A ladder is a tool designed to allow you to reach something otherwise unreachable. As a technique, “laddering” as compared to Q&A interviewing is a technique designed to acquire nuggets of information which are otherwise difficult to get at.

These hard to reach nuggets are of particular value when trying to understand purchasing decisions. Respondents in an interview will often struggle to articulate what led them to make a particular purchasing decision and so conventional methods will often only produce a very shallow understanding.

If we want to see further, we need a more creative, imaginative approach.

Kevin Keller defines it thus: “Brand Laddering involves progression from attributes to benefits to more abstract values or motivations. Laddering involves repeatedly asking what the implication of an attribute or benefit is for the customer.”

[He also suggests that there is a means-end chain which takes the following path: Attribute (descriptive features) lead to benefits (meaning attached to attributes) which leads to values (enduring personal goals and motivations).

Nonetheless, the cartoon above would be simply funny if it did not remind me of my own attempts to imbue brands with significance beyond their capacity. However did we think that buying a snack or a new pair of shoes could act as a lever to world peace, ultimate joy or the end of poverty? The answer is simple: wish fulfilment. As Freud pointed out, there is a strong unconscious drive to fulfil our wishes – some of them noble others more shady!

There are people in market research who at some level may regret tying their working lives to the promotion of goods and services that do not improve us as people or communities. They may be left with an unfulfilled desire to contribute to a better world.

This wish to build something better persists in us all and is reinforced by the nightly invasion of images of suffering and cruelty that haunt our living rooms from our TV screens – as we sit there sipping our drink or munching a snack. There is an unspoken feeling that we should do something, yet apart from giving to charity, what can we do? We are left feeling powerless, and guilty…

The unconscious mind, not using logic in the way that the trained mind does, attempts to rescue us by making a simple adjustment: why not connect the promotion of anything – including snacks & washing powder – with our ideal of a better world; perhaps then you may change the world as you crunch your crisps (chips). What a relief! Later, if struck by a feeling of ridiculousness at the naivety of this idea, we gather in workshops to ‘stretch the brand’. We employ what Janis (1972) called ‘groupthink’ – a mode of thinking where the desire for harmony and cohesiveness overcomes our realistic appraisal of alternatives. The most common technique to offset these incredible assumptions is the use of humour in slice-of-life advertising. (“We’re only joking – but enjoy!”)

If a facilitator creates the topic and process of the workshop with enough skill, the participants will play along with the assumptions of connection (with the odd exception!)

Laddering is itself no small idea, coming as it does from psychologist George Kelly who used it to understand the underlying beliefs driving our behaviour. Used in this way, within the integrity of a single person’s framework it is a mighty tool. Stretched to provide a ‘tool’ for giving our sales work greater significance and influence in the world, it can be a genuine breakthrough – or a comforting delusion. No wonder the flipcharts from that workshop are forgotten somewhere on a shelf in room D43.

[George Kelly, the inventor of laddering was a famed psychologist best known for his contributions to personal construct theory. He is commonly referred to as the father of cognitive clinical psychology and he played a role in the early development of the field of cognitive psychology.]