Stimuli is the plural of stimulus. In psychology, stimuli is any object or event that elicits a sensory or behavioural response in human (consumer research) studies. So what are the benefits of using creative stimuli in market research, particularly in qualitative research such as interviews and group discussions?
Forms of market research stimuli include;
In summary, using creative stimuli in market research helps:
Stimuli is very useful in the innovation and marketing process. Firstly, to understand and verify needs both now and in the future. Second, to develop concepts, products, services, as well as communications. Third, to future-proof ideas and strategies, and improve chances of marketing success. It is also useful in all markets, especially in service markets (to bring-to-life or make the intangible tangible). And in technology markets (where products are often a collection of features searching for a need).
This is in order to avoid ‘bias’ such as the ‘framing effect’; whereby the means of presentation, for example, quality of presentation, may affect perceptions. Thus all stimuli should be equally ‘rough’ or ‘polished’ etc. Further, when researching overseas, use the same images, and translate copy into natural language. This enables ‘fair’ comparison across countries.
In our experience it is impossible to prejudge which ideas will resonate. Thus creating ideas to cover all variables and more rather than less helps increase the chance of finding real winners. Do this by involving a diverse group of your colleagues, and agencies, and then working together to refine ideas.
Overly complex stimuli risks confusing, and thus will be discounted. So keep it simple; first summarise your idea, and then give a little more detail. Remember too that consumers buy benefits rather than features. So make sure they are crystal clear. Also that the features support the benefits.
Combined word and image stimuli work better than words or images alone. This is partly because they engage different parts of the brain. Including photos “mines deeper shafts into a different part of human consciousness than do words-alone” (1). Combined word and image stimuli also mimic real-life brand encounters, such as an advert or leaflet. Then, as consumers are familiar with adverts, and leaflets, this reduces misunderstanding, and helps them react to the stimuli in an every-day way. Equally, real-life stimuli is more powerful than mood-boards or written ‘concepts’. The latter are intermediary to communication development, rather than a direct form of communication, and thus alien to consumers.
This is in order to avoid ‘groupthink’ or herd behaviour. We do this in several ways, either by encouraging respondents to stand up and tour a ‘gallery of stimuli’ or by remaining seated and reviewing stimuli on a single page. But always in silence and without conferring. We then typically ask respondents to write down their views and collect in responses to check what is said and written are the same.
This helps consumers see the ‘wood from the trees’ and helps address potential key issues first, rather than get bogged down in tactical detail early on. This also aids analysis. However note that some stimuli covers both strategic and executional elements, and that consumers really don’t judge ideas this way. Interpretation, of course, remains down to the skill of the analyst!
There are two main ways to co-opt consumers to create and use creative stimuli in market research interviews or focus groups. Firstly, prior to research, whereby respondents are pre-tasked to reflect on topics before attending research. For example, to select or draw images, or take photographs, to illustrate their thoughts and feelings on particular subjects or brands. (Figure 1). Secondly, to share ideas in the group forum itself to inspire further discussion and idea building.
The second way is to create stimuli within the group discussion. For example, by writing thoughts and feelings on a flip chart, for example, in simple columns, or as a mind-map. The process of graphically recording discussion points, provides a common focus for discussion and theorising (2). Thus helping respondents to easily recall, assimilate, and process more complex thoughts. As a result, respondents feel listened to. And thus more engaged, and willing to fill in gaps, and build or challenge ideas. For example, to determine potential implications or opportunities for themselves or a brand.
Products may ‘rough’ visuals, more highly finished ideas, or even samples. This type of stimuli (Figure 2) aids comprehension, and thus provokes richer understanding on what appeals, is different, and could be improved. Rough stimuli encourages respondents to fill gaps, imagine benefits and provide insights of a more strategic nature. Whereas more highly finished stimuli lends itself to discussing more detailed elements such as packaging and visual identity. And product samples also elicit reactions to usage issues, performance, as well as propensity to purchase and reuse.
Service stimuli or visualisations (Figure 3) bring-to-life intangible ideas, and thus again aid consumer comprehension. In so doing they also allow respondents to assess the relative appeal of ideas, and test the logic behind service propositions i.e. what works, or doesn’t, requires improvement and why.
Simple lists (Figure 4) help determine the relative appeal, and importance of, features and benefits, within a product or service. This is a qualitative-quantitative technique. It helps to construct bundles, to target particular segments. Also to ‘sort the wheat from the chaff’ and spot potential category killing features.
Mini adverts with words and images are akin to press or poster ads. Thus they are familiar to consumers, evoke memories, forgotten thoughts, and are easily understood. They are also powerful to assess the importance of needs, and to uncover new needs. In turn they help reveal what are the most appealing and distinctive benefit combinations, and the most salient and credible features. Also the most engaging way of communicating. Increasing, we find that there are a very small number of salient needs in particular markets. Thus that personality traits are important to set brnds apart. Using mini ads dramatises all of these elements, and helps us understand how to best position products, services and brands. Also to inspire effective marketing communication.
