If you thought Dichter was the first qualitative researcher, think again...you are out by many centuries!

Psychology: the origin of qualitative research?

A superficial Who Do You Think Are? programme on qualitative research would undoubtedly trace its origins back to psychology, and to the motivational research techniques that emerged through the 20th century. This view, however, takes too narrow a view of what ‘qualitative thinking’ is and all that it entails.

If we go back further into history – into the pre-modern era (in the centuries before the 17th century) – we find commentators (Foucault 1970, Wagner 1986) talking about ‘qualitative theories of reality’ and qualitative approaches to understanding it. So what is this broader perspective and what can it add to our understanding of modern commercial qualitative research?

This piece seeks to provide a brief overview of this longer term perspective on qualitative thinking and some of theoretical assumptions upon which it is based. It is written as a short synopsis of three papers that have been published in the last three years in the International Journal of Market Research (Barnham 2008, 2009, 2010). These papers have, in particular, looked at the relationship that exists between qualitative research and brands and at some of the reasons why qualitative research is so good at understanding the latter. Simultaneously, they have argued that we should also reframe the way that we use the word ‘qualitative’ itself. We need to look at the etymology and origins of the concept.

Pre-17th century thought encourages us to think about reality in a different way. It provides a new perspective which suggests that we ought to think about reality as being made up of qualitative entities called essences. The term ‘qualitative’, therefore, in a pre-modern context, escapes the limitations of having purely methodological usages. And it is this, as we shall see, which enables us to create a useful bridge between qualitative research and brands.

The brand: a single essence or combinations of essences?

We are all familiar with the idea of brand essence and most of us have spent many hours in airless rooms trying to identify the particular essence of the brands we work on. But do brands really have just one essence? Is this the right way to think about the concept in relation to brands?

Has M&S got one essence or is it really better thought of as a series of essences in a particular combination? It contains, for instance, Britishness, properness, freshness, greenness, etc., to mention just a few of its values. In fact, when we think about it, we all readily accept that brands contain many, many, essences and this is reflected in the way that we often talk about the values of brands. But this does not stop us (and our clients) searching for the one word or phrase that defines what a brand is. This exercise usually reduces the brand to simplistic levels – stripping out the richness of what it is in pursuit of a simple message or value that can be conveyed to the consumer (Stagliano & O’Malley 2002).

But brands are not simple one-dimensional entities. They have a depth and richness which is what makes them so engaging for the consumer. What we should recognise more fully is that brands contain lots of essences that come together to form unique combinations of values.

What is significant about this view – that brands contain many essences – is that it closely matches the pre-modern belief that reality itself is made up of essences. Prior to the 17th century the notion of ‘objective reality’ was unknown. People recognised that ‘matter’ exists in the world, but essences were thought to be the entities that really determine the nature of reality.

How different essences combine with each other was thought to be the dynamic that drives the characteristics of different objects in the world. Understanding the world did not, therefore, involve finding out what the essence of an object was; instead it was assumed that everything in the world was made up of essences and the key task was to find out which sorts of essence were present in any observed object or phenomena and how they are combined together.

Brands as text

A key assumption behind this pre-modern way of thinking was the underlying belief that reality had a Creator and that reality was, therefore, a ‘text’ (Guignon 2004). This again creates more overlaps with the marketing model of brands. We are all aware that brands have multiple authors (ad agencies, design agencies and the consumer themselves) and we are increasingly familiar with the notion of the brand as a ‘text’ or as a narrative. The only difference between the pre-modern model and the marketing one is that the pre-modern world assumed there was only one text (reality) and only one author (God), whereas we are in the rather messier scenario of multiple authors and multiple texts. But this doesn’t undermine the underlying similarity between the two ways of thinking.

Importantly, the assumption that the world is an ‘act of creation’, or a ‘text’, transforms the role of essences. They become positioned as the ingredients of reality and everything that is created in the world is no more than a reassembling of these ingredients in different orders and in different ways. This, of course, has huge implications for how we think about creativity. Creative acts become ‘reassembly’ in different combinations rather than true creation in itself (Eco 1988). For, self evidently, nothing can be truly created if it is already assumed that the world is the result of an original act of creation. As the Fool says in King Lear: “Nothing will come from Nothing.”

Now, if we think about this in the world of brands we can see that a similar process takes place in marketing. Despite the more exotic claims of agency creatives, the creative process is, relatively often, one of reassembling existing values. These values are (and have to be) socially created – what signifies ‘Frenchness’ or ‘freshness’ or ‘maleness’ are socially determined and when a brand wants to invoke (such a pre-modern term) these values any creative agency needs to work within the remit of what consumers will recognise as signifying them.

