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In developing my skills I did thousands of focus groups ranging over any topic you can name. I was repeatedly surprised by how little people had to say about brands and products and how they needed help to recover their significance.

In my Webinar on asking why I cover the main forms of difficulty that customers encounter in talking and responding meaningfully about brands. I call these difficulties, ‘don’t know’ , ‘can’t say’, ‘won’t say.’ Take 15 minutes to listen to the Webinar if you’re having problems getting people to talk about what the product or brand really means to them.

Because customers have been recruited to your session and want to help you, they will make up answers to almost any questions you ask about brands, advertising, offers or packaging. But many of these answers will be driven by the need to appear sensible, knowledgeable and helpful rather than by their actual feelings about the brand.

This is called Confabulation and is the bête noir of qualitative work.

So how can you explore what is truly significant about brands to customers? This is the technique I use most often; particularly in FMCG or areas where I know interest is superficial or resistance to the subject is great (e.g. banking and insurance).

 The Value of ‘Firsts’

They say we never forget our first time. Whether we are talking about love or a job or a trip abroad, a kiss, a plate of spaghetti, whatever. Freud was spot on when he based his model for thinking about human desires, fears and motivations on the idea that ‘Early Experiences Matter’.

So ask people in your session to, ‘Describe the first time you became aware of peanuts/smoked salmon or whatever your topic is. If working with a group ask each person to write for five minutes on a piece of A5 card on that topic. Ask them not to edit, just to let the words flow onto the page.

Next ask them to work in pairs, to read their writings to each other and see what they notice, things like similarities, differences, surprises, interesting observations. Then pool these memories with the whole group and allow the Embedded Emotional Associtations with the brand or service to emerge. Offer pointers if you notice associations and correspondences and see if the group agree.

Next, after praising and acknowledging the group’s work, make another request of them:

‘In your pairs think about what we have just learned, how do these things account for your relationship with this brand/product/service today’?

 Get the feedback. Some people will struggle or say it has no impact, but most will not.

Finally, the third step is to ask:

And what do you think these discoveries say about your likely relationship with this brand/product/service in the future?’

This is called ‘Future Pacing’ and is a great favourite in Neuro-Linguistic-Programming [NLP]

Do this before you launch new information in terms of stimulus material – ads, concepts, designs, promotions, into the session.

If you are unsure about the effect of your stimulus material and want more confidence in demonstrating the significance of your results to your client, use a ‘reverse design’. After the introductions and warm-ups, start some of your sessions with recovering significance and others with the new stimulus material. Then compare your findings and think about how the new and the old worked in terms of impressions and influence.