Increasingly, marketers are coming to recognise the importance of the implicit mind. It’s where the vast majority of our 'thinking' about brands takes place - way below the level of our conscious awareness (explicit mind) - and comprises our emotions as well as all manner of automatic processes and mental shortcuts, such as heuristics. But how to reach it? Should we be looking to the costly and sometimes invasive methods of neuromarketing (particularly fMRI and EEG) or are there other indirect approaches that might yield more meaningful results?

Consumers ’ decisions may appear both conscious and rational (because that ’s what respondents tell us), yet they are driven by unconscious implicit processes. This neither makes them zombies nor irrational, but means that many of the low-level decisions they make from day to day (such as choosing brands) are often merely explicit manifestations of the implicit mind – what Kahneman calls fast ‘system 1 ’ thinking as opposed to the more effortful and rationalised processes of ‘system 2 ’ .

There may be a broad consensus on the importance of the implicit mind but not so on how to measure it. The problem is that conventional market research grew up when marketing theory was dominated by theories of ‘persuasion ’ such as AIDA (Attention> Interest>Desire>Action). Unsurprisingly the measures passed down to us from this era emphasise explicit, cognitive response – often encouraging respondents to ‘explain ’ (rationalise) their behaviour through introspection. Good for system 2 (explicit processes) perhaps; not so effective for the rapid implicit processes of system 1.

Perhaps we should jettison conventional approaches altogether and take advantage of brain-imaging techniques such as fMRI or EEG. It ’s certainly true that the last 10 years have seen some great advances in the practical applications of neuro- techniques, but I ’ve yet to hear a neuromarketer advocate the use of such methods as a stand-alone, only as a complement to conventional (explicit) approaches. Why?

The problem is that while implicit processes such as emotions may be observable via brain scans, that doesn ’t tell us much about them (beyond perhaps positive or negative valence). Emotions only begin to ‘mean ’ something when they show up in the conscious mind as feelings - prior to that they are merely the evidence (or result) of arousal.

The challenge for researchers, therefore, is to find ways of accessing the implicit mind without recourse to either conventional (system 2 oriented) approaches or to neuromarketing. Two new approaches (one from social psychology and the other from cognitive linguistics) which attempt to do this are discussed below.

Implicit association Tests (IATs) and Metaphors

Implicit Association Tests (IATs) are a well established method (from cognitive psychology), which assess automatic associations with a stimulus. They are primarily verbal, but methods use reaction time or task accuracy to avoid need to ask explicit questions. They are particularly well suited to investigation of sensitive topics or deeper motivations (indeed one of the earliest applications was to investigate racist attitudes and prejudices which might never be openly voiced) and they certainly throw up quite different profiles of brands to those derived from standard explicit questioning, and show consistency of effects over time. The problem with IATs is that they rely heavily on word association, whereas we know that many emotions and feelings are extremely hard to verbalise. Is there another approach that might get us closer to our implicitly held feelings without words?

Language is the most obvious expression of emotion, yet it is a late comer in the evolution of the human mind. We were able to convey emotions via mime and representation (drawings) long before we could put them into words.

Metaphors may seem to be linguistic, but they are representational –because they usually link a feeling or emotion (that we want to convey) with a commonly understood experience or image. Thus they often have a visual base to them – for example, we understand the metaphor happy is up because it evokes shared images (experiences) of people jumping off the ground, throwing arms in the air, mouth turned up at corners, etc.

Since metaphors pre-date language, it makes sense that metaphors might enable us to get closer to our emotions. Conquest’s Metaphorix® uses metaphors that allow people to express their feelings intuitively, because using words is not the best way to get people to express their emotions. The Metaphorix® approach draws heavily on the theory of Primary Metaphors, which are present in almost every language and every culture, and are therefore understood internationally. Conquest has created online visual metaphors for respondents to interact with, creating an engaging, “gameified” experience. The distribution of responses using these metaphors is completely different, more intense, than when measuring emotion using a conventional verbal scale in a survey.


The jury is out on neuromarketing - there are neuromantics and there are neurosceptics. While we can observe a brain response and come up with conclusions about what that response means, we’ll never be able to tell how it actually feels – without asking the subject, and that leads to subjectivity and rationalisation. Newer approaches, which avoid direct questioning, such as metaphor analysis and IATs therefore offer a new window on emotion – measuring implicit (system1) response without the need for invasive or expensive neuro-technology.