Conscious or Unconscious, That Is The Question

David Tennant as Hamlet with the skull of Andre Tchaikovsky as Yorick

Most marketing research relies on assessing consumers’ conscious reactions to marketing ideas, ads, commercials, etc., through questionnaires, surveys, and focus groups. It also often relies on evidence that the message was attended to by assessing recall of ad content.

But market researchers make several faulty assumptions in taking this approach. One assumption is that respondents can, and will, honestly tell you how they feel and will behave towards a product. Another assumption is that if the ad has been paid attention to and consciously processed then it will be effective.

The problem is that no matter how well the research is done, it often does not successfully predict consumer behavior. For example, political focus groups and surveys invariably find that voters hate negative ads. But then it becomes clear that attack ads and negative campaigns work. And marketers will recall the launch of New Coke, which passed all of the research and taste tests and then produced a huge consumer backlash. How can this be explained? And what should we do about it?

The Importance of Unconscious Processes

The answer is that research into conscious processes captures just part of the decision-making picture, and probably not the most important part. Cognitive science, neuroscience, and psychological science have shown this for over twenty years, but marketers are just beginning to act on these findings. One key insight is that a great deal (but not all) of our mental functioning is unconscious. So asking people what they think, how they feel, and what they remember provides incomplete answers. We need to know what is going on outside of our awareness as well.

What do we know about these unconscious processes? We seem to know two things pretty clearly. First, the mind, like the brain, is organized in terms of networks of associations. What this means is that our thinking processes do not follow a logical, linear path; instead, they are organized in terms of how they are connected associatively. Creatives know this intuitively. That’s why they create mascots like the Geico Gecko and tag lines like Just Do It.

The second thing we know is that at our core we are emotional beings and our first reaction to any stimulus is emotional. Emotion trumps rationality. Go back to New Coke. The reaction to that campaign was not logical, rational, thoughtful, or even sensible; it was emotional and immediate. And it colored any further reaction to the product.

Another insight provided by science concerns the relationship between conscious and unconscious processes, as well as what kinds of behavior each predicts. Conscious and unconscious processes need not agree. In fact, they are independent of one another. In statistical terms, they are orthogonal. They may agree or disagree. Both are important to understand but predict different kinds of behavior.

Conscious processes predict behavior in the immediate situation, when we are reflecting on what we ought to do now. A value or motive must be kept in mind consciously if it is to affect what a consumer does. Unconscious processes predict spontaneous and long-term behavior patterns. It is the mind’s default setting. This means that conflict is part and parcel of a consumer’s mind. We should not expect consistency from him or her, but we should be able to predict when one process is likely to hold sway and when the other will dominate decision-making.

What’s Next?

We are obviously in the early stages of research tapping into the unconscious and still have many questions to answer. One is how to leverage the ‘hidden’ unconscious, unexplored side of brand equity. Can this new side of brand equity help to unlock brands’ hidden vulnerabilities or hidden potential? Only continuing research will illuminate the true relationship between the interplay of the conscious and unconscious mind.

Joel Weinberger, a founding partner of Implicit Strategies, is a professor at Adelphi University, a judge for the Ogilvy Awards, and a practicing psychologist. Joel helps political campaigns, non-profits and commercial companies discover what consumers really think and feel about their candidate, product, or brand.


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