to as ‘blank spaces henceforth. Very often we do not attempt to address the ‘blank spaces’ that occur in a consumer’s thought process. They seem empty because we can’t hear them but they are in reality potent. There are many secrets embedded, including the consumer’s own construction of reality or their personal constructs.

A construct we know is describes what cannot be seen. Starting when we are born and guiding us through our pre-language state of being, it performs like a mental ‘heartbeat’ … so vital to survival, but so automatic that it goes unmonitored. Constructs fill the ‘blank spaces’, unspoken yet underlying our behaviour.

As researchers we are constantly in the pursuit for methods to unravel these ‘blank spaces’.

A new method of eliciting information
Significance of using visuals: Words and numbers have been the medium thus far. Numbers we know are specific and consumers don’t always tell you the full story for different reasons:

  • Consumers can’t speak the language as fluently
  • Consumers cant express themselves completely with words
  • Consumers don’t trust you and you can’t trust what they tell you.

Visuals therefore are used as medium for expression for the consumers. This method was developed with clinical psychologists to create a complete visual decoding system.  It uses the power of images to reveal the subconscious or the personal constructs underlying consumer behaviour that provides clients with unparalleled insights into key decision drivers.

For example, in a typical communication study the consumers select three images to specific questions addressing the brand pre and post communication. The images selected by the consumers are analysed, with the help of software, on 146 codes categorised under broad themes such as content, colour, shape, essential function etc. The dominant codes are used to interpret the meanings underlying their reactions to the brand. These visuals selected by the consumers help us understand the following in a communication study:

  1. To identify the basic meaning or constructs that define the consumer’s behaviour or response to a stimulus/advertisements
  2. To unearth underlying meanings and emotions associated with a stimulus

Eliciting deeper and emotional meanings
In a typical communication evaluation study, consumers express their likes/dislikes, comprehension, etc.  However we fail to elicit the deeper meaning underlying the likes or dislikes or even the emotional intensity. Let us look at some typical consumer reactions to a print advertisement for an alcoholic drink …

 “It shows a group of people enjoying themselves and having a good time”

“This is a group of friends drinking together like we always do after work…… there is nothing particularly new in this situation….”

“It is not for people like me … it is for people who live in the cities”

Quotes like this are a replay but lacking the emotional intensity underlying their reactions. We assume the consumer likes the ad because he sees people enjoying and having a good time. But we are not sure if there is something missing or unsaid or what is lacking in the ad that it fails to engage him.

The analysis of the visual codes unearthed an interesting twist, a deeper meaning underlying their lack of emotional intensity.  While consumers (users of competitive brands) related to the group of youngsters shown in the communication, at a rational level it failed to engage them. And reasonably so … imagine a youth in a small town setting, who sets out to drink surreptiously, being careful not to let people see/know and who takes a lot of effort to keep his secret to himself especially when he reaches home. To this young man who makes a tremendous effort to hold a bottle, the ad lacks engagement because the brand fails to render something of value to him. The communication to him implied ‘facelessness’, signifying that the brand does not promise to ‘create an identity for himself within the group’. The reward in comparison to the effort taken was not sufficient.

All he could say about this when questioned directly was that this brand is not for people like him and he goes on to describe the profile of a person unlike him. But through visual codes he expressed that what he truly desired was a brand that helped him create an identity for himself within the group … not showing off/dominating the group but setting him apart.

The visual codes unearthed a different twist among the current loyal users of the brand. The loyalists desired a brand that evoked the best in them – they are looking for an active brand, a brand focused towards personal refreshment of them. A brand that helps them releases their better self.

The visual codes help consumers extend their vocabulary and express the blank or empty spaces, which very often lie untouched for want of words or vocabulary or even the thought.

Jaisy Desai is a Director with Synovate, Mumbai.