Guest Column: Listen to the subconscious mind: Shubhranshu Singh

Singh dwells into what goes on in a customer's mind while buying a product

e4m by Shubhranshu Singh
Published: May 16, 2018 8:53 AM  | 5 min read

Behavioural research is trawling through the human psyche and coming up with huge insights. We are now in the era where behavioural science and economics have merged and produced Nobel laureates. We live in a world where even the universe is being mapped and its dimensions being determined. Yet, we know very little about the human brain. If we close our two fists and bring them together, knuckles facing knuckles, it is roughly the shape and size of our brain. Yet it is everything we are…and more.

Our subconscious mind holds the answers to our actions as consumers. It is that mind which makes us impressionable, emotional and irrational. We buy things we don't need, often at non-referenced prices and for unidentified reasons. We go along with recommendations of those who know only a little more than us but are blind to expert input. We spend more if the staff at a store smiles at us. When in a good mood, we are more susceptible to persuasion. We get frenzied when there is a sale irrespective of value on offer. We even get lulled and linger longer if the music in the store is soothing. All irrational but true. It is our mind that makes us so. That mind which we do not know. The subconscious, subliminal mind.

When did we first begin to see this? In the 1930s when Freudian psychoanalysis was made advertising regimen by a Viennese psychologist named Ernest Dichter who spun his insight into a million-dollar business that lasted till the late 1960s. His genius was that he didn’t resist consumer irrationality but like an archeologist he dug into it in order to reveal the roadmaps to smart selling.

His ‘The Strategy of Desire’ was a seminal work where he held that marketplace decisions are driven by emotions and subconscious whims and fear. These are often projected on to the product itself. The impulses of the mind are an ‘iceberg’, with two-thirds hidden from cognition even to the decision-maker. As driven consumers, we can rationalize and explain away anything that we really desire.

If shopping is an emotional minefield or treasure hunt, then strategic ‘cue controlled’ marketing could be a gold mine for companies.

Between the late 1930s and 1960s, Dichter became famous working with American establishment heavyweight businesses such as Procter & Gamble, Exxon, Chrysler, General Mills and DuPont. His insight changed the way hundreds of products were sold, from cars to cake mix. He pioneered research techniques such as the focus group, understood the power of word-of-mouth persuasion and codified his theories as marketing protocol. By the late 1950s, his consulting business reached an annual turnover of $1m, a staggering amount for individual advisory at that time.

Dichter's ‘motivational research’ was considered radical and devious as well. He was even accused of threatening America's national well-being.

But he persisted in the inversion of protocol. Asking shoppers why they bought particular products was like “asking people why they thought they were neurotic,” Dichter summed up once.

In fact, he believed, most people have no idea why they buy things. He claimed that they made sense of decisions retrospectively. So to understand what truly motivated people, a deep, psychoanalytical approach was merited. To get in to consumer shoes meant to listen long and hard.

Dichter and later Paul Lazarsfeld created qualitative research based on digging into the psychological roots of consumer decision.

That our possessions are extensions of our own personalities and we look at a brand as a mirror which reflects our own image’s profound message never heard before. The marketer was obliged to detail the personality of a product, and only then understand how to market it.

He worked with Chrysler on Plymouth cars where he decoded convertibles to represent temptation whereas a sedan was solidity and stability. That people smoke as a legitimate excuse to interrupt the day for a moment of pleasure was another one of his deductions. He renamed prunes as ‘california wonderfruit’ featuring fresh, supple plums on the packaging to tackle their imagery as symbolic of old age. Baking was in a sense like giving birth was another one of his startling conclusions but one which led to ensuring that no recipe mix was ever marketed as marginalizing the role of the woman. He got criticized for it by critics of consumerism like Vance Packard and by several authorities on feminism and its evolution including by Betty Friedan.

Lastly, Dichter gave acceleration to the craze for celebrity in America, and thus to the world. Consumers trade money for respectability and status. Brand possession gives admittance to brand community. The sense of prestige and security dulls the post purchase dissonance.

The ability to express oneself through shopping was a matter of great importance with limitless opportunities to grow and express individuality. Marketing changed forever.

Dichter died 1991, a forgotten and lonely man. Somewhere in the 1970s, for reasons not clear, the commercial system turned against deep mind study. Perhaps this was due to some informal consensus to camouflage the goings on. Equally, there could be genuine reasons to believe that newer quantitative technique and computing power would do better. But for the decades that followed, Psychographic Qual was blanked from the pages of the official marketing procedures. Yet, remarkably, after more than five decades, these uber evolved quant studies are giving up. It is being conceded that empiricism will not reveal secrets of the mind. It is a difficult terrain to map.

What is counted may not be what really counts!! Listen to the subconscious. The answers lie there.

(The author is a Mumbai-based marketer)
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of

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