Qualitative research approaches

Here are some commonly used qualitative research approaches to getting inside consumers minds and finding out what they are thinking or feeling about brands and products.

Word associations: People can be asked what words come to mind when they hear the brand’s name. “What does the Timex name mean to you? Tell me what comes to mind when you think of Timex watches.� The primary purpose of free association tasks is to identify the range of possible brand associations in consumers’ minds. But they may also provide some rough indication of the relative strength, favorability, and uniqueness of brand association too.

Projective techniques: People are presented an incomplete stimulus and asked to complete it or given an ambiguous stimulus that may not make sense in and of itself and are asked to make sense of it. The argument is that people will reveal their true beliefs and feelings. One such approach is “bubble exercises� based on cartoons or photos. Different people are depicted buying or using certain products or services. Empty bubbles, like those found in cartoons, are placed in the scenes to represent the thoughts, words, or actions of one or more of the participants. People are then asked to “fill in the bubble� by indicating what they believed was happening or being said. Another technique is comparison tasks. People are asked to convey their impressions by comparing brands to people, countries, animals, activities, fabrics, occupations, cars, magazines, vegetables, nationalities, or even other brands.

Visualization: People can be asked to create a collage from magazine photos or drawings to depict their perceptions. ZMET is a research technique that starts with a group of participants, who are asked in advance to select a minimum of 12 images from their own sources (e.g. magazines, catalogs, and family photo albums) that represent their thoughts and feelings about the research topic. The participants bring these images to a personal one-on-one interview with a study administrator, who uses advanced interview techniques to explore the images with the participant and reveal hidden meanings. Finally, the participants use a computer program to create a collage with these images that communicates their subconscious thoughts and feelings about the topic. One ZMET study probed what women thought of party hose. Twenty hose – wearing women were asked to collect pictures that captured their feelings about wearing panty hose. Some of the pictures showed fence posts encased in plastic wrap or steel bands strangling trees, suggesting that panty hose are tight and inconvenient. Another picture showed tall flowers in a vase, suggesting that the product made a woman feel thin, tall, and sexy.

Brand personification: People can be asked to describe what kind of person they think of when the brand is mentioned: “If the brand were to come alive as a person, what would it be like, what would it do, where would it live, what would it wear, who would it talk to if it went to a party (and what would it talk about)?� For example, they may say that the John Deere brand makes them think of a rugged Midwestern male who is hardworking and trustworthy. The brand personality delivers a picture of the more human qualities of the brand.

Laddering: A series of specific questions can be used to gain insight into consumer motivation and consumers’ deeper and abstract goals. Ask why someone wants to buy a Nokia cellular phone. “They look well built� (attribute). “Why is it important that the phone be well built?� “It suggests that the Nokia is reliable� (a functional benefit). “Why is reliability important?� Because my colleagues or family can be sure to reach me� (an emotional benefit). “Why must you be available to them at all times?� I can help them if they are in trouble� (brand essence). The brand makes this person feel like a Good Samaritan, ready to help others.