On projective techniques

The goal in many of our projects is to identify the underlying emotions associated with competing brands or products, because emotions obviously play a central role in motivating consumer purchase decisions.  But expressing emotion for a brand or product isn’t easy for consumers, and so the challenge for the researcher is how best to tap into those emotions. 

Projective techniques employ analogy and metaphor to make it easier for consumers to think about and express emotions and images associated with a brand or a product.  But not all researchers see value in such techniques. 

The argument against projective techniques

I once had a senior colleague who had serious doubts about the effectiveness of projective techniques.  They might be thought of as cool, he argued; they might even help the researcher at least feel creative, but in and of themselves such techniques yield little more than broad generalities (at best), and empty, hackneyed cliches (at worst).  He offered examples:

  • “Every time I use brand personification, the results are so similar I could have written that section of the report in advance.  One brand is old and stodgy and wears a business suit, another is young and hip and wears khakis.”
  • “I’ve used an image sort many times, with results rarely rising above the level of cliché.  Invariably I’ll hear someone say, ‘I picked the photo of the lion because I feel proud to use that brand’.”
  • “In just one example using collage-making, participants were asked to create a collage expressing what it’s like to be a parent, and one of the more noteworthy creations featured a picture of a road winding through the mountains.  Truly surprising and deep, don’t you think?”


For this researcher, the examples represented the two big concerns he had about projective techniques: 

1. They are essentially a setup, because they are by definition limiting.  In a projective exercise, we establish the context and set the ground rules for participants.  You need to think of the brand as a person (not a car this time, or an animal, or a color, or a sound, etc.).  You need to choose from this specific set of photos.  You need to create the collage from magazines you happen to have available to you at home.  The true emotion might well lie outside the “prepackaged” set of stimuli used

2. They don’t yield real emotion.  To come up with a narrow, limited description of staggeringly complex feelings and motivations, consumers fall back into what’s easy and expected:  clichés and generalities that allow them to successfully complete this difficult exercise in a way that meets the approval of the researcher and fellow participants.

His solution to the challenge of tapping into underlying emotions for brands and products?  Researcher skill in (a) creating an open dialogue (“talk to me about brand X in whatever terms and context make the most sense to you”) and (b) in-depth probing (“I want to understand the nuances of how you personally feel”). 

The argument for projective techniques

In my experience, far from producing little more than broad generalities or empty cliches, projective techniques produce laser-like illumination of what we are trying to understand for our client.  At the very least, such techniques create a compelling visual image of a brand (or product) for management to keep in mind in developing marketing strategy; often, such techniques provide a veritable blueprint for management action. 

It’s true that in every brand personification exercise one brand is old and stodgy and wears a business suit, while another is young and hip and wears khakis; but I guarantee you the senior managers of the stodgy brand, sitting behind the one-way mirror, squirm a bit, shake their heads at what has become of their brand, and commit themselves to taking action.  There’s no future in being old and stodgy.

In an image sort, when a consumer says, "I picked the photo of a lion because I feel proud," it may be cliché to us as researchers, because we hear such reactions all the time, but it’s unlikely that consumer would have spoken of his/her pride without use of this projective technique.  Pride, after all, is a deeply felt emotion; you can bet the brand managers behind the glass made note of how their brand makes its users feel--and how, by extension, they might position their brand to tap that emotion. 

Every time I have used a projective technique—no matter the specific technique—I have come away with insight I couldn’t have uncovered without use of such a technique.  And, every time, our client has come away with a compelling visual image of its brand (or product) against the competition in the hearts and minds of consumers.

Yes, it’s true—in a projective exercise we establish the context for consumers.  But that doesn’t limit consumers’ thinking; it opens their thinking.  It allows them to think about something difficult to express (their emotional connection to a brand) using an analogy that provides a bridge from the familiar to the difficult.

"A good analogy or metaphor," noted psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker once wrote, "does not just invoke some chance resemblance between the thing being explained and the thing introduced to explain it.  It capitalizes on a deep similarity between the principles that govern the two things."

Projective techniques capitalize precisely on this notion of "deep similarities."  What may seem like "cliché and generality" for the seasoned research professional is not cliché and generality at all--it’s evidence of archetypal beliefs and emotions that reveal themselves precisely through the use of these various projective techniques.

So what?

Projective techniques are hardly new, but in an age where data (and especially big data) is becoming king, and where new and shiny qualitative techniques are increasingly de rigueur, it’s easy for tried and true qualitative approaches such as projective techniques to be like the baby that gets thrown out with the bathwater.  And that would be a big mistake, because data alone cannot answer important “why” questions, and new and shiny qualitative techniques shouldn’t replace techniques that have been proven to yield answers to what is often the most important question:  what is the fundamentally human element—the emotion component—of consumer decision-making and behavior.