Projective Techniques: Eliciting Deeper Thoughts

Drivers of Consumer Behavior

Marketers strive to understand attitudes, motivators and behaviors that drive brand or product selection and loyalty. Obviously, some consumers make purchase decisions solely based on a balance of price or product feature at the time of purchase, especially when it comes to commodity products.

But brand selection and loyalty is also based on intangible values that go beyond product functional attributes.

Intangible Benefits

Consumers construct a perception of a brand and of the values it represents. And they will select brands that fit their own value system because of the emotional benefits that brand ownership can provide them, such as a sense of accomplishment or because it helps them attain ideals.

For example, Bang & Olufsen audio-visual consumer products may not be the most user-friendly, or even of higher sound quality than some less expensive brands, but their ownership provides some consumers with a sense of sophistication with which they want to be associated. In this sense, perceived benefits of image outweigh the negatives lack of usability can create. Unless the lack of usability is also perceived as a benefit by providing a sense of exclusivity ("I can master the impenetrable user interface").

Surface-level Information

In an attempt to understand the core values that facet these emotional relationships with brands and products, companies will often conduct focus groups or depth interviews in which they invite consumers to discuss their attitudes openly.

But what focus group or depth interview participants say cannot always be taken at face value. Consumers do not always speak their true minds for various reasons; fear of being judged, desire to please the interviewer or difficulty in understanding their own thought processes.

In many Asian cultures for example, where people tend to refrain from voicing out their opinions directly, direct questioning will often result in surface-level agreeable answers.

Even in the most honest and open setting, it can be difficult to get to the bottom of things; people are often not even aware of the true reasons behind their own behavior. While they might attempt to give a rational explanation for a certain behavior or can voice out conscious thoughts at the moment they arise, people in general are not good at analyzing their own thought processes. In fact, most of our thought processes occur without our conscious knowledge that they do.

And it is those unconscious processes that ultimately drive the consumer behavior.

Beneath the Surface

To understand consumers’ true thoughts and deep-rooted motivations, it is sometimes necessary to explore beneath the surface and tap into consumers’ unspoken values. One way to access such a level of insights is through the use of investigative methods called projective techniques.

Projective techniques are methods used by psychologists to uncover deep-rooted thoughts that may not arise as a result of direct questioning. In short, they consist in getting respondents to speak about something indirectly by “projecting” their thoughts on something else. This allows bypassing resistance to direct questioning that may make participants uncomfortable, or to tap into underlying thought processes that are not immediately available to respondents.

Types of projective techniques could be broadly categorized in the following categories: association, construction, completion, arrangement or selection, and expression. Following are examples of traditional techniques:

  • Thematic Apperception Test (TAT): Respondents are shown pictures of ambiguous social setting (a man and a woman sitting together in a coffee shop, the man looking away), and are asked to make a story about what is happening. They can also be probed on specific aspects of the picture (why are there 3 glasses, why is this one empty, etc.).
  • Sentence Completion: Respondents presented with various incomplete sentences and asked to complete them. "If only this product was…"
  • Role-playing: Participants are asked to play the role of someone else.
  • Word association: Participants are asked to give the first word that comes to mind immediately after being shown or told a word.

Market Research Applications

While their use in clinical and forensics settings remains controversial, mostly because of predictability reasons, projective techniques can be well suited for market research. Instead of being used for personality assessment, they can be used in attitudinal, behavioral or exploratory studies. They have different implications and usually look at one specific aspect of brand or product relationship. And the stimuli used, instead of being entirely ambiguous, is usually controlled and directly related to the product or brand.

Generally more focused, projective techniques in market research settings also leave less space for open-ended erroneous interpretation.

However, methods need to be carefully chosen, and adapted from their clinical applications. For example, it would be difficult to find any market research application of the popular personality assessment Rorschach Inkblot Test, in which participants are shown symmetrical inkblots and asked to say what each represents.

Following are examples of applications of projective techniques in market research settings.

Getting Honest Opinions

Projective techniques are particularly useful at circumventing conscious resistance to direct questioning. They can be used to get participants’ true opinion on a topic by getting them to comment about something indirectly, thus relieving inhibitions.

For example, in one study we asked participants to imagine that a specific brand was a person, and later to describe that person’s personality traits. Results uncovered emotional responses very different from opinions voiced out earlier at the surface level and raised the need to seriously consider readjusting the brand image.

Help Formulating Thoughts

Projective techniques can also be used to uncover connotations that people would normally have difficulty to articulate. In another study, we used a modified word association technique through which people were asked to distribute a number of cards holding different words (qualities, emotions and neutral words) between two different potential brand names. The exercise helped us uncover deep-rooted perceived brand attributes associated with different names.

Concept Testing

Projective techniques can be particularly useful for concept testing, which is a process used to evaluate product ideas or advertising prototypes prior to their introduction in the marketplace. They can overcome the shortcomings other market research methods have in identifying underlying evaluation criteria on which consumer preferences of one concept over another are based.


While projective techniques look simple, they need to be used judiciously. Tests have to be carefully designed to ensure that they are controlled and what is intended to be measured is isolated from other factors. And because they are indirect investigative techniques, the quality and applicability of results rely heavily on researcher’s capability to interpret them correctly.

Nonetheless, projective techniques need not be costly, and can provide insights that are difficult to get through other research methods.

Marketers have long understood that emotional factors play an important role in brand or product selection. Projective techniques give them the means to understand what creates those consumer/product emotional bonds by allowing them to tap into the true consumer insights that lie beneath the surface.

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David Jacques is Founder and Principal Consultant of Customer input Ltd and a pioneer in the field of Customer Experience Management. He has created the first Framework that brings together cohesively every aspect of Customer Experience Management. He is also passionate about having an in-depth understanding customer values to create emotionally-engaging customer experiences not only at individual interactions but also seamlessly between them.

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