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Marketing Mind Meld, Part 2

by Ted Mininni  |  
April 3, 2008

Apparently, for quite a while now, some marketers have hosted focus groups using hypnosis as their tool. The wraps are off in a recent Brandweek article "Hypnosis Brings Groups into Focus." I find it interesting that the article refers to hypnosis as a "secret weapon" for Fortune 500 companies and ad agencies.

This calls to mind the marketing mind meld from a previous topic I blogged about here. As science comes together increasingly with marketing, new "tools" are becoming available, and I think we ought to explore what these are, how they are used, and decide on the pros and cons they represent.
Here's how hypnosis is being used by marketers. Eight subjects set aside two hours for "the process". In the first 25 minutes, they are introduced to "the process", so they can relax. Once they arrive at what is referred to as the "alpha" state of relaxation, the hypnotist asks each subject to comment on topics related to brands and products and their experiences with them.
The point: more candid, deeper observations can be gleaned by using the hypnosis method with survey groups. These deeper observations tend to be highly emotive in nature, and that really goes to consumers' core feelings about products and brands, as well as the associations they make to them. Knowing that our emotions drive us to make the choices that we do as consumers, this is obviously powerful information. One marketer cited in the article stated it this way: "It's about getting emotional content that is so much more vivid and colorful."
A great example was given. When a focus group was asked about Volvo, the old stand-by "safety" came out. When the same group was led by a hypnotist, the subjects' true feelings came out about the Volvo brand. Terms like "Volvo equals being middle-aged" brought the conversation about the brand to "a deeper, more emotional place," according to the marketing agency that conducted the group.
While the information that was divulged may not have been pleasant for Volvo to hear, the contention is that it is far more helpful to get an accurate read on consumer feelings about the brand.
The marketers who were interviewed for the article were quick to point out that some of their corporate clients are not comfortable with, and won't allow the use of hypnosis with their focus groups. That some even had "ethical concerns". You think?
It was also emphasized that "the power of suggestion can't prompt consumers to say or do anything against their will." Hmmmm. . .one wonders. . .
As you might expect, the use of hypnosis with marketing groups has its detractors. Noted author Douglas Rushkoff: "It's worse than nonsense. It's a part of the continuing trend of American businesses moving away from actual expertise. They are wasting their marketing dollars."
New York Reason consultant Marc Babej: "I have a particular venom for this area. These subconscious attitudes have little to do with purchase decisions. Most consumers navigate the marketplace based on the tangible benefits of the product." While I don't agree with the latter statement Babej made, since emotions play a much larger role in consumer purchasing decisions than basic features and benefits these days, I'm sure his observations will resonate with many marketers.
Do you think there is a place for hypnosis in focus groups?
Do you think it's worth going deeper to get at focus group subjects' true feelings about products and brands?
Do you think this is too invasive and can be abused, or do you think this is a potentially valuable tool that more marketers should avail themselves of?
I'd love to hear from you.

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Ted Mininni is president of Design Force, Inc. (, a leading brand-design consultancy to consumer product companies (phone: 856-810-2277). Ted is also a regular contributor to the MarketingProfs blog, the Daily Fix.

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  • by Paul Barsch Thu Apr 3, 2008 via blog

    Ted, I'm no focus group expert, but I've run a couple. I have found that by setting ground rules up front, I was able to get some "truths". I would tell participants, we want to know what you really think (even if it hurts). Don't tell us what we want to hear. In my instance, I ran the focus groups, but for a better approach, a neutral third party would probably get the participants to open up more. I've never tried hypnosis and think considering the extra costs, it would be of dubious value.

  • by Ted Mininni Thu Apr 3, 2008 via blog

    I understand what you're saying, completely, Paul. I'm sure that this idea of using hypnosis in regard to focus groups is bound to raise more than a few eyebrows, and a whole lot of skepticism in many quarters. Thanks for commenting. I appreciate it, Paul.

