For years marketers have wrestled with the reality that what people say is not always what they mean nor an indication of what they will do.

It took behavioral economists and neuroscientists to teach us that it isn’t that people consciously lie to us; it is that their subconscious has more control over how they feel and act than they or we ever acknowledged.

Great. How do you have a conversation with someone’s subconscious? Do you have to use mind-reading technology? Does it require a specialized degree? Do you have to hypnotize them or use some other form of mind control?

Thankfully, no.

There are number of interesting (and totally legal) ways to get to help people express what they can’t, won’t or don’t know how to convey in traditional ways. We are using a few of those techniques to help our clients refine their brand meaning and enhance their brand experience.

One simple approach is to use the most universal language of all in your conversations with people—one that has no letters or words but is worth 1,000 of them.  I am referring to the language of imagery.

In a recent project for a Florida-based financial services company we asked people to choose an image from a group of about 50 to reflect how they felt about their current bank and their desired banking relationship. What they selected and shared went beyond anything we ever could have learned from a direct line of questioning. Even they were surprised by the exercise. They found themselves telling stories and revealing truths about how they really feel about money and the companies that help them manage it. What we learned helped us develop a digital strategy for our client that we can be confident will have meaning for their current customers and future ones.

The next time you want to know what someone thinks, ask her to show you and then tell you what they mean.


Lisa Gearhart is Vice President/Human Insights at St. John & Partners where she is responsible for research, insights and brand planning. When she isn’t trying to figure out what matters most to the people our clients want to build relationships with she is helping her daughter figure out what college to attend to pursue the musical theatre passion that matters most to her. 

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