Understanding the nuance of consumer language

Positive or Negative: just what’s in a phrase or the word chosen by your consumer?

In a recent packaging study that Marketing Sciences conducted for a major global brand much of our discussion at debrief stage centred around whether a word chosen by consumers was a positive or a negative.
The role of qualitative research is to explore and explain, but to do this properly there has to be an element of interpretation.  This is not a voodoo art, it is grounded in training and experience, but it can of course result in a conversation along these lines:

 Client:  “But they said something different in that group”
 Qually:  “They did, but when you consider that they also said X, Y & Z, you can see that what they meant was ….”

Words have, clearly, a definition, but that definition doesn’t limit the context in which a word is used.  Whilst a Brand Manager or Designer may understand what the word or phrase technically means, that doesn’t mean that they know what consumers mean when they use the very same word.  Whilst there are some words and phrases out there that need little or no qualitative interpretation (”disgusting”, “awful”, “why?” for example) there are many that do.

This was brought to bear over the word “retro”.  The design agency quite correctly had a view on what retro is and is not and how it deviates from traditional, old fashioned etc.  That is absolutely correct, rather like I know the difference between a focus group and a questionnaire, but for many people out there talking about the percentage of people who said X or Y in a “focus group” the nuance is redundant.

Given that the design brief included the objective of modernising the brand (an ill-defined term if you ask me) the consistent reference to “retro” was interpreted to be bad news.  However through living the group dynamic with my respondents, observing the additional descriptors and the body language used, I came to a different conclusion.  Whether “retro” has a clear definition or not, what people meant was that it was simultaneously both new and somehow familiar, or “modern with a retro twist” as I coined it.  Consumers would rarely use such a rich and emotionally laden word as retro in a negative context; they would simply say “old fashioned”, “boring” or “dull”.

Ultimately, our debate at the debrief was intellectually stimulating and hopefully insightful for the client team, but it does go to show the importance of really digging deep and understanding what drives the consumer’s choice of words rather than hearing on the sound bite!


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Sunita Bhabra
01962 842211
Article date - 25/09/2013
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