A Trip to the Unconscious Mind: Q-and-A With Jerry Olson, Neuromarketer & Co-Founder, Olson Zaltman Associates

April 24, 2017

Founded in 1997 by professors Jerry Olson of Penn State University and Gerald Zaltman of the Harvard Business School, Olson Zaltman Associates (OZA) specializes in techniques that target consumers’ implicit thoughts, feelings and knowledge. Their methodologies have transformed how some of the world’s most respected companies approach their markets and marketing strategies.

Why is it important for brands/companies to understand the unconscious mind of the consumer?

You need to understand your customer’s mind, period. And since the unconscious is a huge portion of your mind and influences the conscious things you think about, the decisions and behavioral choices you make, you have to understand that. If you don’t, you only understand a small portion of the mind.

One metaphor to think about is an iceberg. An iceberg is floating in the ocean, and probably less than 10 percent of it is showing. Most of the iceberg is underwater. And that’s a good metaphor for the mind. Something on the order of five or 10 percent of our thinking, emotions, decision-making and learning is available to conscious awareness.

Most of what happens in the mind is not consciously available but strongly influences the conscious mind. Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize in economics, wrote a book called “Thinking, Fast and Slow” about how the unconscious system and the conscious system work together and influence each other. The more you understand people’s unconscious orientations, the better you’ll be able to develop conscious, tangible things in the world that people react to consciously and unconsciously.

Those two aspects of the mind are continually working, and interact together. You need to understand both aspects of people’s beings if you’re going to develop good strategies. If you stay only at the conscious level and ask people direct questions, then they’ll give you answers, but those answers will not reflect the unconscious orientations that are powerfully motivating and driving people’s behavior.

What is an example of a deep metaphor on a commercial level?

Think back to the Michelin ad campaign that ran throughout the 1990s, with the baby and the tire. In the early days, they had the baby sitting next to the tire. Eventually somebody had the genius idea of putting the baby inside the tire.

Then they had an ad where the baby’s arm was inside the vertical tire. They never explicitly said, “Our tires are a container in which you put your most precious possessions to keep them safe,” but that’s what containers do. They keep the bad out and the good in.

The last set of ads had the baby with stuffed animals, like a Noah’s Ark, the ultimate container metaphor. There are millions of examples of deep metaphors out there. If you could find one and figure out a great way to leverage it, you’ll have effective communication. You don’t need to say anything, just show the picture. We have lots of examples of clients who have done that, and leveraged a deep metaphor in an apparently simple way. But it’s a powerful way to communicate.

Does this lessen the value traditional marketing tactics such as questionnaires, surveys and focus groups?

So we would never say that surveys and focus groups and something more traditional, direct approaches to accessing people's conscious awareness are worthless or have no value. Of course, they do have value. But their value can be dramatically enhanced by linking it to those unconscious orientations that are powerfully influencing people's thinking actually without us even knowing about it as individuals.

And so it's just a path and we were fascinated by this idea as academics, and then we no longer are at the university, we left that about 18 years ago. But it's just been a wonderful vehicle to drive on this terrain of thinking. And both of us have enjoyed it tremendously.

Regardless of budget, why is it important to start any campaign with the deeper insights this research provides?

You can create a campaign without knowing any of this, and a lot of marketing and PR campaigns are done just on intuition and some surface-level analysis.

If you can understand people at a deeper level, then it will inform your execution and improve its effectiveness. Deep orientations that your audience has are activated in the unconscious mind and influence how they interpret the message. A message could be well-crafted but activate the wrong mental frames, which then cause the person to interpret the message in a completely inappropriate or negative way. We call that process co-creation.

The audience creates much of the meaning of any message. Understanding those deep orientations in your audience and how your communication activates them is critical to influencing whether your message will be effective.

We need to know what those deep mental orientations in our audience are, and to figure out ways of activating them so the appropriate mental frame is used to interpret our message.

What's the role of big data in this process?

I think we do need data and I think it's wonderful that we have those capabilities. But we have to look at the limitations. Our studies have limitations too. Every research method has a limitation, and we use very small sample sizes. We can do whole studies with 12 people or 20. We don't do 1,000 ZMet interviews. That would be so expensive. No one could afford it.

What we're trying to do is find the universality. Big data can find a lot of surface-level phenomena that look interesting or look strategic that then can be explored at a deeper level to more deeply inform the strategy that results. So we would never claim that what we do is all that anyone needs to do so I think we have some realistic expectations there.

Multiple methods are really important and need to be done. And they need to be integrated; that's the issue. So a client can do a big data study and then a qualitative study, maybe even using our firm, using ZMet. But if they're not integrated, then they all become siloed and this is what happened to many of our clients.

They have five different suppliers of insights and I would say no theory of how they could be integrated, no perspective on how they could be integrated. And I believe that's something that we can provide.

We do have a perspective, a holistic view of mind, and if you can integrate the big data insights with the qualitative deep insights, you can end up with an understanding of your customer that is superior to any one of those alone and lets you develop a strategy that can be refined with other research and end up with a pretty effective approach to the market. I mean, the same thing would hold for PR initiatives as well.

Finding those universal orientations is so, so powerful.

John Elsasser

John Elsasser is the editor-in-chief of Strategies & Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994.



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