It seems to be a no brainer that products are designed to fulfill consumer needs. It seems equally obvious that advertising and other marketing communications are supposed to relate a product to consumers' underlying needs and values. The real problem seems to be finding out what consumers want and why they want it.

Tools to Uncover Why

Since the 1950s marketers have devised various tools and methods designed to uncover consumer motivations-projective techniques like sentence completion, collages, or word association tests, focus groups, ethnographic studies, and depth interviews. While all these method may yield valuable insights, one that is useful but less well known is a technique called "laddering."

Goals of Laddering

The basic goal of laddering is to identify what attributes of a product consumers find important and then link these important attributes to motivations and values central to consumers' lives. Laddering proceeds in a series of steps as follows.

Step 1: Finding Differences Among Brands

Laddering is done on an individual level, with one interviewer working with one respondent. It's not nearly as efficient a tool for data collection as focus groups, but on the other hand, the insights may be worth the effort.

The interviewer first presents the respondent with a list of brands in the same category - say Budweiser, Miller Lite, Heineken, and Corona. The respondents' job is to tell the interviewer how these brands differ in terms of their attributes. Sometimes this job is made easier by presenting respondents with two brands at a time and asking them to indicate how they are similar and how they are different. Sometimes it's made easier by asking respondents to consider different occasions in which they might use each brand and what it is about each that makes it appropriate for that situation. No matter what method is used, the key is to identify the attributes that differentiate brands.

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image of Debbie MacInnis

Debbie MacInnis is the Charles L. and Ramona I. Hilliard Professor of Business Administration and a professor of marketing at USC's Marshall School of Business. She is co-author of a recent book on brand admiration, which blends years of best-practice thinking from academia with the real-world practice of marketing.

LinkedIn: Debbie MacInnis