Brand stories invest content and character into brand positionings. While we originally applied this technique to media brands, through the power of archetypes, stories are relevant to all brands and categories. Figure 6 shows an example, used to develop a well known media brand; The Famous Five. Translated into multiple languages, it helped explore appeal and stand-out, across different countries.
1. The human brain comprises around 100 billion neurons. This makes it the most complex structure on the planet. To aid research and marketing efforts use consumers’ brains for all their worth!
2. While consumers can’t tell you everything, using creative stimuli in research begets creativity, which begets innovation, and thus profit. In other words, they can help you create more ideas, and then turn ideas into more practical solutions.
3. Using real-life stimuli elicits more detailed responses. Thus revealing richer and more nuanced content for brand or communication models. In markets where there are just a few benefits, this helps to build more distinctive and appealing selling propositions.
4. Despite many years of using communication stimuli in market research neither we, nor our clients, are yet to correctly anticipate which ideas are most appealing! Sometimes the text is most attractive, though sometimes the image. So push your creative boundaries. Then trust in consumers to help you develop more successful advertising!
5. With any innovation research, just bear in mind that research typically covers a very large number of target variables, as well as ideas. Thus more than type, and wave, of market research service is often needed. Both to focus the target ‘sweet-spot’ and then build ideas into fully fledged solutions
(1) Harper. D. Talking about Pictures: A Case for Photo Elicitation, Visual Studies 17(1): 13–26 (2002)
(2) Crilly. N, Blackwell. AF, Clarkson. PJ. Graphic Elicitation: Using Research Diagrams as Interview Stimuli (2006)
Focus groups are a tried and tested qualitative research staple, having risen to prominence in the 1950s (1). Yet in today’s highly competitive environment relying on simple focus groups alone is limiting. If everyone just uses focus groups how can anyone possibly unearth new insights (2)?
As insights can come from anywhere the recipe for success is to use mixed methods. Both within focus groups, as well as other qualitative methods, to explore respondents from different angles, and in different ways. When designing research we employ four strategies to unearth new insights; we call these the four Cs: Context, Challenge, Collaboration and Calculation.
To understand the context in which consumers make choices requires getting up close. For example, through observation and recording daily life. To understand who consumers are, their needs, behavioural influences and the processes involved in choosing to buy or consume a product. They are seldom what you think. For example, by exploring the customer journey (say in food) from discovery through to choosing, buying, storing, preparing, eating and using the left-overs and packaging helps reveal what’s important and nice-to-have at each stage. Including success factors such as convenience, ease of use and sustainability. Observing meal preparation also helps reveal product misconceptions or packaging inadequacies. And observing eating occasions helps explore social drivers and barriers. All pinpoints previously unconsidered product, positioning and promotion issues, and opportunities.
What consumers think and feel is based on their own frame of reference i.e. experiences, prejudices, and memory. Stimulating with new experiences helps uncover new, hidden or forgotten thoughts. Do this by taking them out of their comfort zones and giving new experiences. For example, giving consumers a new or different product to try, helps reveal new or unmet needs, or barriers to overcome. Combining loyal and lapsed consumers in a ‘conflict situation’ to debate what’s good, bad or plain ok about a product or service helps reveal barriers to usage. It can also shed light on the strength of views and whether, and if so, how these can be overcome.
No-one has a monopoly on good ideas and we live in a society with increasing free-flow of information and collaboration. Consumers’ familiarity with advertising and brands means that they are more ‘savvy’ and able to converse in ‘technical’ terms. This is a boon for researchers and marketers as it allows consumers to evaluate and create new marketing solutions. The concept of collaboration applies to both who, how to and what to research. The only limiting factor is our imagination! Involving technical experts or opinion leaders in research brings even more critical and creative thinking. It also brings the future closer.
While qualitative research is good at answering ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions it is less effective at answering ‘how’ many or ‘how much’ questions. Using simple creative stimuli and scoring techniques overcomes the problem by providing a more substantive response. These allow people to think for themselves and mitigate the group ‘herd’ effect, and also distinguish the ‘really good’ or ‘poor’ from the ‘ok’ or ‘indifferent’. Thus spotlighting winning ideas and making sure research really helps marketing colleagues drive the business forward.
1. While focus groups are a qualitative research ‘default’, embrace the 4 Cs, to view your market research challenge in a new light and unearth more insights.
2. While quantitative and qualitative research were once different disciplines, and worlds apart, they are now blurring and overlapping. This presents new creative opportunities for researchers.
3. It is a myth that mixed research methods cost you more. When writing your next market research brief be clear about your aims, needs and guidelines – especially budgetary. This encourages agency ‘creativity’ and leads to more effective research ;-). For an inspiring response to your brief, get in touch.
(1) University of Columbia, History of Focus Group Research
(2) An insight is a ‘consumer need, want or belief that points to a new opportunity. Perhaps giving extra importance to something that has previously been ignored, forgotten or dismissed. Net the insight should shed new light and aid the business or brand. Source : Chapter 13, Managing Market Research, The Marketing Director’s Handbook.