Corporate researchers can develop strategies to disrupt their market by discovering new insights from focus groups using hypnotized respondents. Hypnosis Focus Groups can provide new insights versus “awake” focus groups by uncovering consumers’ subconscious thoughts and emotions. The hypnosis process gets more truthful responses, eliminates “dominant respondent” problems, enhances memories of past events such as advertising, category usage and brand “imprints,” elicits greater emotional response, and generates greater respondent creativity and brainstorming. 

Problems With Traditional Focus Groups

Traditional awake focus groups cannot generate the truly new insights needed to disrupt the market sufficiently to fix an ailing brand, introduce a new brand or dramatically catapult a brand ahead of competition. As Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman wrote in his influential book How Customers Think, “Contrary to conventional wisdom, (traditional focus groups) are not effective when developing and evaluating new product ideas, testing ads, or evaluating brand images.” (Zaltman, 2003). The key reasons why traditional focus groups can’t give marketers the insights they need to really disrupt their market are as follows. 

The dominant respondent

Traditional focus groups tend to become influenced by a dominant respondent (Greenbaum, 2003). When this person’s contribution is not challenged by others, this dominant viewpoint emerges from the discussion. In these cases, other opinions within the group may be ignored. 

Lack of truthfulness

Respondents in traditional focus groups can lie or exaggerate about their true feelings and what they really believe, especially if they feel their responses will be more palatable in the group environment (FAO, 1997). In addition, respondents in traditional focus groups are reluctant to express their true feelings on sensitive subjects (Mack, 2005). 

Poor memories

Respondents in traditional focus groups can have poor memories concerning the topic for discussion. This is not unusual since many of the topics relate to products and services that are not of particularly great importance in their lives (FAO, 1997). 

Holding back emotions

Many respondents in traditional focus groups do not understand why they are doing the things they are doing and therefore can’t tell you about their emotions. Even if they are in touch with their feelings, they may not be able to express them. And when they do understand their feelings, they may not want to tell you (Silverman, 2014).

Inability to be creative in brainstorming

For the same reasons that respondents will not share their deep-felt emotions or tell the complete truth, they will also not share their most creative ideas when brainstorming – they either can’t articulate them or are reluctant or embarrassed about voicing them in a group of strangers. As Professor Gary Schirr has written, “Focus groups continue to be used in innovation efforts to uncover customer needs, generate new product and service ideas, and evaluate decisions, despite extensive empirical evidence that [these] group methods are ineffective for such purposes” (Schirr, 2012).

Using Hypnosis in Focus Groups

The use of hypnosis in focus group research was an outcome of my desire to solve the problems encountered in traditional awake focus groups indicated above. When I developed the technique in 1972, hypnosis was just emerging from its recent acceptance in 1958 by the medical and psychological profession as a therapeutic treatment by the American Medical Association.

However, until recently there was no overall consensus about the scientific foundation for hypnosis. Over the past decade, many university research studies have proven that brain activity with hypnotized subjects differs from that of awake subjects. Professor David Spiegel at Stanford University has shown, using functional magnetic resonance imaging or functional MRI (fMRI) brain scan technology, that altered functional connectivity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex in the brain may underlie the physical nature of hypnosis in the brain (Hoeft, 2012). 

Beginning in 1972, I started using hypnosis in focus groups. Over the years, I have developed many unique procedures. Following is a description of the basic approach and benefits of the technique.

The Hypnosis Process in Focus Groups

During the focus group recruiting, respondents are asked if they would be willing to be hypnotized; on average, 70 percent agree to participate. At the start of the session, the moderator takes the respondents through the hypnosis process as a group. Once the respondents are in the hypnotized state, the moderator proceeds with the topics in the discussion guide. At the end of the session, the moderator brings the respondents back from the hypnotized state to their original awake state.

Preventing Dominant Respondent Problems

At the beginning of the session, respondents are told they must provide their own thoughts and feelings irrespective of what any other respondent has said. No potential dominant respondent is allowed to control the discussion. Therefore, even if the moderator cuts off a respondent’s answer because it is not deemed relevant, no one is alienated or upset, and even the shyest respondent in the group is directed to provide information and join the discussion. 

Getting at the Truth

The moderator also instructs respondents to tell the truth and provide only completely honest answers. They are instructed not to say things to make the moderator feel good, impress the moderator, or enable themselves to look good in front of the other respondents. In Hypnosis Focus Groups, there is no “yea-saying.” 

