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Remember? Using Memory as a Research Tool

December 10, 2011

First-time or most compelling memory

Do you want to gain a deeper  understanding of how consumers experience a particular brand?  One way to do this is an exercise in retrospection, in which you ask respondents to relate a specific memory involving the product.  As is the case with all good projective techniques, the exercise engages the respondent, reaches a dimension not easily accessible by direct questioning, and  provides a way for the respondent to be “in the moment,” (or the “flow,” as Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi calls it when the moment is fulfilling).   Here is basically how it works:

Detailed retrieval of event including range of emotions

  • First you ask respondents to go back to a time when they first experienced a product, or when the experience was particularly compelling. It’s important that the memory be about a particular point in time rather than a “typical” event  (i.e., not “we usually would…” but rather, “One morning when I was about 5…, or “right after I got married”).
  • In addition to describing the event, the setting, the participants, and other specifics, respondents are asked to recall the range of feelings they experienced during the event – good, bad, or a mix.   As a testament to the degree of engagement in the elicited imagery, some respondents become emotional – laughing, or at times weeping.

Comparing the Memory and Feelings to Other Events

  • Ask the respondent to compare their feelings from the event described, to those of other events in their lives in which they experienced that same set of feelings.
  • Encourage them to come up with a different type of events than the one they first related (e.g., if the first memory event is about breakfast, the next account should be unrelated to meals.

Looking for Themes Across Events

It’s important to learn about the range of emotions associated with both the original and other events. This alone will provide a rich narrative that in and of itself may be telling. But the key benefit is in locating the experience in an emotional landscape. That is, where does this experience fit, in the emotions it evokes, relative to other life events? What are the consistent “themes” across the two events. So, for example, sleep aid prospects may not tell you that feeling “out of control” is a key barrier to taking sleep aids, but control may consistently emerge as one of their themes, as shown by its appearance in events they consider similar.

Learning Based on the Exercise

How the memories fit with unique product benefits

Output from this exercise is valuable in these key ways:

  • It conveys not only how a respondent uses or perceives of a product or brand in a particular context, but also the emotions associated with it.  So, a ready-to-eat cold cereal that’s been around years may conjure up the  memory of eating breakfast while watching cartoons on T.V. and associated with emotions of joy, playfulness, and comfort.
  • It provides a context within which to evaluate the product.  What other events evoke those same feelings?  Knowing this helps define the type of joy, and other feelings that are elicited when eating that particular cereal.

As with all projective exercises, the learning is only meaningful when evaluated in the context of other findings about how consumers perceive and interact with a particular product.  The ultimate task is to map feelings and associations onto key emotional end benefits of a product, in order to deepen understanding of  consumers’ relation to the product.  This in turn may  suggest possible interventions for how to make the product experience more fulfilling.

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