Friday, July 31, 2009

Testing Brand Extensions Pictographically

M&M backpacks and camping gear might not work but M&M lunch boxes make sense. Hershey tennis shoes are a stretch but a Hershey hot drink holder may fly.

Certainly M&Ms and Hershey have extended their reach in a variety of areas, but when is it too much?

Derrick Daye and Brad VanAuken in their excellent blog Branding Strategy Insider at point out that a brand is damaged when there is not a good match or when the brand is extended too far. Their Packard car example is almost folk wisdom. By offering a cheaper model, this damaged the demand for the most expensive and prestigious model and it fell out of favor. Apparently, Packard executives forgot to “Ask the man who owns one.”

I suggest that pictographic research may be an excellent way to test brand extensions. Simply picture the purchasing situation, place the brand on the proposed extension, and listen to potential consumers. You won’t have to ask leading questions and you will get some very unexpected, but relevant, information. For more info e-mail

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Cynical Consumer is the New Reality

Wall Street compensation, governmental bailouts, lost money in the stock market, lower home prices, record bankruptcies, high unemployment and falling credit ratings have made consumers more cynical. Some companies have recognized the new reality, others have not. For example, Hyundai instituted a “job guarantee” program and was widely copied but insurance companies, financial services, and banks seem to be unable to come up with resonant arguments to get people to trust them.

One recent radio ad stated that this particular financial institution will weed out bad brokers. Yep, make them accountable. Why not just say, “We know you lost half your money in the stock market, but we are ready to give you another chance!”

The point is the game has changed and old words take on new meaning. The denotation may be the same but the connotation is different. Words like money, security, insurance, investing, luxury, expertise, trust and honesty tend not to evoke warm and fuzzy feelings like they did in the past. They, in fact, may now be dissonant. You may be thinking “filet mignon” and they are thinking “dead cow.”

How to avoid this type of disconnect? You need to do some open-ended research, preferably the non-directive kind, and I suggest pictographs. You may want to start out with the phrase that was used by Sergeant Schultz in the old Hogan’s Heroes TV show—“I know nothing.” For more info e-mail

Friday, July 17, 2009

Life Jackets and Pictographic Research

When the U.S. Coast Guard and Boat US contacted my company, Allegiance Research, to determine if boaters are more likely to wear inflatable life jackets as compared to the bulkier traditional life jackets, I knew that pictures or pictographs would have to be used to identify the different types of life jackets on the market.

For example there are off-shore, near-shore, flotation aids, special use, and the newer inflatable jackets. These different types would have to be “pictured” in the survey so respondents would know exactly which types they were evaluating. The pictographs were incorporated into a standard mail survey. This cleared up a lot of potential confusion and much useful information was developed

In follow-up interviews we used pictographs that showed people wearing the various life jackets and then respondents started telling stories. These stories provided a wealth of information beyond the mail survey and uncovered candid and detailed information. For example, how a person feels when confronted with a potentially-dangerous situation and will they be able to pull the cord for an inflatable jacket.

There are pros and cons for inflatable and traditional life jackets. Inflatables are more attractive and do not get in the way, but they are more expensive and you have to be able to inflate it to use it (which you cannot do if knocked unconscious). Traditionals are less attractive and bulky, but they are cheaper and you do not have to inflate it to use it. The challenge was to get into the minds of the users and let them talk without asking leading questions.

For more details, email

Friday, July 10, 2009

GM is in Dire Need of Good Qualitative Research

I recently read an article in the “Washington Post,” July 8, 2009 that says the quality of the Chevrolet Malibu is on par with, or better than, the Toyota Camry or Honda Accord. It reported that GM Chief Executive Henderson said, “The single most important thing that we can do is get the product right.” Mr. Henderson, you are only half right. Even if you get the product right, your potential customers must believe that you got the product right.

The article goes on to sight some very interesting focus group research. When shown the car without the Chevrolet logo and told it was rated North American car of the year by auto journalists and recommended by “Consumer Reports,” the respondents loved the car. Then they were told it is the new Chevrolet Malibu and they fell out of love. In other words, the people in the focus groups did not have faith in the Chevrolet brand.

Troy Clarke, President of GM North America, said “Attitudes about GM have hardened into something akin to religious faith, so changing minds won’t be easy.” He goes on, “I wish it were as simple as people are poorly informed and we just need to do a better job of informing them. I believe many people buy cars as a function of their belief system and not as an act of problem-solving. This is the problem that we face. It’s not a problem of giving you more data; it’s a matter of combating beliefs.”

Let’s see if I’ve got this: good car; bad beliefs; keep building good cars and this will eliminate bad beliefs. Of course, it’s necessary to build good products but you need to understand the potential customer and if I ‘m reading the situation correctly you are missing an important step.

GM executives understand that car purchasing is not particularly rational, and that more data, even favorable data, won’t work. Finally, emotion and beliefs are a large part of the equation.

GM, my area of expertise is context-driven qualitative research and here is what I would do. The goal is to understand the values related to purchasing an automobile. First it is necessary that respondents are appropriately selected. Next, pictographs are developed to understand what goes through the potential purchaser’s mind when considering purchasing a car. Competitive cars are evaluated as is GM corporate image and cars.

The goal is to allow respondents to discuss a variety of automobile related topics without asking specific questions. We are looking for beliefs, values, and vocabulary. Remember, consumers do not necessarily make sense to the researcher, but they make sense to themselves.

It is the respondents’ perspectives that will lay the basis for effective communication. There are positive beliefs and values to be found, and there are resonant statements to be developed, but they will remain undiscovered without using context-driven qualitative research.

For more information, e-mail

Monday, July 6, 2009

Critiquing Brain Scans and the Assumption That Purchasing is a Matter of Status and Self-Definition

John Tierney writes an article in his blog that is entitled, “Could it be that humans are not quite as gullible as advertised?”
He takes social psychologists to task when he says, “For a couple of decades now, social psychologists and behavioral economists have been amusing themselves manipulating consumers into doing odd things. They’ve delighted in debunking the notion of homo economicus, that theoretical creature who rationally seeks maximum economic utility.”

John doesn’t seem to be too fond of brain scans either. He says, “But suppose, instead of scanning people’s brains as they’re sipping wine in a laboratory, you tested them in a more realistic situation.” The results turn out to be quite different. “After three months of testing various combinations of prices, the researchers found they couldn’t sway the customers. Putting a higher price on the shrimp or any other entree didn’t make people more likely to order it.”

John critiques both MRI brain scans, which are all the rage at the moment, and the assumption that purchasing is a matter of status and self-definition. I think that John Tierney is on to something. Therefore, I replied in a comment,

Hi John,

You note that Geoffrey Miller, in his new book “Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior,” argues that “humans often waste money because of the unconscious- and mistaken- belief that our costly stuff will signal our intelligence and sterling personality traits to potential mates and allies.”

You then point out that in hypothetical situations manipulation seems to work, but in the real world people choose what they like on the basis of the product not the price. Finally, you note that in terms of really large purchases, people tend to be fairly happy with their purchases.

What is going on here? I suggest that consumer researchers are missing “context.” For example, as you note, in a restaurant where they’re spending their own money consumers were not easily manipulated.

I designed context-driven qualitative research and I “duplicate” the buying scenario. As a researcher I am frequently surprised by the results. Consumers invariably make sense, but only in terms of their own perspective. The lesson here is that we need to be non-directive and to provide some sort of context. For more details e-mail me at