  • by Ed Healy Fri Apr 4, 2008 via blog

    Personally, I don't like giving up control - in any form - of my mind to anyone. So for me, hypnosis is not an option. It creeps me out. That said, if others want to use it, participants are voluntary, and there is some form of professional monitoring of the situation... I have no problem with it. To me it's an ethical questions first. The quality of research is secondary.

  • by Dusan Fri Apr 4, 2008 via blog

    Wow, Ted, again the extra topic. Personally, I was experimenting with hypnosis at my youth. Discovering it. Somehow I understand it and belive that with the support of it we can understand consumer better. If we understand them better, we make better products to fit their needs. So, there is place for hypnosis. Any denial of using it is fear of unknown. After we would try it more, we could debate on usefulness? Unfortanetly, haven't had that possibility yet. So far I think that most people see hypnosis as something "magical, wicked, playing with people, non-scientific". Yet it is natural and useful in any psychological field. Can it be abused? Any given day. Yet which marketing research cannot be? Which information can't be abused? Even the information on this site that we are reading at the moment can be abused. It is a question of ethics if you abuse it or not. Ted, you make me think each time, great. :-)

  • by Ted Mininni Fri Apr 4, 2008 via blog

    This issue is bound to raise some ethical questions, Ed. I agree that while the use of hypnosis in focus groups is voluntary, many would be reluctant to participate. Other people might not mind it at all. As you point out: different strokes. . .Delving into subjects' minds more deeply seems terribly intrusive, doesn't it, though? Thanks for weighing in, Ed. I appreciate your balanced, well thought out comments.

  • by Ted Mininni Fri Apr 4, 2008 via blog

    You're right, Dusan, hypnosis like any other marketing approach that delves into people's thoughts and opinions, can be used incorrectly. The privilege to obtain information from willing participants must be viewed as that. A privilege. And, like Paul, I question whether hypnosis would give marketing research additional value, too. That's where you and I might differ. It will be interesting to see whether many companies choose to use hypnosis more in future marketing research, or not. My gut says many companies will choose to steer clear of this option, but we'll see. Thanks for adding a great deal to this discussion, Dusan. Much appreciated.

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  • by Mario Vellandi Mon Apr 14, 2008 via blog

    Ted, I'm borderline on the subject. Like Dusan said, the field is widely misunderstood. I've read on hypnotherapy & NLP, and understand the possibilities of evoking honest feelings from subjects. However, the potential for eliciting false positives and irrelevant biases can exist. Without details about the unique methodology applied, the environment, and other contextual information on the study, it would be inappropriate to cast a black or white qualitative assessment. To me it remains gray.

  • by Richard Hennessy Sun Jan 16, 2011 via blog

    Sorry for coming to the conversation so late but I had to add my professional opinion. I am a hypnotherapist and have run a private practice in Sheffield (UK) for the last few years. I am now looking at working with several market research companies to develop hypnosis focus groups.
    As a technique hypnosis can be very powerful but it only works with those who want it to work with. Instructions and questions must be within acceptable levels for the individual. If an instruction takes them outside their own moral boundaries the individual will not comply.
    Ethically there are no problems if the participant has had the study explained in full and has given their informed consent. Hypnosis is perfectly safe and natural. We all go into some degree of hypnotic trance every day of our lives and usually never notice it or have any problems as a result of it.
    As for people being suggestible while in a trance, yes that is true. Theoretically participants could be told to by x product every week for the rest of their lives and a percentage of participants would but that is not what the focus group is about. By using clean language and by having a definite objective in mind for the focus group it is possible to gain deep insight into the emotional factors that influence a decision. Regular focus groups by contrast can often provide superficial and rational information that is devoid of emotion and lacking insight into the real motivators behind a choice. Regular focus groups are often easily swayed by dominant participants.

    Done professionally I believe that hypnosis focus groups can be very powerful. I would not be at all surprised to see them being used more frequently as public understanding increases of what hypnosis actually is and how it really works instead of opinion and comment being influenced by bad b-movies, stories and rumours.

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