Sensory-emotional research

The core challenge of qualitative research is in understanding the patterns in people's heads that lead them to different purchase decisions. These are often hidden from our conscious and cognitive processes and are based on our major and secondary senses and the way they trigger emotional reactions.

Our sensory-emotional research process is a proprietary technique for uncovering the deep patterns and emotional responses that we have towards products and brands. Whilst we outline the technique here, it is best understood in a face-to-face demonstration which we would happily arrange with potential clients.


Understanding stimulus-response mechanisms

The sensory-emotional research process is based on a theory of how we take decisions. In simple terms a stimulus that we are interested in gives rise to a response.

Between the stimulus and the response, the brain matches patterns to the stimulus to determine the required response. This process happens subconsciously and leads to a range of emotional feelings that direct the final response. The cognitive part of the brain then post-rationalises the response and helps tuning the pattern matching. The simplified diagram below shows the stages involved.

When we ask people what they thought and why they made a decision we only uncover the rationalised responses. The patterns and feelings involved in the decision are hidden from view, not just to the researcher but often to the individual in question, and it is these patterns that drive behaviour.

Some techniques (eg projection or metaphor elicitation) aim to uncover the patterns by looking at the shadows the patterns leave behind or reflections of these patterns on other stimulus. Our sensory-response research looks directly at the pattern cascades that drive feelings and decisions meaning that we avoid the problem of over extending the metaphor, or contaminating the projection with cognitive noise.

The important consequence of this view is that stimulus leads to feelings/emotional which leads to cognitive thought. In other words we need to understand how and what emotional responses stem from different stimulus in addition to the rational features and benefits that people will argue drive their decisions. Evidence from current psychology is that senses are coupled to feelings and without this emotional assessment people find it almost impossible to take decisions.


The sensory-emotional research process

The aim of a sensory-emotional process is to use stimulus to trigger different patterns and responses. When we experience a stimulus we do so firstly through our senses. However, when we think of senses we have to think beyond the traditional five senses of touch, smell, hearing, taste and sight. We actually have a number of sub-senses that are also triggered - for instance we have a sense of our own mood, of time and of place among others.

As our senses are triggered we get an emotional response - we feel things first and only think about them later. In our sensory-emotional qualitative research we take people through the set of senses and emotions that they feel towards a product or service. By taking the individuals through the series of patterns that arise from the stimulus we can identify key drivers, images and associations that make up the product or brand as an emotional entity.

These patterns are often quite deep. We often find patterns relating to strong associations in childhood and very specific and particular memories. For example for instant coffee purchased by a non-drinker the whole presentation of the coffee jar was important as it would typically be used on special occasions and the presentation of Douwe Egberts with a stopper-based top recalled strong childhood associations with sweets from a candy jar, or old medicine bottles on display on kitchen shelves.

The emotional response to a Dyson vacuum cleaner is completely different from that of a traditional Hoover. Although the products are competing like-for-like on features and performance, it is the emotional power and associations of Dyson and using the Dyson cleaner that give it such as strong place in the market place. Our research suggests that whereas traditional vacuums are associated with patterns that are grey and dull leading to a feelings of frustration and despair, Dyson actually shares many of the sensory-emotional qualities of a childhood toy reflected in emotions such as joy and excitement. Not surprisingly men are far more likely to use a Dyson cleaner than a traditional vacuum.

In addition, there is a sense that we buy moods. Obviously in rational decision making we choose on rational criteria like speed and size and quality and price. But in many situations we do not buy in what would be thought of as a rational way. If we did we would always be on the look out for the cheapest vendor. Why pay more for a standardised product like Coke? In fact within 500m from here we would see the price of Coke vary by around 600% depending where it was purchased. Convenience is one part. But why did you choose the more expensive bar to buy it from? - Mood and ambiance.

There is also a sense that we predict and buy for moods. The Friday night treat that is bought in the supermarket days before. The clothes for a party in several weeks' time. What we choose to eat now. We often buy to meet our mood states and the moods we expect to have. Understanding deeper mental processes can help unpick the emotional drivers and sensory links between what and how we choose.

Please contact us directly to find out more about stimulus-response decision theory and how we use sensory-emotional responses to uncover true decision making drivers.