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January 12, 2015 Issue

The Most Powerful Name In Corporate News and Information


Consumer Psychological Insights and Business Strategies



Dr. David Forbes


Forbes Consulting


Interview conducted by:

Lynn Fosse, Senior Editor, CEOCFO Magazine, Published – January 12, 2015


CEOCFO: Dr. Forbes, what is the concept behind Forbes Consulting?

Dr. Forbes: The company is really a reflection of my lifelong interest in clinical psychology and in human motivation. That is what I went to graduate school to learn about and that is what I have been interested in ever since. We try help our clients understand what moves people, deep down, and to use that information to build products that fulfill those inner motivations and to build messages that promise that kind of fulfillment. That’s what we are about in a nutshell.


CEOCFO: How does that play out day to day? Would you give us an example of a typical project and something a little more outside the box?

Dr. Forbes: The day to day basis, in terms of my job description; I am essentially always the officer in charge of what I call the story. We always strive to create a narrative about why people do what they do, the way that they do it – Why they choose one life insurance product over another, why they prefer one brand of cereal over another, or how people cope with a diagnosis with a serious disease and why they cope the way they do. The narratives we create for our clients are intended to reflect the inner workings of consumers’ psyches in a way that can make their preferences and predilections more understandable, more comprehensible to the business person who is trying to create products on their behalf.


These narratives almost always include some elements of surprise. For example in a study of why people feed birds, we found that some people do it because they are caring and want to care about the birds, while other people do it because they think that birds are a great part of home décor and they want cool birds on their porch. The first group will want birdseed that is the best for the birds – maybe different when they are molting feathers vs. when they are laying eggs. The second group will want seed that looks good in the feeder and attracts beautiful birds.


CEOCFO: Is most of this known already?

Dr. Forbes: No, it really is not. Part of the reason that it is not is because we have not really had good methods for doing research about emotions, nor have we had a good consensus about what the emotions are that motivate people to act as they do. We have not had a solid way to uncover emotions without the editing of respondents who either can’t talk about feelings, or don’t want to tell us what they feel. And we haven’t had a common vocabulary for talking about motivation – we’ve lacked a cogent map to describe all the types of emotional motivations and to explain them to a business person or a marketer. That is what we are trying to do for our clients. We help them uncover the authentic emotional forces that drive their consumers behavior, and we help them place these results on a map of all possible motivations consumers could have – so they can see how the reasons people choose their product compare to reasons why other products are chosen, and see as well where some consumer motivations are unmet by any product on the market. We try to give our clients a broad view of the landscape in which they are formulating the strategy. I think we are pushing back the frontiers of market research in this particular space.


CEOCFO: What do you do for clients and their products or new ideas? How do you do the research? What is in your process and procedure?

Dr. Forbes: Interestingly, the first thing that is often required is that we have to work to persuade the client to adopt a more psychological perspective on their problem. That is not always the way clients are thinking when they come to us. Clients are often much more functionally minded -- especially clients with scientific products, who can be tremendously focused on their technology and what it does. Step one is always to help the clients migrate to a place where they see the challenges of marketing being fundamentally about emotional motivation, Once we get clients to agree to take this perspective, we then have a range of techniques, some of which are actually patented techniques, to get under the radar of how people normally talk about themselves and get to the underlying emotional dynamic of what is behind the behaviors and the choices that consumers make. The techniques that we use most frequently are all based on showing images -- emotionally evocative images -- and they are based on showing those images very rapidly so that the consumer reactions we measure are the ones generated by the emotional brain. Then we transform that information thus gathered into strategic patterns for the client.w3e build them a strategic road map for making and marketing products that truly speak to consumers innermost wants and needs.


CEOCFO: Do you expect to come up often with a single result or do you see it as maybe three or four approaches?

Dr. Forbes: I think it is always important to give clients options. And in our research we almost always find more than one motivation at work in the marketplace. We like to give a client a couple of ways to approach a problem, along with a broader map of motivational alternatives that lets them understand the range of choices that could make I have a book that is going to be out in the spring of next year that talks about nine domains of motivation – each of which plays a role in different situations as the force behind why people do the things that they do. If you look in any given space, and given area of consumers’ behavior, you would almost always see a synergy of at least a couple of those motivational forces and maybe even three. I like to give my clients the broad view – telling them “There is a lot of energy coming from this motivation, and if you want to speak to this motive here are some things you could think about strategically. However, there is also evidence that this second motive is in play, and you might want to consider these other strategies for speaking to this other motive.


CEOCFO: Do you provide very specific plans for your clients?

Dr. Forbes: We always try to help the client create an action strategy, a solution to their problem and a vision of how to achieve that solution. We always try to make our clients commit to a full day of meetings on the day that we are presenting results from an research initiative, so that we can spend at least a half a day brainstorming and thinking about what the results mean for their business and how would they can carry it forward, move forward to actually taking action.” I like to leave the clients with a road map that they have created with me for what is going to come next and how it is going to work. We are not an advertising agency, and we don’t deliver the creative execution of a campaign, but we often get involved as consultants helping the agency translate research results into marketing materials.


CEOCFO: When you are doing research do you have an idea of what you are going to find, given you have been doing this for a long time?

Dr. Forbes: I have a colleague that has been working with me forever and we used to joke that we could save the clients a lot of money by only charging half the amount and just telling them what we already knew was going to be true. And there are times when that is at least partly true. However, I have to say that after years of doing research, I never cease being surprised. I have been humbled by the varieties of experience in the human world and by my inability to guess ahead of the human situation. I have had cases where clients come to me and can’t afford to do a lot or research and they just want to get advice. I guess I feel reasonably qualified to help those people, to offer opinions about what is likely. Still, I think that the value of research, the reasons to make that commitment is that there are more things under the sun than you will guess ahead on. In matters of human behavior and human nature, it is always good for a research scientist to keep humility foremost in mind.