Brand owners, therefore, are in the business of reassembly – a touch of ‘Americanness’ here, a touch of ‘premiumness’ there, etc.; they treat the values of their brands as ingredients.

“Brands are thus assemblies of pre-existing values which are bought together in a marketing ‘Bricolage’.” (Levi Strauss 1962)

As semioticians argue, we make meaning. But the true creativity of marketing lies in bringing these ingredients together in the right ways and in the right combinations.

The structure of brands

So, if we move away from thinking that a brand ‘has’ an essence, and we begin to think of it as ‘being’ an essence, what can we learn about the structure of brands? In the pre-modern era there are centuries of thinking about essence that we can turn to for help. Starting with the writings of Greek philosophers such as Plato and then Aristotle (On The Soul, The Metaphysics 1941) we can trace an intellectual tradition that survives until the early 18th century.

So what did these writers think an essence looked like? The overwhelming consensus was that an essence (and therefore a brand in our terms) consisted of a hierarchy of values, assembled in binary combinations, in a pyramidical shape (see chart below). In this structure two dimensions are key. Firstly, we need to know what values are contained within the essence and, secondly, we need to know the hierarchy in which they are structured. Importantly, either of these dimensions will affect the characteristics, and therefore the meaning, of the essence under consideration.

The importance of the vertical dimension cannot be understated. For it is this dimension which determines how an essence is conceived.

In marketing we are used to thinking about brands as having a number of values, but we do not fully recognise that how these values are thought about is what determines their meaning.

Essences, however, operate in exactly this way. How we think about them is what determines what they are. As Judith Williamson states, when talking about advertising: “We can only understand what advertisements mean by finding out how they mean.” (Williamson: 1978)

Brands as propositional hierarchies

The important vertical dimension of a brand can be called its ‘propositional hierarchy’. If we look at two practical examples, we can see how this hierarchy works in determining how consumers think about a brand and its meaning:

  • Stella Artois contains the value of being ‘Continental’ and the value of being 5% abv. In the 1980s it was thought of as a premium continental brand and this gave it many aspirational qualities. The 5% abv was known, but this was not what the brand was about; in the terms of our essence model the abv was lower down the propositional hierarchy while the continental values were near the top. Some 20 years on, these two sets of values have reversed their role in the propositional hierarchy. The brand owners have allowed the abv story to rise up the propositional hierarchy and to define the brand in too significant a way. And the continental values have become too small a part of what the brand is about (and this is no doubt why Stella is redoubling its efforts to appear continental once again).

  • Activia and Yeo Valley both make yogurts with probiotic ingredients. Activia, however, leads with these values and places them very close to the top of its propositional hierarchy. Yeo Valley, by contrast, chooses to focus more on organic values and lets the probiotic values that it possesses play a minor role in its offer. Both brands have products with probiotic values, but they choose to use these values in different places in their propositional hierarchy.

Propositional hierarchy – the way in which consumers think about brands – is a useful tool for qualitative researchers.

Is the brand that you are working on at the moment expressing the wrong values – or is it simply conveying the right values, but doing so in the wrong propositional hierarchy?

Brands as organising principles – the ‘Arche’

If we accept the view that brands are collections of ‘sub-essences’, then it follows that there is some kind of organising principle that assembles all of these constitutive ingredients in an appropriate propositional hierarchy. For Plato and Aristotle this organising principle was called a ‘form’. Aristotle, in particular, called the upper part of the pyramid by a particular name – he called it the ‘arche’.

The values at the top of the pyramid are the key elements of the essence – those that were most pivotal in creating its meaning. The word ‘arche’ is, of course, one which marketers have already encountered in the guise of Jung’s archetypes. These are sometimes used by marketing professionals to identify a brand’s personality. Jung was the originator of thinking in terms of archetypes, but he simply borrowed and developed the concept from Aristotle.

If we conceive of the brand in this way, however, we can go much further than simply evaluating what sort of personality it has. Thinking about the brand as an ‘organising principle’ is a very effective way of analysing what it does. For a brand takes a set of pre-existing values and organises them in a particular way.

As we have discussed, in relation to propositional hierarchy, it is the way in which its values are ordered that impacts the most on the meaning of a brand. The brand as an ‘organising principle’ often has the most impact when it is translated to retail concepts. In these cases we are then looking at ‘organising principles’ in a very practical and concrete way. How, for instance, does Pizza Express organise the values of a pizza restaurant? How does the Marriot organise the values of a hotel differently from the Hilton?

