Understanding the Hearts and Minds of BuyersWritten by Clare Thibodeaux, contributing writer to Rockbridge Online
In the game of marketing, the winner is the one who connects with customers at an emotional level. Whether they market a product or service, or sell to consumers or businesses, marketers must recognize abstract decision factors - consequences, emotions and values - in planning their message. Rockbridge conducts "Means-End" research over the internet, working with Dr. Thomas J. Reynolds, a pioneer in this unique and powerful method.
The following is an interview with Dr. Reynolds, who is President of Lifegoals, LLC and consultant to Rockbridge. Since the 1970's, he has conducted over 250 Means-End studies. He has consulted globally with leaders in the corporate and non-profit arenas on developing winning marketing campaigns.
Rockbridge Associates: You edited a book entitled Understanding Consumer Decision Making: The Means-End Approach to Marketing and Advertising Strategy. Exactly what is a Means-End approach?
Tom: We should begin by talking about Strategic Equity, which for any brand is the aggregate of its "equities" and "disequities," or motivations and disincentives to choose your brand over your competitors'. Traditional market research tends to limit management thinking to attributes, or tangible features of the product or service.
As an example, for an overnight shipping brand, the equities might be reliability, convenient pick-up times, and online tracking, while the disequities might be poor value and inaccessible customer service. But if you want to persuade buyers to choose your overnight brand, you need to consider abstract motivations, starting with the more immediate consequences such as saving time and avoiding mistakes. And then considering the deeper motives such as exerting control, avoiding worry, and gaining respect in the organization, and ultimately, life goals such as achieving success or living the good life.
Means-End theory associates every tangible attribute with a value chain consisting of a ladder of four levels. These include: a tangible attribute, a functional consequence, a psychosocial consequence, and a value. To give another example, you might drink Starbucks coffee because it has more caffeine. That gives you mental alertness, which makes you more productive at work, which allows you to be successful in your career.
In Means-End research, the value chains are depicted visually in a map showing the different linkages and decision paths that drive choice. This becomes the basis for powerful communications and product strategies.
Rockbridge Associates: Can you give me an example of a marketing success using a Means-End approach?
Tom: One of the most interesting examples comes from the political arena. In 1984, the Reagan campaign identified some key equities of their candidate and the opponent, and depicted these using a decision map. In one ad, the campaign tapped into key emotions by showing children playing peacefully with the American flag flying in the background, with a cutover to the president making a speech. This was a deliberate strategy, based on Means-End research, to connect with president's leadership qualities, a key equity, with concerns about defense and patriotic and family values that were important at the time.
Rockbridge Associates: How do you apply Means-End theory in market research?
Tom: The basic form of research is what we call "laddering." In the studies I have worked on with Rockbridge, we use specially trained interviewers who follow a special protocol in which they identify the important reasons for a decision, probe to construct a complete ladder, and then verify this with the respondent.
Rockbridge Associates: I've heard the term "laddering" used a lot in market research, especially focus groups. Is this the same thing?
Tom: The term laddering is bandied about by qualitative researchers, but what we are talking about in Means-End research is a highly structured and controlled process that provides input into a quantitative analysis (that I'll mention shortly.) The Means-End studies at Rockbridge use my StrEAM® system that allows the laddering interviews to occur one-on-one with respondents over the internet. The interviewer has the assistance of VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) to be able to probe effectively, while respondents key in their opinions, which are captured verbatim for coding.
Rockbridge Associates: How do you analyze the data?
Tom: There are a lot of steps involved, including coding, producing an implications matrix, and various quality checks. But the most important output is what we call a "Consumer Decision Map" (although I would caution that a "consumer" could be a buyer in a business). The map, or CDM, provides a strategic overview of how decisions occur in the marketplace. It shows the different paths that occur from the immediate and tangible attributes, to the ultimate values that are behind behavior.
Rockbridge Associates: And how does this get put into action?
Tom: The Rockbridge team and I work with your clients to translate the results of the CDM into communications and product development themes. For example, in advertising, we would identify message strategies based on existing decision paths, or identify new paths that take advantage of opportunities to draw mental connections not yet considered in the market. For example, for a client in the nutrition field, we showed how a reformulation could tap into new kinds of consumer values related to a long and healthy life that could expand the appeal of the brand.
It is key to show the leverage points, or important connections that make tangible features come alive. We also provide suggestions on how to activate the deeper values, which should always be implied in the background and tone of the ad. We may also identify the need for new features. For instance, an e-service client found a major barrier was related to safety and theft concerns, so we suggested a security guarantee.
Rockbridge Associates: Is there anything you'd like to add?
Tom: An interesting side note is that the interviewing itself is a powerful experience for respondents because it creates an awareness of their motivations. In a recent study, we found that the overwhelming majority wanted to sign up to do more of these. We also found that many respondents actually experienced a fundamental shift in their preferences as a result of the laddering exercise. I think this says a lot for the power of the Means-End approach to lead to marketing that actually changes buyers' minds.