All is not what it seems: how throwing away the stimulus material can help you get more out of your research

Do you wish research respondents would engage with your brand positioning concepts more meaningfully? Best not to show them any.

How many times have you been frustrated at the way respondents react to your carefully crafted strategic concepts in research?  You’re sitting there in the hope of some insightful feedback that can help you refine your concept and define your cut-through positioning, only to be confronted by a bunch of everyday consumers putting on their ‘marketing hats’, critiquing your concepts and giving a depersonalised and rationalised reaction, quite unrepresentative of the intuitive, personal and emotional dimension that characterises responses to ideas in the ‘real world’.  And, as if that’s not enough, there they are getting ‘hung up’ on specific words and phrases, going straight to the heart of the trivia and failing to engage with the core idea.

We can get annoyed and frustrated with respondents as much as we like, but the truth is, of course, that most of the time the fault lies with us – or, more specifically, with the stimulus we are using.  In fact, I believe much of the problem lies with showing concepts at all.  Positioning concepts are classically presented in the form of formalised and structured entities that look as if time and consideration have gone into their preparation.  So, it is no surprise that respondents’ inclination is to give them a considered response.  But that’s not what we need at all.

I use a proprietary technique I developed at Movement to overcome these issues and to enable respondents to react to ideas in a much more natural, personal and intuitive way: ‘Invisible Stimulus ®’*.

Invisible Stimulus involves introducing ideas to respondents informally and conversationally, without them ever realising they are discussing specific concepts.  Instead, the concepts are dropped into the discussion as, ostensibly, thoughts I have just had, things users of the brand have told me in previous research or stuff I have learnt from my own research or talking to my clients.

In this way, the concepts become part of a conversation – much like any idea we discuss with friends and colleagues informally, be it the holiday we’ve just been on or the car we intend to buy.  This frees the concepts from being unrealistically scrutinised and means respondents engage with the ideas in much the same way as they do with ideas in the ‘real world’: they either make connections or they do not, which I then explore.

This is a radical technique, but one that works beautifully and which I have used successfully with clients such as Time Out, Coca-Cola, Aviva, Diageo, The Daily Telegraph and Danone.  There is much to say about Invisible Stimulus and its application (you can see the SlideShare or contact me directly if you’d like to find out more:, but what I want to talk about here is how it has freed up the way I now develop and use stimulus material to derive more useful and intuitive responses – and one way in particular.

The genesis of the thinking behind ‘Invisible Stimulus ®’ lies in my view that there is only one rule about stimulus: that it should be tailor made to the idea it aims to convey.  This means one has to think afresh on every project and for every idea that one researches, making it of paramount importance that the researcher – and client – fully understands every idea that is going into the research (this is why I have long advocated that researchers talk to creatives about their ideas before they take them into research).  Once you start thinking very specifically about what each piece of stimulus has to deliver in the context of every individual idea, you are freed to be very inventive about what you use.

One valuable aspect of Invisible Stimulus is that you can talk about ideas not as marketing artifacts but as extant notions, products and services, already around and about in the ‘real world’.  This prevents respondents from taking their classic escape route in response to a challenging idea: “It’ll never work.  If it was a good idea, someone would already have done it”.  If you present the idea as something that is already being done, out there in the real world, this reaction is prevented, the idea legitimised, and respondents are forced to engage with the concept personally.  In many cases now, even if I feel it is appropriate to show written concepts to people, I introduce them as quotes from real people about something that already exists, rather than aspects of, or ideas for, a new product or service.

This is not a new idea in itself, since researchers have always seen fit on some projects to present concept statements in the form of quotes from ‘real people’.  It works particularly well for brand propositions, where a proposition that can look naff and pretty unresearchable in unmediated form can be turned into a convincingly vernacular ‘verbatim’ that will elicit a useful response.   However, this approach can be usefully developed in order to reduce still further the metaphorical (and physical) distance between respondents and the ideas being ‘presented’ to them by the researcher.

On a number of recent projects I have not only turned concept statements into ‘quotes’, ostensibly from other people I have spoken to about a product or service in previous groups, I have bundled all the proposition concepts onto one A4 page as a selection of things that different people have told me.  I have then asked respondents to take a look at them and, for each one, scribble down privately the extent to which they identify with the sentiment and any other comments they have about what the person has ‘said’, before any discussion as a group.

I have found this works very well.  Respondents react entirely differently to the ideas they encounter in this way to how they react to concept boards.  They engage with these thoughts from, ostensibly, their peers as genuine expressions of other people’s views and give intuitive, personal responses to them.  Any order effect is mitigated by seeing all the ideas at once and the danger of individuals’ reactions to an idea colouring group response are eliminated by the private response mechanism.

As in all stimulus, it is important to build learning from each research session into the ideas shown in subsequent sessions, in order to maximise the amount of progress one can make in idea development through the project.  Only one amongst the many advantages of such an approach is how easy it is to alter concepts between sessions.

Stimulus material is an issue that isn’t going to go away, and rightly so.  Too much research is handicapped by ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’.  There are huge dividends to be gained from thinking carefully from scratch to ensure that the most appropriate means are being used on every occasion.  Asking the question “Why do we need stimulus material anyway?” is a good place to start.

* The name ‘Invisible Stimulus’ is a Registered Trade Mark

This entry was posted in Brand positioning, Brand strategy, Market research, Qualitative research and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to All is not what it seems: how throwing away the stimulus material can help you get more out of your research

  1. Pingback: The 6 fundamentals of effective creative development research | movementmuse

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