As qualitative researchers we find ourselves overcome by an archeological drive. We constantly dig deeper — going beneath the surface, mining for fresh insights — to get closer to the truth. Yet many-a-time, we hear what we have heard before or encounter an impasse. It is like furiously drilling a hole deep into the ground in search of water and encountering an impenetratable rock.

We have growing evidence that consumers have access to only a small part of their own thinking and much of our decision-making happens subconsciously.

Knowledge and tools aimed at understanding this subconscious thinking are now accessible to quallies. Usually, data collection and data analysis — two distinct processes that lead to powerful insights — are seen along one continuum. We tried something different, combining two different approaches, one for data collection and another framework for interpreting. It worked synergistically since both these approaches in one way or the other were meant to unearth that which is subconscious.

In the process we learnt that insight is as much about what we do as it is about how we think!

Alpha state interviews

Though our mind subconsciously registers everything we experience, we have conscious access to only a small part of it. Certain conditions, however, like the "alpha state", i.e. the "relaxed" state of consciousness just before we fall asleep or when we are daydreaming, make it possible to access this subconscious material. While in everyday life we slip in and out of the "alpha state" spontaneously, it can be stimulated by listening to certain sound frequencies that aid relaxation and using visualisation techniques that are geared towards getting the consumer to use all their five senses.

This approach is modeled around some basic theories of the human mind:

  • Though consciously we remember only seven-nine bits of information, subconsciously, we can access our earliest memories and experiences.

  • The brain does not understand the difference between an "actual" experience and one "imagined vividly". Hence, through subconscious interviews, a person not just recounts memories but also relives those with the associated emotions. Emotions are an important influence on decisions since they cause memories to become permanent.

  • The subconscious mind regulates involuntary actions — hence also gives clues to understand snap decisions.

Of course, projective or metaphor-elicitation techniques are other ways to by-pass the conscious mind, although unlike alpha state interviews, which give direct access to the subconscious matter, they attempt to access the subconscious information in a conscious state, which is less satisfactory.

Case study 1: Pairing subconscious interviews semiotics

We were challenged to re-energise an old footwear brand, still familiar to many consumers. It wanted to stay relevant to its audience, while doing justice to the many sub-brands in its portfolio. We argued there was a need to "go beyond the obvious" if we were to achieve a springboard for creative ideation on the brand proposition. We had to get consumers to recall earliest brand imprints, to unearth the category symbolism. This was a tough task, especially for males who felt ill-suited to such a request.

Once in the alpha state, we used regression techniques to get consumers to recall their earliest brand memories. The interviews revealed that the dominant association with the brand was that of "school shoes" and uniforms. Semiotic associations with uniforms rubbed off on the brand. The school shoe brand stood for values diametrically opposite to that of a "fashion accessory" that adults sought from footwear brands.

Uniforms were a leveler whereas fashion helped people stand out. The communication and store semiotics for this brand reinforced the uniform code; advertising all sub-brands together — as opposed to playing by the fashion code — where individual style elements were emphasised and a retail environment that resembled a storeroom.

During these interviews consumers did not use the language of reason but often spoke in terms of images, sounds, feelings — even smell, which gave us fodder for the semiotic analysis. From semiotic analysis emerged new positioning spaces for the brand.

Case study 2: Pairing subconscious interviews BE

We set out to explore decision-making variables for mass-market luggage brands. Our initial work produced an anomaly, so we supplemented it with subconscious interviews. Consumers told us they were careful to compare the price and features of bags before buying — yet they also told us that luggage was an uninvolving category. Subconscious interviews, meanwhile, revealed that the purchase decision was made in the first few minutes of entering the store or even before. The evaluation of options was just a validation process.

The BE principles further strengthened the findings. Consumers value a brand that simplifies the decisionmaking process, and this one's logo achieved standout on shelf, yet remained distinct and consistent across models — unlike its competitors.

Through subconscious interviews we found that people chose the client's brand over others with similar features and price because of residual subliminal associations. The logo had left a strong imprint. The need to buy a bag prompted memories a decade old or more to resurface, of cool relatives who also used this brand. Early brand communication that conveyed premium, glamorous imagery also influenced choice.

People make decisions based on the observation that lots of people have made the same choice. Seeing the logo repeatedly on many bags reinforced choice about social acceptability.

It may not always be possible to make a complete shift in thinking, but we believe the adventure is in the attempt.