“About 95% of all thought, emotion, and learning occur in the unconscious mind – that is, without our conscious awareness.”

       -Gerald Zaltman, in How Customers Think

This is a basic premise of almost everything we write about here at Neuromarketing – that customers generally can’t understand or explain why they make choices in the marketplace, and that efforts to tease out that information by asking them questions are doomed to failure. Furthermore, marketing efforts based mostly on customer statements and self-reports of their experiences, preferences, and intentions are likely equally doomed.

How Customers Think – Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market by Gerald Zaltman is a must read for anyone interested in neuromarketing. Zaltman is a Professor of Marketing at Harvard Business School and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Mind, Brain, Behavior Initiative. Subtitles are de rigeur for business books, and the cover of this one features an alternate tag line, “What Consumers Can’t Tell You and Competitors Don’t Know.” It was published in 2003, but has plenty of relevancy for today’s marketers.

How Customers Think may read more like a textbook than a business how-to book, but in many cases that turns into a strength. Virtually every statement is footnoted, which both adds credibility and provides a jumping-off point for further research on a particular topic. It’s a wide-ranging book, covering such diverse topics as priming, focus group failures, the fallibility of memory, branding, creativity, and much more. This diversity likely means that not all topics will interest every reader, but hard core marketers will find lots concepts to chew on.

Zaltman spends quite a bit of time on metaphors:

By inviting consumers to use metaphors as they talk about a product or service, researchers bring consumers’ unconscious thoughts and feelings to a level of awareness where both parties can explore them more openly together.

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Zaltman believes that the words that people use when talking about a subject reveal as much as the content. He gives a variety of metaphorical speech in customer interviews. “Liquid” metaphors are identified by words like “spout, leak, poour, spit, brim over, dry up, in midstream,torrent, stream,” and others. In a study related to creativity in globally networked organizations, one CEO commented, “One breakthrough idea can be a tidal wave sending people scurrying to higher ground for protection… But people are just afraid to swim in moving waters, they prefer wading in a stagnant pool.” Zaltman thinks the language used better reflects subconscious thought than mere statements. He provides a “metaphor elicitation technique” to use in interviews. Such an interview might begin with showing the subject an ambiguous picture and asking how it relates to the topic being studied. Followup questions probe to elicit metaphorical speech and avoid directing the subject toward specific thoughts or goals.

Another technique described by Zaltman is “response latency.” By monitoring precisely how long it takes subjects to respond to a question (by pressing a key on a computer keyboard, for example) to pairings of words or images, true thoughts and feelings can be ascertained. In essence, the presence or absence of “noise” in the subjects’ thoughts is being measured. This type of study can help researchers probe implicit beliefs that exist outside conscious awareness. The book briefly touches on neuroimaging techniques like fMRI studies, but that area clearly isn’t Zaltman’s focus.

Memory and its fragility is the subject of an entire chapter. Zaltman shows how memory can be fallible, selective, conscious or unconscious, altered by subsequent information, influenced by mood, and in general a lot less reliable than most people think.

We’ll undoubtedly refer to How Customers Think from time to time in future posts – this is one reference we’ll keep handy.

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