Qualia – the bridge to qualitative research

We began this paper talking about the origins of qualitative research and how they could be found in the philosophical thought of the pre-modern era. We have looked at the structure of brands when they are considered as essences. So what is the bridge between the two?

When Aristotle was translated into Latin by the medievals, the values or nodes in the pyramidical structure that are the ingredients of an essence were called ‘qualia’ (the singular is ‘quale’) (Aristotle: Posterior Analytics 1941). We now find we are working within a framework that relates directly to qualitative research. The very subject matter that we are researching, if it is construed as consisting of essences, is made up of the qualitative ingredients of reality. Brands are made up of qualia in particular combinations and propositional hierarchies. Brands themselves are qualitative entities.

Qualis? – the etymological root of qualitative research

But qualia are not the only link to qualitative research. If we look for one moment at the structure of an essence outlined in our chart we can see that it looks like a biological or family tree. It appears to be a classificatory way of thinking about the world. This creates another bridge to qualitative thinking. If we look up ‘qualitative’ in the Oxford English Dictionary we discover that its etymological root can be found in the word ‘qualis?’ which means ‘what sort of?’ This ties in very directly with the structure of essence that we have been discussing.

For if qualitative research begins with the assumption everything in the world around us is made up of essences, then the key task of the researcher is to discover what sort of essences these are.

This is not just a simple matter of putting brands into boxes and classifying them in a simplistic way. As we have seen, a brand is defined by the values that it contains and by the way that these are arranged into hierarchies. It is by understanding how these hierarchies are constructed that we come to understand what sort of brand we are dealing with.

In semiotics, the same approach is adopted. Umberto Eco, quoting Katz (1979), discusses how a phenomenon such as a chair is a ‘text’ – it is socially constructed. He describes the process of understanding what sort of thing a chair is by ‘tracing down’ from the top of its pyramid as follows:

“(Object) (Physical) (Non Living) (Artefact) (Furniture) (Portable) (Something with legs) (Something with a back) (Something with a seat) (seat for one).”

At each step down this pyramid we find that we are qualifying each term. This is how we define it. It is no surprise to find that we have now stumbled upon another ‘qual’ word.

This qualitative way of thinking encourages us to think about brands in yet another way: as qualifications of the world.

When we talked earlier about the Marriot and the Hilton and how these brands had ‘organising principles’, we were discussing how they organised the values of ‘being a hotel’. This is, in effect, the same as considering how the two brands qualify ‘hotelness’. This, too, is a very useful way of thinking about brands and it has widespread applications.

How does Budweiser qualify ‘lagerness’? How does Waitrose qualify ‘supermarketness’? Thinking of the action of brands as qualifying something is, one soon discovers, a far more illuminating exercise than thinking about them as the simple purveyors of messages to the consumer.

Qualitative reality?

In this discussion, we have seen how brands are structured and how this very structure relates to qualitative research itself. Brands, once they are understood as essences, can be viewed as combinations of ‘qualia’ and the way in which they are combined determines what sort of essence each brand is.

This approach clearly has significant implications for how we construe our function as qualitative researchers. We are used to thinking that our professional task is to understand consumer psychology. The arguments outlined in this paper confront us with an entirely different modus operandi.

For we can now see that we are in another business: that of understanding ‘qualitative reality’. This is not the sort of reality that we have been brought up to believe in. It consists of socially constructed texts of which we are all authors. These texts are made up of essences which have propositional hierarchies. Identifying the ‘qualia’ in these hierarchies and how they are structured is the real task of the qualitative researcher.

In contemporary culture, brands undoubtedly represent some of the most important manifestations of essence that consumers experience. Brands are socially constructed, fluid and relational and they behave exactly like a text. They also have an almost a metaphysical quality which explains much of their power over us.

In this discussion we have encountered the main reason for this power. It lies in the fact that brands are real. But their reality goes well beyond our conventional definitions. Naomi Klein summarises this conclusion very succinctly:

“The old paradigm had it that all marketing was selling a product. In the new model, however, the product always takes a back seat to the real product, the brand and the selling of the brand acquired an extra component that can only be described as spiritual. Advertising is about hawking a product. Branding, in its truest and most advanced incarnations, is about corporate transcendence.” (Klein: 2001)

Transcendence. How very pre-modern.


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