What are customers thinking?

Strategy & Leadership

ISSN: 1087-8572

Article publication date: 1 December 2004



Rader, D. (2004), "What are customers thinking?", Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 32 No. 6. https://doi.org/10.1108/sl.2004.26132fae.001



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

What are customers thinking?

David RaderSenior Director at E. & J. Gallo Winery, Modesto, CA, USA (dave.rader@ejgallo.com).

How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market

Gerald ZaltmanPublished by Harvard Business School Press, 2003

This book will help corporate managers better understand how all stakeholders – customers, colleagues, competitors, regulators – make decisions. Gerald Zaltman writes extensively on market research techniques, so his insights into human thinking are especially interesting to marketers trying to understand how customers make purchasing choices.

How Customers Think is consistent with the newest understandings in behavioral neuroscience. Dr Mark Solms, chair of the psychology department at the University of Cape Town, published an article in the May 2004 edition of Scientific American, "Freud returns" in which he sums up the current state of understanding: "When Freud introduced the central notion that most mental processes that determine our everyday thoughts, feelings and volitions occur unconsciously, his contemporaries rejected it as impossible. But today's findings are confirming the existence and pivotal role of unconscious mental processing. It is becoming increasingly clear that a good deal of our mental activity is unconsciously motivated."

Traditional market research tends to stop at the conscious (expressed after the fact) elements of a buying decision – such as, awareness, recall, features, and cost-benefit tradeoffs. Throughout the book Zaltman restates his assertion that "95 percent" of the explanation for a person's action or decision lies in the subconscious. He maintains that conscious thought is often an after-the-fact rationalization applied to help describe or categorize the act. Traditional market research techniques give incomplete information and the marketing managers' own minds fill in the rest. One expensive result: a high rate of new product failures.

In the words of the author: "Unconscious reactions to marketing stimuli are more accurate indicators of actual thought (and subsequent behavior) than the conscious reports consumers often provide." And also, "Marketers often try to infer consumers' thoughts from their spoken or written statements ... Managers and researchers capture the supposed thoughts behind these statements or behaviors and give them a label or name, such as 'brand loyalty.' Cognitive scientists call such labels 'constructs.' These constructs are not the actual thoughts or behaviors; rather, they represent marketers' interpretation of those thoughts or behaviors."

The author goes a step further to include insights from social science. For example, a major thesis of this book is that markets are complex compositions of people: consumers, business managers, and government officials. The mind of each person is influenced by the minds of those in their social group. Chapter 6 explores the interplay of the consumers' mind and the marketing managers' mind. William McCoomb, president of McNeil Consumer Healthcare, sums up this problem compellingly: "We slip from our obligation to know what consumers are thinking ... into believing they are like us; and from there we slide further into believing we can think for them and understand their actions."

The author presents numerous useful examples of correct and incorrect application of traditional consumer research techniques. In Chapter 4, on "Interviewing the mind/brain: metaphor", Zaltman provides a thorough explanation of using metaphors in one-on-one interviews versus the traditional focus group. He finds a lot of power in the use of metaphors to reveal what is really on people's minds when they make a selection.

"Metaphors both invoke and express images of all types – visual, tactile, and olfactory – in nonverbal form. Metaphors are so basic to the representation of thought and emotion that communicators and their audiences are largely unaware of their use ... The diversity of the metaphors we use and the way they interact with one another create an intricate web of meaning and open windows to our inner thoughts and feelings. Understanding the diversity and importance of deep metaphors in human expression helps marketers tap into consumers' unconscious minds and offer more effective communications and products that meet consumers' needs."

The author uses photos and pictures to elicit metaphors from survey subjects. He shows how to allow the interviewee to generate one or more metaphors associated with a product or shopping experience. There is an appendix that shows both how to and how not to engage in open dialog. When the interviews are done properly, with open-ended probing and clarifying questions, very valuable, and often counter-intuitive, insights can be obtained.

Chapter 6, on response latency, borrows techniques from psychology to probe disconnects between the conscious and unconscious mind. For example, the relative quickness of response can suggest the presence or absence of "noise" in their thoughts and feelings that would not be detected in other ways. Traditionally used in psychology, these techniques have consistently produced as good or better indicators of thought and action than questionnaire data.

Zaltman recommends a multi-disciplinary approach to marketing that includes ... "neurology, philosophy and zoology along with the more familiar fields of anthropology, psychology and sociology – to understand what happens within the complex system of mind, brain, body and society when consumers evaluate products." The techniques presented include consensus maps and storytelling.

I highly recommend this book for managers in consumer goods companies (all functions) or any business where market research needs to drill deep into what is really going on in the customers' mind. Chapters 11 and 12 are full of practical applications of his insights. Examples presented throughout the book are from automobiles, consumer packaged goods, financial services, healthcare, pharmaceuticals and professional services.

I plan to distribute copies for my colleagues in offices around the world.

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