Accessing the Subconscious Mind With Hypnosis

In order to discover new insights compared with traditional awake focus groups, the technique gains access to respondents’ subconscious minds where memories and emotions are stored. Professor Joseph LeDoux at New York University has shown that information from the environment is taken in by our senses (eyesight, for example) and is sent first to the thalamus gland and then to the amygdala and hippocampus glands (all found in the brain) where it is stored as a subconscious “memory” (LeDoux, 1996). Research by Professor Daniel Wegner of Harvard University has shown that people have the ability in the hypnotic state to access this subconscious content of their minds and that, “People find that they are able to control the . . . recall of memory. . . in ways that are not readily available to them when they are not hypnotized” (Wegner, 2002). 

The “Age Regression” Process to Retrieve Memories

A key element that can help disrupt a market is finding the hidden memories respondents may have about the brands in the market. Because respondents in traditional awake focus groups have poor memories of events that are important to the sponsor of the research, hypnosis memory retrieval can be the solution to this problem. 

In order to access respondents’ memory banks, the technique of age regression is employed. Age regression is a process whereby the respondent is told to return to an earlier event in their life and recall it. The reason this is possible is because the subconscious is like a computer hard drive that has stored information about every event, person and thing we have experienced in our lives. Under hypnosis, respondents can be directed to specific areas of their subconscious mind to retrieve hidden information. As an example, we may ask respondents to go back to the last time they were shopping for a product and to then tell us what they were doing and why they were buying a particular brand. 

The Discovery of Imprints

One of the most important uses of age regression is to uncover product and brand imprints. Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian ethologist, invented the science of imprinting as it related to animal behavior. He found that, for many animals, their first experiences could create imprinted behavior that lasted for the remainder of their lives in research that later earned him a Nobel Prize. 

Howard Hoffman, former Professor at Bryn Mawr, wrote that imprints can be a strong influence on human thinking, emotions and behavior (Hoffman, 1996). Professor Timothy Wilson at the University of Virginia pointed out that one of the reasons it is so important to discover the imprints in the subconscious is because the most powerful imprints are usually tagged with a high level of emotional content. It is these emotions that can be the drivers of our behavior, even more so than our cold, analytical conscious thinking (Wilson, 2002).

With Hypnosis Focus Group research, respondents can be age-regressed back in time to tell us about the very first time they experienced a particular product or brand so we can learn about these imprinted impressions. Once we know the imprints, we can take them into account and design the best strategies to disrupt the market. 

Enhancing Emotional Responses

Professor Timothy Wilson has written that emotions protect us from things that make us feel bad and promote things that make us feel good (2002). By using hypnosis in focus groups, it is possible to identify those “feel good” emotions for respondents. A key research study that hypnotized respondents used significantly more emotional and sensual language to describe their purchasing behavior than non-hypnotized respondents (McDonald, 1998).

In Hypnosis Focus Groups, respondents share their true emotions and feelings in connection with their beliefs and actions. The moderator can also deep dive beneath their emotional reactions to find the perceptions and evaluations underlying them by using a special type of “automatic writing.” With this technique, respondents are told to visualize a blackboard and to write on it, using a visualized piece of chalk, the words or pictures that describe how they feel about the subject under discussion. They are then asked to explain why they wrote those words or pictures. This technique has been validated by many academic studies as an efficient way to explore the subconscious (LeCron, 1954). 

Exploring Brand Personality

Projecting the most motivating brand personality is an important tool in trying to disrupt a market. In traditional groups, moderators try to get respondents to describe the personality of the brand. However, as Jennifer Aaker pointed out in her seminal article, it is very difficult for consumers to do so (Aaker, 1997). And Holly Buchanan has pointed out that it is not the personality of the brand that should be researched, but rather the personality of the potential users, with the goal of having the brand “mirror” the potential user’s personality. The goal should be to communicate in a “personality-relevant” style similar to that of the receiver whom you hope to persuade (Buchanan, 2012).

To achieve that goal, Hypnosis Focus Groups use a short-hand version of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to explore respondents’ personalities in a unique way so that marketers can better appeal to them. Respondents choose which Myers-Briggs personality trait best describes users of the brand and then whether or not that trait describes themselves. Once we know how the respondents categorize the brand users and themselves, we are able to better understand not only how personality traits are related to the brand’s perception, but also how the brand needs to project itself to current users and potential users. 

Enhancing Brainstorming and Creativity

Another key to disrupting the market is getting consumers to come up with new ideas to accomplish that goal. However, respondents in traditional focus groups are usually not very good at brainstorming: they feel inhibited because the environment is too threatening to them, or they feel their ideas will be criticized. The sessions can also be dominated by a single respondent (Brainstorming, 2014). Hypnosis eliminates these problems and as Dr. Stanley Krippner, a leader in creativity research, has written, “Altered states of consciousness (e.g., hypnosis) may prove effective in fostering the creative act because creativity is basically preverbal and unconscious in origin. . . [it] can assist in enabling an individual to conceptualize novel solutions to artistic, technological, and scientific problems” (Krippner, 1965).

