Back in the days before behavioral science and behavioral economics a survey would ask you questions and you would answer. Your answers were all the survey-takers had to go on. If they asked you how you perceive Apple, or which kind of beer you prefer, you would give them an explicit response and they would record your answer. Often, that’s still the case and that’s a perfectly valid way for marketers and pollsters to understand how consumers think.
But thanks to neuroscience, market researchers can now go further. How does that work? Well, basically your brain holds an intricate network of associations. You might, for instance, associate a beer brand with football, or cold, or refreshing, or patriotic, or hanging out with friends or bargain pricing, or any number of other things. Advertisements you see on TV or elsewhere are often aimed at creating and strengthening those associations. The stronger the associations are in your brain, the faster your brain accesses them when asked. So the faster you respond to a question about them, the stronger the implied association. Faster thinking is more automatic. It’s driven by intuition and emotion and unconscious. Slower associations are more controlled and slower. When making choices as consumers, we tend to rely more on the faster kind of thinking – those are the implicit reactions and they influence our decisions without our even noticing.
The explicit reactions – the “what you say” – tend to be slower and require more thought. They’re also more prone to biases. One is the “social desirability bias,” which means that people taking surveys don’t want to admit to a “bad behavior” or want to overstate “good behaviors” even in an anonymous survey. So when asked a question about food habits, people might under report eating fatty foods and over report eating fruits and vegetables. Another is the “halo effect” where we assume that if someone or something is good at something, they’re probably good at other things. That bias is itself often biased by first impressions. While researchers have ways to compensate for those biases in their survey design and measurement, it’s thought that the implicit reactions are less prone to those biases.
Testing fast, and slow
Ipsos, in a first-ever multivariate-study of these effects has shown that the implicit and explicit reactions tend to show different associations. For example, when asked about Apple in a study about mobile phones respondents associated the brand with characteristics like “is different,” “is highly recommended,” and “is socially responsible,” based on their implicit reactions. Their explicit reactions identified “trustworthy” and “stirs my emotions.” Moreover, implicit reactions tend to identify more associations than just testing explicit reactions.
Read the full implicit brand drivers study.
For brands and marketers, Ipsos found, it’s ideal to test both types of reactions. Now, as you take surveys, brands might be measuring not just what you say but how quickly you say it. The marketers use this information to help them target their product in the right ways. In some cases, there might find a strength in the explicit results but the implicit results show a weak association. Creating advertising messages to strengthen that association could make it a stronger implicit reaction. That would be helpful for the brand. Some associations are less important to a purchase decision and only play a role if the consumer has time to think about them. In those cases, the brand might create a sort of “reminder” of that association at the point of purchase or in the packaging with the idea of getting the consumer to remember an association in the moment they’re making a decision. So a soup-maker might place a “easy to serve” label on its cans to reinforce the “convenience” association with its brand. These types of cues, including coupons and in-store displays work well with the explicit associations.
It’s all about marketers getting a better understanding of their customers and why they buy the products they buy. That can lead to better commercials that resonate in the right ways and products that fill the needs consumers actually have. If people prefer the brands that associate with “convenience,” marketers will move to create more convenient products. Marketers can shift quickly toward your needs, but it’s up to you to think fast.