Say "hypnosis" to most people and they are likely to think of Vegas shows where people embarrass themselves by clucking like a chicken.
But to Hal Goldberg, hypnosis is more than a stereotype. It's the best way he knows to tap into people's real feelings about products and brands. And he's done it for almost 40 years, first as a researcher at various ad agencies including Leo Burnett and Bozell, and since 1995 as an independent consultant at his own firm, Qualitative and Quantitative Research. His mission is to find, via hypnosis, the initial "imprints" that brands make on consumers and use those imprints to build marketing strategies, create new product lines, add fresh insight for agency pitches or simply reaffirm brand connections.
It takes about 45 minutes for him to put the group fully under, a time during which he informs the participants that they can't tell him anything just to make him feel good or to impress him.
Then he begins to ask questions. What was your first experience with a particular product category? What is your most powerful experience with a specific brand? Under hypnosis, the respondents recall those exact moments and usually many specific details.
"When we asked for first recollections of watching TV, they not only remembered it was "Howdy Doody' but also which episode, and the room details, the smells in the room and the clothing they were wearing," said David Charmatz, a media consultant and former VP of MTV Network's Nick@Nite and TV Land research, about using Mr. Goldberg's expertise to pin down the two brands' differentiators.
Venables Bell & Partners won a silver David Ogilvy Award from the Advertising Research Foundation for its Audi A6 campaign crafted after Mr. Goldberg conducted hypnosis focus groups to find luxury car owners' first experiences with Mercedes and BMW, Audi's stronger competitors.
Cheerwine is another example. Building on hypnosis-focus-group 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 distribution agreement with Pepsi that increased the drink's availability to 50% of the U.S. this year, said Kate Newlin, a business strategy consultant and author of "Passion Brands," who has worked on many projects with Mr. Goldberg.
Of course, for every Audi and Cheerwine marketer, there are skeptics.
Said Ms. Newlin, "We start telling a client, "First we do the hypnosis focus group, and then we call in experts,' and I never get to the third thing because they stop me about the hypnosis. ... Part of it is the concern that they'll see themselves on the front page of The New York Times as hypnotizing consumers in order to get them to buy their products. Which is the worst possible misinterpretation."
Kerry Sette, VP-director of consumer insights for Hill Holliday/Erwin Penland, in fact, recalled that her group renamed the sessions "deep-relaxation focus groups" because the group was using Mr. Goldberg for was conservative wireless client and it didn't want to scare it off the technique.
Don Gloeckler, exec VP-chief research officer at the ARF, is familiar with the idea of hypnosis, having used a similar "relaxation technique" done by Archetype Discoveries years ago when he worked for a packaged-goods marketer. "It's a technique to get you in a relaxed state to get you to recall things that are hidden in your memory," he said. "Legitimate marketers are not trying to manipulate consumers into doing something they don't want to do. They're really just trying to get consumers to articulate and remember an experience they would have trouble remembering on their own."
When asked why the technique seems to have a controversial reputation, he said, "My guess is it falls into a similar bucket with biometric research. ... I can see the consumer fear of being manipulated by the use of information that 's [subconscious and] not even available to them. It's important to remember that no one is harassed into doing this or forced to share anything."
Hypnosis can remove many of the traditional stumbling blocks of focus groups, such as dominant respondents taking control, inaccurate recollections, overly cautious and emotionally guarded subjects, and the very human reaction of mimicking answers to an unknown question to avoid appearing foolish or uneducated.
Mr. Goldberg said his business is growing in the face of market-research budget cuts. And while he hasn't seen a noticeable surge in this competitive social-media age, he also admits he can only do so much. In fact, his service is at least 50% higher than the cost of a traditional focus group, not only because it is a more in-depth process, but is a "filter" to make sure the clients are serious.
He estimates he has done 1,500 to 2,000 hypnosis focus groups for marketers from "Alcoa to Verizon" and many in between, including Procter & Gamble, Shell Oil, Volvo, Campbell Soup, GlaxoSmithKline and Nabisco. For the last, the insight discovered by hypnosis led to the introduction of its 100-calorie cookie and snack packs.