One of Wendy Gordon’s talents lies in making her peers think twice about aspects of the marketing mix that they take for granted. At this year’s AQR/QRCA International Conference in Paris, it was the turn of brands.

Her paper, ‘The Darkroom of the Mind’ ­ what does neuro-psychology now tell us about brands?’ proved very challenging, and won the audience’s ‘best paper’ award. Wendy applied recent work in the field of neuro-psychology to the kinds of questions we ask as brand professionals and as ‘people experts’ ­ questions such as: What is the essence of the brand? What makes people tick?

Hers was a holistic view of brands. She reviewed first how they live in memory, created via associative networks from past and present experiences. Brands exist only in our minds, she said, and are as individual as we are.

What makes the difference between a successful brand or a failure? Much, she said, depends on emotions, which are hard wired into decision-making; liking is the key.

Qual and quant methods both have a role to play in illuminating different parts of the whole ‘brand engram’, the mental, inarticulated ‘proto-brand’ we all carry around in our minds. But while these research methods can monitor all relevant neural brand connections, the results can be both valid (right) and limited (wrong).

Take, for example, the memory of an emotion. This is not ‘emotional memory’. We do not ‘re-live’ the experience of encountering the brand in group discussions and on-street interviews. Instead, we reconstruct it and this makes it quite different to the original experience.

While NLP, semiotics or observation can all help the reconstruction, it is still not the real thing, however plausible the account or perceptive the researcher.

So where does this leave us, as researchers of the future? We should, she said, adopt a more holistic approach to qualitative research (bricolage), because it is as scientific as the empirical approach of quant.

We should also study what happens in consumer encounters with the brand, not just how people account for experiences or what they make brands mean. It could be that qualitative methods have access to more aspects of the brand engram, but we still have to work on our methods to illuminate more of the process of what really happens between people and brands. The next step will be to work out how to take the results into the boardroom. When we achieve that, she said, walk with pride.

Talking to delegates afterwards, there were two kinds of responses to Wendy’s talk. Firstly, are we all barking up the wrong tree? Should we say that qual is a lost cause, that we should give up, or just take the client’s money and run?

Or, secondly, should we say that we are, somehow, on the right track, but that we need to delve further into the subject, or look elsewhere for clues. We might, for instance, conclude that certain types of qual reach parts of the neural brand network that ordinary research cannot reach.

Others felt that we should not use focus groups as the (main, or only) way of selling qualitative research (thereby selling ourselves short), but that we should develop our skills in a variety of forms of qualitative inquiry (bricolage) and sell the quality of our thinking, instead of focusing on how many groups and how many interesting charts.

Perhaps, if we are to discover more about how to apply neuro-learning to the world of brands, we should start by weaning ourselves off questions and answers and explore consumers’ experiences more and in better ways, to understand how they construct brands, in the moment.

So, what questions need to be answered?

Here is a sample:

  • Should we be wiring people up to machines and flashing images of Coke at them if it’s all about brain activity?

  • Is observation more important than we thought? But how do we know what people are doing without asking them?

  • Are there bricolage standards or are we all just throwing mud at the wall?

  • How do we incorporate some of the new forms of inquiry in practice (sensory, cultural, personal, constructed, somatic)? Instead of six groups ­ two North, two South, two Midlands ­ what should/could be the format?

What are your responses to these questions?