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Using Creative Stimuli in Market Research to Build Brands

  • Using creative stimuli in research. Example stimuli.

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 interviews or group discussions?

Types of market research stimuli

Forms of market research stimuli include;

  • audio (reading out product features, concepts or playing music)
  • visual (images, graphics, text, lists, concepts, literature)
  • physical (actual products, from cans of beans to magazines)
  • other sensory such as olfactory (smells, fragrances), and
  • combinations of the above, such as audio/visual (such as TV ads, TV programmes, idents or animated logos).

Benefits and applications of stimuli

In summary, using creative stimuli in market research helps:

  • focus consumers’ minds on specific topics or opportunities, and thus elicit new thoughts (that may otherwise remain hidden)
  • explore unmet needs, or prompt new needs (never before considered)
  • gain reactions to ideas, also to develop or improve ideas
  • uncover more detailed responses, and thus turn abstract ideas into more fully-formed and practical concepts and solutions, such as brands.

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).

Ideas for developing and using creative stimuli in market research

1. Create stimuli in comparable form

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.

2. Create stimuli to express positioning variables

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.

3. Keep stimuli clear

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.

4. Use word and visual stimuli

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.

5. Enable respondents to assess ideas independently

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.

6. Lead with stimuli that has a more strategic application

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!

Examples of creating and using stimuli in market research

1. Consumer created stimuli

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.

Images and quotes collected from consumer study

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.

2. Product stimuli

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.

Product concepts and packaging for consumer research

3. Service stimuli

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.

Example service stimuli for market research

4. Feature lists

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.

Feature lists for qualitative-quantitative research

5. Mini adverts

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.

Example advertising ideas for market research

6. Brand stories

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.

Brand stories to bring to life  positioning opportunities

Research Inspiration

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)

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