 Hypnosis Focus Groups use the Hypno-Synectics technique where respondents focus on seemingly disconnected words, images and concepts in order to develop something new and original. The Hypno-Synectics method gets respondents to use non-rational thought processes by “making the strange appear familiar” and by “making the familiar appear strange.” The original Synectics method was developed by George M. Prince and William J.J. Gordon at the Arthur D. Little Invention Design Unit in the 1950s (Gordon, 1961).

There are many different Hypno-Synectics exercises that can be used, depending on the goal of the session. The “Direct Analogies” exercise is used to get respondents to break up their existing mindsets. Here we tell respondents to find some similarity between things that are otherwise dissimilar. In the “Personal Analogy” exercise, respondents are told to become part of the subject of the session. For example, if you were trying to come up with new ways to combat graffiti, they would be told to envision themselves as a spray paint can and then try to come up with ideas to prevent it. 

In the Hypno-Synectics technique of role-playing, a respondent might be given the role of Marie Antoinette and told to “get into the role: the costume, the 18th century environment of Paris, etc.” and would then be directed to decide which brand of automobile she would buy and why, and then relate that back to the respondent’s own viewpoint. Again, by making the familiar into something strange, we come up with a new way to look at the subject. 

Case Studies

Since 1972, I have conducted over 1,500 focus groups for many Fortune 500 clients and their advertising agencies in a wide range of categories and for many types of projects. The following brief summaries will give the reader a sense of how hypnosis in focus groups has been used by corporate researchers to disrupt their markets. 

Audi

Hypnosis Focus Groups won the ARF 2012 David Ogilvy Award for its work with Audi and its advertising agency. The Audi A6 had struggled to gain a foothold in the U.S. The product was strong – it was recognized by automotive journalists to be the best of the segment – but the brand didn’t have the luxury presence or cachet to support the price point. These focus groups used age regression to explore respondents’ initial imprinted experiences with Audi and its competitors and how those experiences related to their car-buying needs today. A key finding was that they saw themselves as driving the ever-changing world and always wanting to stay ahead. The A6 campaign built on this concept, and sales rose 53 percent. 

Nabisco 100 Calorie Pack Snacks

In 2004, Nabisco was concerned about government regulation of snack products that were marketed to children, including Oreos and other cookies and crackers. These products were believed to exacerbate the childhood obesity problems in the U.S. To find a strategic solution to the situation, a series of Hypnosis Focus Groups were conducted with various groups of respondents. The key finding from the focus groups was that respondents felt that the potential obesity problem could be neutralized by having a portion-controlled snack product for their children. The result was the development of the “100 Calorie Pack” line of products, a $2 billion business for Nabisco. 

Cheerwine Soft Drinks

This regional brand built on findings that the Southern soft drink tastes different every time it’s consumed. Carolina Beverage Corp. built a marketing strategy around the drink known internally as “the Trickster.” The resulting ad campaign was tagged “Born in the South. Raised in a glass,” and led to a national distribution agreement with Pepsi that significantly increased sales. 

Conclusions

Traditional focus groups using awake respondents can’t provide truly new insights to disrupt a market. There are many reasons for this, including the problem of dominant respondents, a reluctance on the part of respondents to provide truthful answers (especially on sensitive subjects), poor memories of events in their lives that are important for the discussion, withholding their emotional feelings so they appear rational, and their inability to come up with creative ideas during brainstorming.

By using hypnotized respondents, these focus group problems can be eliminated. When hypnotized, no respondent is allowed to dominate the group and even the shyest most introverted respondent provides input. And to eliminate misdirection, respondents are told at the start of the group that they must give their truthful and honest answers without regard to what anyone else in the group has said. 

Through the process of age regression, hypnosis can retrieve respondents’ memories of past events from their subconscious memory banks. These memory imprints can be the driving force behind their current attitudes and purchase motivations. Once these imprints are known, they can form the building blocks for more insightful brand strategies. 

When hypnotized, respondents are more willing to provide emotional content since their inhibitions have been reduced; they no longer have a need to appear completely rational. The hypnosis process also uses special techniques like automatic writing to dig down into respondents’ emotional lives.

The use of hypnosis in focus groups also provides new insights into the subject of brand personality by using a form of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to categorize respondents and their attitudes about brands. The information from this technique enables marketers to better project the positioning of their brand in the marketplace.

Hypnosis can also make significant improvements over traditional focus groups when creativity exercises and brainstorming are done. Using the Hypno-Synectics technique, respondents are age-regressed to draw on their own past experiences relative to the subject, bypass inhibitions holding back their ideas, and participate in unique brainstorming exercises to address the issues in the session. 

References

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