Over the past few years many of us who work in brand strategy at Y&R have been noticing a disturbing trend. It seems our industry has begun to use traditional surveys and focus groups almost exclusively to develop advertising campaign strategies. We’ve observed that an over-reliance on these methods – which reflect consumers’ conscious attitudes – often leads to ineffective creative strategies.

For example, imagine a scenario in which men insist in focus groups that they hate dumbed-down, sexually-suggestive beer advertising, but when we create a more sophisticated campaign it fails in the marketplace.

The reasons why aren’t completely clear – perhaps it’s due to an increasing need for consumers to respond with socially correct answers, or the unwillingness of respondents to take a position contrary to that of others in a group setting. But it seems to be happening more and more.

So a major question we’ve been asking ourselves recently is: How can we get a truer view of consumer motives so we can craft better campaigns the first time?

To find an answer, we decided to do some foundational exploratory research to help get at both the conscious and unconscious sides of consumer motivation. Our hypothesis was that what people say (consciously) in response to rational research questions isn’t the whole story and may in fact be misleading us.


The study we designed is unusual in its melding of two research approaches: Traditional survey research, which reveals what people think consciously; and indirect questioning, using an approach called implicit association that reveals unconscious motivations – the deep drives that operate outside of our conscious awareness.

Implicit research methods uncover unconscious reactions indirectly, e.g., through reaction time. Tests like these have been used extensively and reliably in academia in the study of prejudice, psychopathology and attitudes, among other topics, and were featured in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink.

Y&R partnered with psychologist Dr. Joel Weinberger, an expert in unconscious processes, to design and analyze the results of this study. Dr. Weinberger is a clinical, personality and motivation psychologist, a partner in Implicit Strategies, and a Professor at the Derner Institute for Advanced Psychological Studies, Adelphi University. The two specific tests Dr. Weinberg employed in the study were implicit networks and implicit emotions tests.

The research was conducted in the Spring of 2013 online among 900 respondents in the U.S., Brazil and China, with representative samples of adults 18+ in the U.S. and A, B, and C social classes in China and Brazil.

What Did We Learn?

The Hidden World.

We found that some of consumers’ most important motivations are hidden from view to the casual observer, and that our consciously stated motives may misstate what lies within. Our personal desires appear to operate on two different planes – the conscious and the unconscious, which turn out to be quite different from one another.

Across all three countries studied (U.S., China and Brazil), for example, the #1 most important value consciously was “meaning in life” – whereas unconsciously it is “sexual fulfillment.” The #2 conscious value is “choosing your own path;” #2 unconsciously is “honoring tradition.” According to Dr. Weinberger, “What we saw across all the data is that people’s unconscious values seem to operate in a world independent of what they can readily tell us. This helps to understand why we sometimes have trouble explaining our actions or even argue with ourselves.”

Perhaps the frontier of business isn’t technology – but rather the unexplored world of the consumer unconscious. But to tap into it, we must to learn to hear what consumers are not telling market researchers.

Our Inner Civil War

The study found that not only do consumers’ conscious and unconscious values differ – in many cases they actually oppose each other. In all three countries, values that were highly ranked consciously were ranked much lower unconsciously, and vice versa. For example, the top ranked conscious values in the U.S. (helpfulness, choosing your own path and meaning in life) seem to channel Oprah Winfrey. But the top unconscious values (maintaining security, sexual fulfillment and honoring tradition) may be more reminiscent of Tony Soprano.

We found that brands, too, are viewed very differently consciously and unconsciously, with tech leaders like Google and Apple, for example, strongly liked consciously – yet secretly disliked unconsciously. In the U.S., Facebook and the National Enquirer are “guilty pleasure” brands – more liked unconsciously than consciously. The study concluded that both mindsets are important and meaningful in consumers’ motivations – and that rather than expecting consumers to behave consistently we should expect contradiction and paradox to be the norm.

A New Mainstream?

Going into the research our hypothesis was that a global “vanguard” group of respondents would emerge whose conscious and unconscious values match – that is they say they value “world peace” most on a stated basis and it’s also most important when we measure it unconsciously. In this study, that group did not emerge. Everyone today, it seems, lives in a state of conscious-unconscious conflict.

Yet the data indicate this conflict doesn’t seem to terribly bother people. Respondents’ top attitudes all reflect a comfort level with a fluid, evolving, multi-faceted personal identity. The top attitudes in the study reflect a consumer who is:

  • Individualistic: 60 percent agree that “people should be free to marry, live and work however they want”
  • Empowered: 60 percent agree that ”it’s up to me to get what I want in life”
  • Self-Directed: 51 percent agree that “success is about how you see yourself, not how other people think of you”
  • Ageless: 55 percent agree that “my age doesn’t define me; it’s not central to who I am”
  • Evolving: 53 percent agree that “my identity – who I really am – is a work in progress”

We therefore hypothesize that a new global mainstream is emerging, defined not by conformity to demographic or lifestyle norms, but rather by an embracing of our own individuality.

Unfortunately, these same respondents do not feel that marketers ‘get’ them. Only 29 percent of survey respondents globally “approve of the ways marketers and advertisers portray people like me.” Just 11 percent in the U.S. feel that way.


Three key implications for marketers emerge from these data:

  1. Rethinking Reliance on Traditional Research – Marketers and researchers who rely on traditional surveys and focus groups alone are probably only getting half the story.
  2. Rethinking Traditional Targeting – As marketers we typically put target audiences into uniform segments and expect them to behave in consistent ways (e.g., soccer mom drives a minivan and wears mom jeans.) This research indicates she is much more complex.
  3. Rethinking Traditional Positioning – We’ve been programmed to believe that ‘single-mindedness’ is the foundation of all good branding. Yet this research shows consumers aren’t singular today. It may sound like heresy but…is it time for brands to move away from the single-minded idea and embrace conflict and tension?

This research also reinforces a recent policy change at Y&R that requires all creative research initiatives to go beyond conscious attitudinal data collection. We call this approach “Think, Say, Do” and it reflects the need for a multi-faceted research approach to get at today’s complex consumer who may sometimes consciously hide his or her true motivation. In other words, no more sole reliance on surveys and focus groups. There are obviously many different ways to implement this policy, including the assessment of implicit associations (as used above). We also do ethnographies using a consumer immersion technique called ‘exploring’, and we are experimenting with several neuro-science techniques.

In line with the thinking from the “Secrets and Lies” study, we’ve been helping clients to go out and find their “Brand Tension.” This is the idea that break-away brands – like the new consumer – thrive on conflict and polarity (e.g., LandRover = Hardworking and Luxury.) Brands that are one-note (e.g., K-Mart = Cheap) are simply less interesting to consumers today than those that demonstrate more depth of character by embracing a tension (e.g., Target = Cheap and Chic.) Patagonia’s new campaign takes this concept to an extreme – by embracing being eco-friendly while simultaneously acknowledging all the ways they currently harm the environment. It will be interesting to see if this bold approach succeeds.

What’s Next

We are obviously in the early stages of tapping into the unconscious and still have many unanswered questions. Is there a ‘hidden’ (unconscious) side of brand equity that is completely unexplored? Can this new side of brand equity help us unlock brands’ hidden vulnerabilities (e.g., secretly disliked brands like Google and Starbucks) and or hidden potential (e.g., secretly liked brands like Exxon and Facebook)? That’s probably where we are going next with this research.

To be clear, Y&R considers this a pilot study, and its purpose is more to raise vital questions for the future of marketing than to provide definitive answers. That said – we hope this study reveals there are big potential rewards for us if we continue looking more deeply into the recesses of the consumer’s secret world.