How Customers Think

"Imagination is the soul of the mind and metaphor is its primary nourishment 

-Richard E. Cytowik

Gerald Zaltman is a pioneer in the experience management space. He is the Joseph C. Wilson Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, and the author or editor of more than 20 books.

In How Customers Think, Zaltman focuses on the importance of unconscious thinking for how we filter our experiences and make meaning out of them. Zaltman uses a metaphor, showing how our thinking is like an iceberg. There is limited space for our rational thoughts on the surface, and we typically don’t realize the ways in which our rational thoughts are influenced by the deeper meanings that lie below the surface. Indeed, 95% of decision making is unconscious, and we constantly filter our experiences based on a set of universally relevant metaphors that allow us to make meaning out of them and share them with others. If our experiences are not congruent with our pre-existing metaphors for a market, then we slow down and think more rationally about what is happening, which often manifests itself physiologically. Zaltman has also conducted research on unconscious thinking measuring not only brain activity, but also your heartbeat and skin galvanic responses.

Zaltman’s ideas draw on a body of work similar to other books that have influenced me, such as Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and Clued In, by Lou Carbone. In fact, Zaltman has collaborated with and been a mentor to Carbone, who went on to develop a useful framework called Clue Scanning to link clues back to deep metaphors that you uncover using qualitative research.

Customers don’t think in words, but metaphors and images that cluster together in what Zaltman calls consensus maps. Language based on words came later in human existence, and our use of rational thought and language to access and describe these deeper feelings is not how we process most experiences as customers. We often rationalize our experiences after the fact. Tapping into metaphors is core to what we mean by building a deeper level of insights for what is driving customer behavior. The metaphors that customers use to filter their experiences are a window into how they engage in your product or service category, and why they provoke a deeper emotional response with your brand.

Customers’ memories are always changing, often without their awareness. Memories are story-based, in that customers reconstruct them each time they have an experience. These memories are often metaphors that “stand in” for other thoughts and experiences, which helps make it easier for customers to tell themselves stories about your brand and how engaging with your brand makes them feel. Zaltman shares how memories are clustered together and interact with how brands curate experiences for customers, together creating what he calls the Mind of the Market. By tapping more closely into the metaphors that underly the customer experience, brands create a more lasting and powerful emotional bond with them. If customer experiences are congruent with your brand, it reinforces your brand equity around specific attributes that make up your brand promise. 

 In his book, Zaltman introduces a set of universal metaphors. When you build customer personas, these metaphors are typically what they have in common, rather than what makes the personas distinct from one another. It is valuable to build deeper insights into what makes personas unique from one another, allowing you to create more emotionally engaging experiences for them. However, there are always choices in how you activate your personas. For example, you may look to grow your customer base by targeting specific personas without losing the loyalty of other personas. It is the deep metaphors they have in common that allow you to do this.

To identify which metaphors apply for your brand, you can use a set of techniques that Zaltman and Carbone helped advance, which draw from an extensive body of research in clinical psychology and neuroscience. These research methods are complementary to other forms of qualitative research, such as ethnography and 1:1 in depth interviews, and can be combined with quantitative research methods, including AI-driven approaches that get beyond the limitations of surveys and mine the vast amounts of unstructured data that most companies don’t tap into fully yet.

Here are some examples of deep metaphors shared in How Customers Think. These are not exhaustive and can be combined. Typically, there are 2-3 metaphors that customers weave together in their storytelling about the category a brand competes in, where one of the metaphors may be more in the forefront for specific experiences they have with the brand.  In deep metaphor solicitation, the language that customers use elaborates on why a set of images they chose have meaning for them.  In some cases, researchers ask participants to create a collage to bring their feelings about the metaphors to the surface.

Balance: Expressions such as “I’ll pay for it later,” or “moderation is key” are indications that customers are using balance as a metaphor to organize their experiences. This metaphor is very common in financial services and healthcare markets.

Force and Movement: If customers use phrases such as “banging my head against the wall,” or “I feel stuck” they are using this metaphor. Force and movement often apply as a metaphor in industries where call centers play a role in the customer experience.

Connection: brands that reinforce a feeling of togetherness with others or make you feel a connection to others that you admire tap into this metaphor. Coca-Cola’s “hilltop” ad where kids sing about wanting to buy the world a Coke or its refresh of this campaign with “share a Coke” are examples of this metaphor. So is Nike’s “just do it” campaign.

Resource: If a product or service saves you time and makes you feel satisfied that you don’t have to do more yourself to get the results you need, then it is seen as a resource. Amazon’s search experience across its vast assortment and ability to make a purchase with a single click tap into this metaphor.

Support: companies that have your best interests at heart and can be counted on to stay by your side to make sure you are treated fairly are seen through this filter. Think of “You’re in good hands” from Allstate and “Like a good neighbor” from State Farm.

Advances in AI and data science allow you to mine unstructured data to see whether experiences are congruent with the deep metaphors that customers use to filter their experiences about your product or service category. It is valuable to combine these analytics with upfront qualitative research, otherwise you are limited by the words that people use and won’t have as many insights to guide your efforts to structure and train the AI models you are building.

For a selection of some of my own articles on related topics, click here. I recommend The Social Life of Brands and ROX^3: Boosting Returns on Leadership, Customer and Employee Experience, which explore how learnings from consumer psychology and neuroscience can be applied to the practice of marketing and customer experience. In The Social Life of Brands, I explored how the four-drive theory from Harvard can be applied to marketing, arguing that today’s brand leaders do a better job of tapping into the human drives to bond and learn, not just the drives to acquire and defend. In ROX^3, I explored the difference between lower ground and higher ground thinking (i.e., unconscious and conscious thought), and how building greater discipline to apply higher ground thinking is key to unlocking the full potential of your leaders to work on customer and employee experience opportunities.