How Customers Think. Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market – Gerald Zaltman

Some time back, Brian Baumal draw my attention towards this book by Gerald Zaltman. I never got to thank him so here it is: thank you Brian.

I remember that when I first read the book, it really got my hopes high. I was really enthusiastic for more than 200 pages. Then it just let me down.

A couple of weeks back I had the surprise of finding the same book, translated into Romanian (Cum gandesc consumatorii – Aspecte esentiale pentru studiile de piata, Polirom, 2007). I didn’t quite remembered why it let me down the first time I read it. So, I bought it, hoping that now, years later, after gathering more experience in research, I could properly understand it. So I read it again and of course remembered what disappointed me about this book.

Don’t get me wrong. The book makes for a good reading and it does get you thinking. Only for this reason and you should try it.

What bothers me most is that it just doesn’t keep its promise. The book starts taking a look at some of the newest (the book is published in 2003) advancements in neurology, psychology etc. and comes to a theory of what mind is, how thoughts are created, the role of emotion in this process etc. (nothing revolutionary here. More like a collection of already accepted facts about mind). Then it goes on saying that traditional qualitative research (mainly focus groups) does not stand a chance in uncovering the real motivations of the customers. So far, so good. But the whole time you’re reading you get this feeling that the author has a solution for all this. So you wait and wait and get your hopes high. You swallow the lack of structure, the vagueness of his examples and wait for his solution. And then the solution comes: metaphor elicitation – in other words an in depth interview in which the respondent is asked to bring with him a picture that best illustrates his feeling toward a brand, social problem etc.

In this point I thought: “but we already do this”. We also make collages, mind maps, diaries, ladders etc. And they’ve been around for years. I’m not saying that this is a bad method. But is this the promised salvation? The only way through which you will uncover the truth, the alpha and omega of qualitative research? Not really. It’s like in this episode of South Park when God comes to earth in a big, blinding light, with angel’s music on the background but he takes the shape of a drooling hypo-cat thing – the picture at the beginning ( min. 19:00).
south park


5 Responses to “How Customers Think. Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market – Gerald Zaltman”

  1. Hi Cristi – Thanks for the reference.

    I agree with everything you say about “How Customers Think”, and like many books, it fails to live-up to its promise – and in many cases we do the whole picture-sort thing already. What the book fails to mention (and I think this is done on purpose) is HOW to actually conduct a ZMET interview. That is, they don’t tell the interviewer how to go through the pictures, how to ask initial questions, how to ask follow-up questions and how to probe more deeply into responses.

    With a background in and knowledge of psychotherapy, including some brief experience with “art therapy” I know exactly what to do with the pictures and my ZMET-style interviews work-out exceptionally well.

    The problem that most researchers have is that they either take answers from respondents literally, they cannot recognize when ZMET is actually working to cause projection, and/or they do not know what to do with an emotional/deep response when it is given. Zaltman’s books don’t explain these either.

    When I use a ZMET-like interview, my “going-in” assumption is that “the picture is never the picture”. So instead of saying “tell me how this picture relates to the brand”, the first thing I say is “You’ve brought in 10 pictures. For the first picture we discuss, show me the LAST picture you chose, and tell me why it was the last picture.” Then when we start talking about other pictures I’ll ask other questions like “Which picture was easiest to choose” or “Which one is just a little embarrassing for you to show me?”

    What these questions do is that they psychologically “reframe” the picture just slightly for the participant to “get them out of their heads”, which is exactly what showing the picture is supposed to do. If all we get is “word-for word” descriptions, we are definitely not implementing a proper ZMET technique. Any time a participant starts giving a word-for-word description, I’ll look at something in the picture and ask the participant to focus on just one aspect of the picture and/or get them to tell me a story about the picture. I recently did an interview, where I just stopped a guy who was describing the picture and said “Hey that house in the picture looks like a crack house. Who’s in there right now?” Now, that did not provide any insight to the overall project, but it’s what needs to be done to get people out of their heads.

    When I give talks about this, I often compare ZMET to the famous Rorschach Inkblot test. When a Rorschach test is done, very little of what a subject interprets a picture to be is used in making any sort of clinical diagnosis. What is much more important is how the test subject is behaving. For example, if a test subject says “Hey Doc, if you can just tell me what the first inkblot actually is, I’d appreciate it. I just want to know that, so I can get the other pictures right.” From this comment, the test administrator knows that the subject is manipulative and concerned about being right. The fact that the respondent says the picture is a bear, car, toaster or Elvis makes no difference what-so-ever. The tester can then explore the subject’s manipulative behaviour by showing other pictures.

    Anyhow to sum-up, Zaltman’s Book does not provide the keys to implementing his technique. I’m not sure whether to fault him on this omission though, as most books don’t give-up the keys to the store so easily anyhow. Besides, I found much of the book to be over-blown anyhow. I have always maintained that research “borrows” from other fields, and in doing-so, it never borrows to its fullest extent.

  2. Hi Brian

    Thank you for your detailed answer. I totally agree with everything you say. Researchers should not limit their inquires to first reactions, pictures or any “pretext” materials should be used only to jog respondents thoughts on an issue and it is always useful to get respondents make a step away from their heads as you say. And I can agree that ZMET (Zaltman’s Metaphor Elicitation Technique) can do all this and more.

    Still, I am wondering: is this really a new way of doing things? Or just a good packaging? I still cannot see the difference between ZMET and the use of a projective technique based on pictures as pretexts. Or between getting to the ZMET constructs and a laddering exercise.

    And I am a little confused by the resemblance between ZMET and Rorschach. In the later, it really matters if you see a tree or a cow, its position in the picture and a lot of other elements based on which a professional can calculate different indices and asses one’s personality far beyond tendencies toward manipulation. In ZMET, from what I’ve gathered, the respondent gives his own account of the picture and its meaning. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    The one merit I can clearly see in ZMET is its foundation in a more or less clear theory about mind and marketing. If most researchers play it by ear, not caring to much about theory, Zaltman tries to build a theory in support of his technique. And, I really appreciate that, regardless of my acceptance of his arguments.

    And one last thing regarding the keys to the shop. ZMET is a copyrighted tool and giving it away would mean bad business. I can understand that. But in that case, why put the teaser in a book? It’s like saying “I have the key and if you buy this book you’ll know what it opens. Now that you know what door it opens let’s make some business”. So, I have to pay in order to get interested in paying more. It seems a little dishonest to me.

  3. I completely agree on both fronts… I really really wanted to like the book, but honestly couldn’t even get all the way through because there wasn’t any unique “solution” to point to, or “how” to conduct the ZMET type interview. (by the way – great call on the South Park reference 🙂

  4. Redneck Ricky Says:

    Yes, the book is a teaser and leaves you wanting for more. I guess that was whole idea, use it to develop interest in ZMET. Why would Zaltman tell the world how to use ZMET wouldn’t that defeat the purpose of patented the method.

    Having used ZMET and knowing a fair bit about it, I think it is most effective IDI methodology out there for providing clients with tangible insights especially when it comes to creative development. I accept that ZMET does not completely dig into the subconscious but is certainly the best method out there for providing clients with deep knowledge of how their consumers actually THINK!!!

  5. I didn´t read the book, only interviews Zaltman gave to a Brazilian magazine and the material from his company website but I had the same impression all of you had: he seems to have reinvented the heel and to have access to the real thing one have to pay for a project using ZMET. I agree that this a way to do business, but….

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