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Subliminal Messages

Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman says focus groups are passé and surveys are overrated.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Aim for the unconscious.

That’s the advice of Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman, whose new book “How Customers Think” says that focus groups are passé, surveys overrated and the real gold mine lies in consumers’ unconscious, that “messy stew of memories, emotions, thoughts and other cognitive processes we’re not aware of or can’t articulate.”

“Consumers have far less access to their own mental processes than marketers give them credit for,” Zaltman added. “And many times, what they say contradicts what they actually do. “

To access what consumers can’t tell them, future marketing executives will be spending their time analyzing brain scans, using techniques like voice-pitch analysis to measure unconscious emotional responses and doing one-on-one “deep-dive” interviews to elicit core thoughts and emotions many people share.

Zaltman’s done much of this type of work for the Mind of the Market Lab, a think tank he co-founded and which has worked with Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Hallmark and other major corporations. In his Harvard University office cluttered with models of the human brain, Zaltman sat down to discuss his book, what he thinks is wrong with the shopping experience today and how retailers should refocus.

WWD: You mention in your book that one of the things that’s really changed the playing field for marketers is the growing skepticism, particularly among younger consumers.

Zaltman: The issue of skepticism is a major challenge. It’s getting worse. And lots of companies contribute to it. One of the things you used to do is go shopping. It was a journey. Now in many ways, shopping is coming to us, whether we like it or not. We can’t escape it. When we come home, there is all the mail we get. There are catalogs, the Internet, e-mails and commercials. The telemarketing calls. The retail setting is moving from outside the home to inside the home. And as it gets there, it’s hitting us in different moods and contexts.

WWD: You make it sound as if all this solicitation is forcing the consumer to hold shopping at arm’s length, for his or her sanity.

Zaltman: We’ve found it’s creating a sense of paradox, heightening the sense of play and work. Because there is that duality to shopping. The work element is when you need something and it’s difficult to locate choice, to make comparisons, which can make it kind of frustrating. But in the process of working to find what you want, there should be some unexpected discoveries that make it playful.

WWD: What have retailers done to heighten that sense of play?

Zaltman: Some of our studies involved the use of music. The research shows that even when people aren’t aware of music, it impacts their behavior and how they record in memory the shopping experience. The right kind of music can shape the mood, shape the mood of a memory and create a more pleasurable experience than different music or the absence of music. I think the role of music in shaping our mood and enhancing our thinking is not very well understood by marketers. The other thing that’s interesting is the role of light — people are very sensitive without knowing they’re being affected by light.

WWD: Is there one sense that’s more important than others in determining a good shopping environment?

Zaltman: It’s not so much lighting, or sound or fragrance or color as it is all of those things together. They all get processed at once and if some of them are out of sync, it’s like having a pebble in the shoe. For instance, if I ask, ‘Which is brighter, a sneeze or a cough?’ most people will answer sneeze. It’s an automatic answer and it doesn’t matter in which country you ask it, people will still say sneeze. It shows we have these automatic connections across our senses. We actually create our thoughts by integrating our senses.

WWD: Speaking of integrating senses, in your book you use the example of an ad for a cold drink with a picture of a koala bear, which confused consumers because a koala unconsciously cues warmth. Can you give me an example like that from the retail world of an environment that was somehow discordant?

Zaltman: People have said they don’t want to shop in settings that are dense, like tropical rain forests. One woman actually brought in a picture of a rain forest — and she said it was a department store because it’s dense with all kinds of stuff and signs and also causes anxiety. There is something there at every level and you’re not protected from being grabbed by the unknown. People describing the “rain forest” effect describe really bright lights or the smell of too many people. It was not a bad smell, but it was a crowded smell. The feeling of the aisles being very narrow and having to jostle other people. That gave them a sense of invasion of privacy or vulnerability. One person commented on the inability to have room to step back so she could hold something out and look at it.

WWD: Tell me about metaphor elicitation. That’s a key part of your work, since you believe there are many common stories or metaphors embedded in people’s unconscious.