CEOCFO: Would you be likely to be doing research with a particular age group, ethnicity, income, because that seems to be what the client should be targeting or would you typically research in a broad range?

Dr. Forbes: We would always try to bear in mind who in the population, who in the marketplace is important to our client. In some cases it is everyone. In some cases it is important that they know how one group stands in contrast to other groups. Each case lends its4elf to a particular vision of who it is important to research. For example, if I were working with a client that has got a brand that seems to be declining a bit, then I will certainly want to talk to people who remain very loyal to the brand despite its seeming broad base of decline. I want to talk to people who have recently abandoned that brand. I might want to talk to other people who are outside the brand and just understand if they see the stature of the brand changing or not. In a case like this one, all three of those realities are germane to the business problems of the client who has this declining brand. Similarly, if a client has a product that is for young adults, I would always counsel the client to look at tends -- recognizing that teens are an enormous audience for anything that is marketed at young adults. A big part of what teens want to do is be like those young adults. Oftentimes the audience for your “young adult product” is larger in the teen demographic that it is in the young adult.


CEOCFO: How do you conduct your research? Is it in person or online?

Dr. Forbes: Pretty much every way you could imagine. We do research using qualitative techniques in clinical interviews, and we do quantitative research with large samples into the thousands. Qualitative is a very hands on approach conducted by an expert clinical interviewer. Those interviews can be done in person. We also do them over the telephone. Typically, these days we do them with a combination of the telephone and an internet connection so that we could see the person, show them things and potentially do exercises like these rapid photo exposure exercises that I was telling you about – what we call our MindSight® suite of exercises.


Qualitative research is a great place to surf for hypotheses and identify possibilities for a client; quantitative is the point at which you can do statistical analysis and prove your hypotheses are right or wrong, measure the size and groups whose existence you hypothesized in a qualitative enterprise. Clients do not necessarily do both, but in an ideal world you would begin with qualitative, which is getting the lay of the land, understanding what might be true and also understanding how to talk about it. Then you would proceed to quantitative for which you would then get statistically valid answers to your question and the kind of certainty about the results that you would typically want to have if you are about to spend millions of dollars.


CEOCFO: Do you have a basic group of images that you would use in a variety of campaigns or there more customization?

Dr. Forbes: Within the MindSight suite that I was telling you about, there are a range of different kinds of exercises. I’ll give you just a couple of different examples. In the motivational space, when we are talking about the nine emotional motives that I have identified and talked about a lot, we have images that are validated to evoke each of the motives. So we have images that we can show you that will give you a sense of security, and others that will give you a sense of mastery and so forth. And we tend to use a standard battery of these images for each of the nine motives. In a second kind of emotional research, we are just trying to understand what I call experiential emotion, that feeling of the moment. This might be the mood you create if you serve a Mexican beer at dinner or the feeling you have as you walk into a Hyatt Hotel. For this kind of research the emotional results we get are very specific to each situation under study, so we cast our net very wide and create results with a “big data” statistical analysis. We have about five thousand images that we have gleaned that correspond to the nearly five hundred words that represent nuances of emotion in the moment. Typically, we show each respondent a small block of those images, maybe two hundred and fifty images per person. Then we will use our analytic tools to distill out the very specific emotional themes in that experience that is under investigation -- what is feels like to know you really look great, what a great vacation feels like when you are just finished having it, how it feels to be totally surprised by your experience shopping in a new store. We also show images in pairs, or ask respondents to make rapid choices among grids of images. We have many different ways in which we make use of images to study emotion.


CEOCFO: Do you tend to work with the same clients repeatedly?

Dr. Forbes: Yes. WE have been in business for a good while and we have a large book of current clients. In any given year our business is fifteen to twenty percent from new clients and eighty to eighty-five percent from existing clients.


CEOCFO: What do you know now about getting insight into people’s motivation that you did not know five or ten years ago?

Dr. Forbes: The thing that I am now quite thrilled about that we couldn’t do fifteen years ago is to get information from people that is below the threshold of their consciousness. We now have ways to really learn things about people that they did not intentionally decide to tell us. It is more possible than we would have ever imagined ten years ago to delve to the emotional heart of a life experience with a respondent even though they are a stranger to you and they have no compelling reason to reveal themselves to you. I am also pretty pleased to have figured out that we really can get by with a model of nine motives to describe what moves people to do what they do. That organizes and simplifies our task a bit in terms of teaching our clients about motivation.


CEOCFO: Why choose Forbes Consulting?

Dr. Forbes: I think we will give people the kind of deep insight into their consumers that they cannot get elsewhere. When you have deep insight into what makes people love one brand over another or choose one brand over another, you have the opportunity to make products for them that truly thrill them to the core, and to speak to them about your products in a uniquely powerful way that creates a real emotional impact on your consumer – and gives your product a serious edge over your competitor. That’s what we give our clients, and that’s why they choose Forbes.


“When you have deep insight into what makes people love one brand over another or choose one brand over another, you have the opportunity to make products for them that truly thrill them to the core, and to speak to them about your products in a uniquely powerful way that creates a real emotional impact on your consumer – and gives your product a serious edge over your competitor. That’s what we give our clients, and that’s why they choose Forbes.” - Dr. David Forbes


Forbes Consulting






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