Ianna Contardo
Strategic marketing is a luxury product. It can be said to be a result of progress in developed societies that have covered basic human needs like shelter and hunger. Nonetheless, given the quick development of strategic marketing in the last decades, the discipline has suffered from a lack of penetration in the habits of practitioners who can hardly keep up with the changes. The methods therefore rarely fully satisfy those in the marketplace who then have to make vital decisions for their organizations without completely addressing the complexities of consumer behavior. Questions such as: how do I stand out from competitors? How do I lock in my consumers while I explore also new segments or new geographical markets? How can I reinforce the values of my brand and position myself in the maze of the innumerous advertising messages? And how do I expand, innovate or capture greater value with my products? are key questions to any successful firm’s strategy. Yet these interrogations demand great understanding and thorough research tools to reach out for the richness and complexity of the consumer’s mind.

The purpose of this essay is to address them with the introduction of a technique called Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET). ZMET,as the acronym states, is a research process that seeks to isolate metaphors as they apply to specific issues, topics, products, brands, services and so on. Professor Gerald Zaltman founded the methodology based on an issue he was working on when traveling to Nepal in 1990. At the time Zaltman was concerned about the problematic of bias in research. His trip was motivated by three divergent interests – photography as a means to collect data, cognitive neuroscience and third world anthropology. His revolutionary idea was to provide locals with Eastman Kodak plastic cameras and have villagers snap their own pictures to then return and interview them about what they had wanted to express. Surprisingly enough, a general theme emerged from the pictures: villagers had cut off people’s feet, but not because they were unfamiliar with the cameras as Zaltman had initially and perhaps “naively” thought. When asked, natives answered almost unanimously that being barefoot is a sign of poverty and even though everyone was barefoot, people had wanted to hide the fact, at least when taking pictures of their “lives”. Zaltman concluded he was onto something. Back in Pittsburgh he began experimenting with the new methodology. Similar to the surrealist movement in art and literature, the approach seeks to depict our subconscious perception of the physical world through visual phenomena.
With this premise, the purpose is to tap into consumers’ minds with the kind of second language based on images that might allow people to express what otherwise remains hidden in the deeply embedded layers of their brains. The assumption exposes the need to have consumers speak for themselves by going beyond the mere surface of the processes controlled by their awareness and triggering responses through the use of images – both physical images and linguistic metaphors. In the end this process provides the researcher to elicit mental models or constructs of consumers. And this information becomes vital in getting closer to what directly guides consumers while engaging in the process of purchases goods and services.
An image de facto is the visual translation of reality, as language in a very similar way is the oral or written translation of that same physical and mental world. In this translation, however, something is gained. Because metaphors convey meaning, and because a user of an image or a phrase like a metaphor is making the effort to “step back” and use a different tool to express an experience, this user is eventually revealing the relationship between an internal personal process of making sense and a way to express it. This way then becomes the support for researchers to analyze fundamental characteristics of such experience – whether it is while drinking a specific brand of beverage, to express the potential uses of a newly launched product or to determine the perceptions on what is missing in the experience of driving a certain car. In other words, the technique which is known to most biggest, richest and most international companies such as – Procter & Gamble, Coca Cola, DuPont, Motorola, Microsoft, De Beers – as the US Patent Number 5,436,830 can be said to tap into hidden knowledge by getting “at what people don’t know they know” (Zaltman).


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