Zaltman: Yes, we call them consensus maps — the reason they are so valuable is they turn out to be deep-seated and fairly universal. With metaphor elicitation, we make appointments with people for one-on-one interviews that take several hours. We tell them to bring images or pictures with them to describe feelings on a certain topic. By now, we’ve conducted interviews in two dozen countries with thousands of people. It can be enormously telling. For instance, we’ve asked managers to describe what a company is like that truly has someone’s best interest at heart. They brought in pictures of coaches and teachers with children. When we asked consumers to bring in pictures, they bring in members of a team in a huddle, kids playing together. Customers brought in pictures of equals. The managers brought in pictures of superior and inferior. And I think that’s very revealing. Not that there was ill intent, but it was the unconscious perception.

WWD: What kinds of pictures did people bring in for an ideal retail setting?

Zaltman: One person brought in a picture of a military tank — surprising, right? So I asked her, ‘Are you in the tank or outside?’ She said she was driving the tank. She felt like she could exert control over the store and it gave her a sense of dignity and equality. She felt she was protected when she went to this store and it was in a number of different ways — she felt she was protected from a salesperson and protected by sales personnel. The sense of them being available, but not intrusive. If something went wrong bringing something back was not a hassle. That was another sense of protection that produced her overall sense of security.

WWD: What else is important in an ideal setting?

Zaltman: What becomes important first of all is they have to feel comfortable physically in the store. Physical comfort is a surrogate for emotional comfort. If I’m not comfortable physically, I can’t feel relaxed and calm. I can’t feel open. If I’m uptight, I’m going to move more quickly and process information hurriedly. I need dressing rooms that are clean and feel somehow familiar, vaguely like a home setting.

WWD: What do clothing stores need to do differently or better to connect with customers?

Zaltman: One of the interesting things from this study is that so much of shopping is done for someone else. Even if it’s my own attire, I’m thinking about how it’s going to affect others. A lot of mothers see shopping with children of varying ages as part of their instructional experience. So even though parents may not like to take kids shopping, they feel an obligation to do so sometimes because it’s a way of transferring social norms. An important thing to look at is do stores help that or hinder shopping with children.

WWD: A big industry issue is the heavily promotional climate — training customers never to show up unless there’s a sale. What impact is that having on consumers’ perception of shopping?

Zaltman: One of the things people in studies say about a sale is, ‘It’s a reminder of how much you’re getting ripped off by.’ So if a retailer is willing to sell it at 30 percent off, that’s a direct measure of it. No one makes an exact dollar calculation, but the idea of being ripped off comes into play. It’s the dark side of a sale: the feeling that the markdown is the percentage by which they were trying to rip me off and now that they were unsuccessful, they’re coming down in price.

WWD: One of the more provocative ideas in your book is your assertion that memories are more malleable than anyone realizes and marketers can, in a sense, reengineer someone’s memory.

Zaltman: It’s interesting and it’s a bit scary. I don’t think marketers now are reengineering memories in a deliberate sense. I think they’re doing it inadvertently and probably not as effectively as they could. The reality is the opportunity to do that effectively is substantial. My guess is sooner or later more and more people will start to do that.

WWD: Flash forward 10 years — will marketers need to be much more scientifically literate than they are now?

Zaltman: I think that’s where they need to go and sooner or later they will. The advances occurring in brain science are vast whether its response latency tests, FMRI [functional magnetic resonance imaging] or one of the other techniques. They generally help researchers understand the unconscious, where the rich stuff is, and I think people will become more focused on how do we access that and measure it.

WWD: Are you worried these techniques will increase consumer distrust?

Zaltman: I think that’s a critical issue. The techniques are in a sense about interviewing the brain. But that gets transformed into worries about brain-washing and methods being used to insert ideas people didn’t have or don’t want to have. There’s something spooky about monitoring brain activity that worries people in a way that very sophisticated analysis of a survey does not. But I don’t think the ethics reside in the method. Rather I see right and wrong in how the insight is used once obtained. So, for example, I think most people would be delighted to see these methods — brain scans and so forth — used to evaluate which anti-smoking campaign would be effective. Maybe they wouldn’t be happy seeing that same information used by McDonalds. Ultimately, the real enemy is not a method, it’s people who use the results in ways we don’t approve of.