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.

Typically respondents can only name about 10-12 attributes that distinguish brands in the category. If respondents don't know a lot about brands in the category, a good strategy is to ask them which brand they use and what they like about it.

Step 2: Identify Important Attributes

If you've been successful in identifying a number of attributes, ask the respondent which are most important to him or her in making a decision about which brand to buy in the category. Ranking the importance of attributes provides input to the next step: the actual laddering processing.

Step 3: Build a Ladder

The interviewer then tries to find out the consequences that the consumer feels s/he experiences from having that particular attribute. For example, the interviewer might say, "so, you've told me that the carbonation level of beers is very important to you and that you really like beers with lots of carbonation. Can you tell me what's so good about having carbonation?"

The respondent answers with an outcome or benefit from having that attribute. Perhaps the outcome is that "lots of carbonation means that I feel full more quickly." The interviewer then "climbs the ladder" to find out why feeling full quickly is important or desirable. The respondent may reply that she drinks less when she is full. When asked why drinking less is important, our consumer may reply that if she drinks less she can avoid getting drunk. When asked why this outcome is important the respondent may indicate that she likes to stay in control. Here, we see that the attribute of carbonation is linked to the important value of "staying in control".

A different consumer may also like less carbonation and may also tie it to drinking less. But when queried why, this consumer may respond that she is watching her weight and doesn't want to drink too much beer as it would affect her diet. Filling products curb her appetite and make it easier for her to not overindulge. Clearly very different motivations are driving use of the product in this case.

Let's take another consumers who identifies a different attribute - expensive. He likes to drink premium, top of the line beers. When asked what this brings him he might reply that it gives him a superior product. When asked why this is important, he may reply that quality products convey a sophisticated image to people he is drinking with. When asked why this outcome is important, our consumer may reply that he wants to impress others. When asked why he wants to impress others it may become apparent that he has a strong need for self-esteem or a strong need for belonging.

In general, laddering leads consumers from (1) attributes of a product to (2) the consequences of having these attributes, to (3) the values or motives that their presence is associated with.

Using the Outcomes of Laddering

Imagine how different the marketing implications are for these different consumers. Since "staying in control" is important to the first consumers, commercials and print ads should implicitly or explicitly link the product to this broad outcome. Not only will ads show consumers staying in control, but the scenes in the ad will show situations where everything is calm, in control, and reserved, not rowdy, partying, and frenetic.

Since premium image and self esteem is important for our third consumer, the brand should be premium priced, be packed in a container that suggests a premium image, and have a premium sounding name. Models in the ad should be sophisticated people who are part of a well-heeled, and socially admired social group. The product should be shown in sophisticated settings, not in loud and raunchy bars.

Aggregating Across Individuals

Of course, since laddering is a data collection tool that works on an individual level, one must find some way of aggregating this data across respondents. Aggregating can be done with an aggregation matrix, noting the percentage of respondents who linked a particular attribute with a particular set of consequences and a particular set of consequences with a particular set of values and motivations.

Very likely, different segments of consumers will emerge with different segments valuing different attributes differently and seeing different attributes associated with different consequences. If you use this technique, in an ideal world you will find an attribute that is regarded as important by at least some consumers and that differentiates your brand from the competition. Ideally, also, you will find relatively large groups of consumers who not only think this attribute is important, but also link its presence to similar consequences and values. This information provides very important information about just why consumers do or may like your brand and how you can communicate presence of the attribute in your advertising.

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image of Debbie MacInnis

Dr. Deborah J. MacInnis is the Charles L. and Ramona I. Hilliard Professor of Business Administration at the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, and a co-author of Brand Admiration: Build a Business People Love. She has consulted with companies and the government in the areas of consumer behavior and branding. She is theory development editor at the Journal of Marketing, and former co-editor of the Journal of Consumer Research. Professor MacInnis has served as president of the Association for Consumer Research and vice-president of conferences and research for the American Marketing Association's Academic Council. She has received the Journal of Marketing's Alpha Kappa Psi and Maynard awards for the papers that make the greatest contribution to marketing thought. She is the co-author of a leading textbook on consumer behavior and is co-editor of several edited volumes on branding.