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CIRCLING the answer

Say I see you coming out of a shop with a drink or snack in your hand.

And say, somehow, I already know a lot about the kind of things you normally buy.

And say, more creepily, I also know a lot about you. Where you live, what you watch and read, where you go on-line, who your friends are, the messages you send them.

But what I really want to know is why.

So I ask: “Excuse me, can I just ask, why did you buy that?”

“Because I was thirsty,” you might reply. “It’s a hot day”.

Or: “I’m hungry. I need something to keep me going.”

Or just: “I don’t know. I just felt like it.”

I’m not going to let you off with a category need, though.

“But why that one? There were loads of drinks and snacks in there. You could have chosen any of them. Why that one?”

Now you’re getting a tiny bit annoyed. “Well, it was the first one I saw when I went in.” Physical availability.

“And when I saw it, I thought…that’ll do.” Recognition.

“Anyway, it’s one of the ones I normally buy when I’m thirsty or hungry or feel like a snack.” Mental availability.

“So,” I say “it’ll do the job. But lots of the brands in there would do the job. There must be something more.”

“Sorry, not that I can think of. Now will you please leave me alone?”

Then an idea occurs to me. “How about you come long to a group discussion we’re running in a few days’ time and we talk about this some more?”


“We’ll pay you.”

“How much?”


“OK. How long will it take?”

“Two hours.”

“We’re going to talk about drinks and snacks for two hours?!”

"You’ll see.”

Now say you turn up. You fit the brief. You’ve been fed and watered. The working day is over. There’s a bit of space in your head.

“So remember I was asking you about that drink or snack you bought the other day. I know this might seem odd but I really am interested in why…I mean, how come you bought that particular one.”

That’s the thing about asking why. It can sound like an interrogation. That linear laddering up of questions through feature, functional benefit, higher-order benefit and emotional benefit only really works in the manual. Real-life interviewing is more circular. Sneaking up on the answer without it noticing.

“So can we start with how you feel about these kinds of products. What’s the first thing that comes into your mind when I say the word ‘snack’ to you? What about ‘drink’?” Associations.

“When do you choose one rather than the other? I see, so you kind of see snacks and drinks as alternatives and kind of don’t.” Competitive set.

“And when you said you see the ones you buy as ‘the healthy ones’, what did you mean by that? I see, not so much ‘healthy’ as ‘better for you’. Better than the other options available.” World of interest.

You’re circling closer now. But it’s still no good going in for the kill.

“Let’s look at all the products you might consider buying in that particular situation. If I asked you to divide them into groups, how would you do that?” Market mapping. “What’s good about each of these groups?” Explicit needs.

“Now here are some pictures of people. Pick out one person who you think would feel exactly the same as you do about these kinds of products.” Projection.

“Imagine you could create for them what they would see as their ideal drink or snack to have in this situation.” Implicit needs.

“So let’s talk a bit more about the brands you buy currently. What words come to mind when you think about them?” Image.

“What would they be like if they came to life as people? Imagine you met them. Imagine they met each other. ” Personality.

“So here are some ideas for describing what this brand offers. What it does for people. What it means to them. I’ll put them all out in front of you. Pick out the ones that strike a chord with you. Write down your answer before we discuss it as a group.” Response.

“So that’s the one you seem to agree on for this brand. That sums it up best, does it? How interesting! It makes you feel like this.” Emotional connection.

“What do you reckon? Do you think that really is the reason you buy it?” Light bulb on. Insight.

“I don’t know,” you might reply. “Never really thought about it. Now where’s my £50?”

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