Companies & Industries

Psychoanalysis in the Name of Coca-Cola


Harvard Business Online's Paul Michelman on what Tiger Woods, chicken soup, and an upside-down ice-cream sundae have to do with Coke

Posted on Conversation Starter: July 2, 2008 11:00 AM

What do your deepest held feelings and secrets have to do with Coca-Cola and its remarkably successful marketing campaigns? Quite a bit—and I'm your evidence.

Let me explain.

A few weeks ago, several members of our editorial team were planning a video interview with marketing guru Jerry Zaltman, author of a just-published book, and new Harvard Business Review article. Jerry's work is highly visual—in fact it's all about the use of metaphorical imagery to understand what consumers really think. To help bring his technique to life for our audience and to satisfy my own—generally skeptical—curiosity, I decided to go through the process myself.

As a relatively private person, there would be moments later on that I would regret this idea.

Jerry's market research technique, ZMET (Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique), is a rigorous and, for me, at least, emotionally draining experience. It gets consumers to express their deepest feelings about a particular product or brand—whether they intend to or not—through a multi-stage encounter that whisks one from grade-school collage-making through something like psychoanalysis and back again.

It begins with a simple enough mandate: go find half a dozen or so images from magazines, newspapers, websites, etc. that express how you feel about the product in question, which for me was Coca-Cola. The only rule: no images of the product itself or other soft drinks. The key was to find images that represented your feelings.

Next, show up with said images in hand for an appointment at the office of Jerry's consulting firm, Olson Zaltman Associates, in Boston.

Stage one, the image-clipping, was both fun and thought provoking. It forced me to pause and really think about what Coca-Cola meant to me. But in no way did it prepare me for stages two and three, which comprised nearly two hours of interviews with two members of Jerry's team who succeeded in eliciting thoughts and feelings about Coca-Cola I had no idea I had.

Using my sloppily torn images as a launching point, the first interviewer got me to discuss childhood visits to my grandparents' home, express deep concerns about the health of my family, and wax philosophical about the state of the music industry before I knew what hit me. And it wasn't all just rambling nonsense—under the expert guidance of my interviewer, the conversation continually looped back to my surprisingly—shockingly—strong feelings about Coke. (I understand that there was a ready box of Kleenex lurking somewhere just off camera.)

What I found particularly interesting about the experience was how the interviewer was able to push and prod to unearth more and more of my thoughts without leading me toward any particular answer. In many cases, it was simply a matter of her picking up a piece of one answer and framing a new question to drill in more specifically on an idea that she felt held promise to be revealing. There were a great deal of "why" and "tell me more" queries: "You said you can still hear the sound of your grandfather opening an 8-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola. Tell me more about how that made you feel." The interview process would occasionally come right up to the point of being frustrating, but it never crossed the line. In spite of the often repetitive line of questioning, I found myself wanting to explain; wanting to give the interviewer the level of depth she seemed to be seeking.

Directly on the heels of the interview, I was passed on to one of Zaltman's imaging specialists who worked with me to take the now-digitized versions of my magazine clippings and create a master image that reflected an aggregate view of my most primary feelings about Coke. During this part of the process, in which I was required to place varying degrees of weight and emphasis on different associations and to explain how they did or did not fit together, my overall feelings about Coke began to come into sharper focus.

Click here to read more and see the video.

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