A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Tapping into Consumers' Collective Unconscious

The "addict" sitting next to me laughed nervously. "It heals my pain. It releases chemicals in my brain that make me feel a little better. If you're not having a good day, ice cream helps."

Another chimed in. "I'm like an 'Ice Cream Junkie.' I get this feeling and I just have to have a little ice cream. It calms me down. Let's face it, there are worse things than ice cream that we could be addicted to."

Can people really be addicted to ice cream? Based on our market research for a major consumer packaged goods company, women crave this sweet treat and even describe it as an addiction — sweet news indeed for the client that hired me to consult on its marketing strategy for a new frozen novelty.

Do you really know what motivates consumers to buy your products or services? Not just what they like, but why they like it and what moves them to purchase? Traditional demographic surveys and surface data can only tell you so much. In our experience, the key to establishing a lasting relationship with your customers lies in understanding the emotional connection between your customers and your brand. This case study will show how we identified the underlying emotions and motivations associated with our client's new ice cream product.

The discussion described above was extremely valuable for identifying what separated ice cream from other snacks in the minds of primary grocery shoppers. Through focus groups, I explored the underlying feelings that motivated target customers to choose ice cream over other snack choices. Gradually and systematically, we explored three areas:

  1. What differentiated ice cream from other snack choices, in the minds of consumers
  2. The underlying psychological reasons people purchased ice cream
  3. The image for my client's new product that would best resonate with target consumers

We began with a sorting exercise in which consumers sorted 35 possible snack items into groups, based on the feelings generated when selecting a product to eat. After reviewing packages of pretzels, candy, crackers, cookies, nuts, granola bars, and ice cream-related choices, the respondents created a group of frozen novelties, which they referred to as "The Ice Cream Stash."

Interestingly, this emotional need state for "something thick, cool and creamy that satisfies my craving" emerged spontaneously in four focus groups. My clients were glued to the one-way mirror, focusing on the differentiating benefits they heard that could serve as the basis for a marketing campaign for the new ice cream product they planned to launch.

"It's a craving," explained a consumer. "It's the little devil on your shoulder whispering, 'You need ice cream.'"

The ensuing discussion provided the client with an extensive descriptive vocabulary that would be useful in the development of marketing materials, including "rich," "luxurious," "cool," "smooth," "creamy," "thick," "heavenly," "indulgent," and "satisfying."

After accessing the emotions and descriptions associated with this new product, I gently dug deeper into the group's collective unconscious. Displaying a deck of archetype cards, I asked the respondents to review the symbols on the cards and select three that they most closely associate with a non-ice cream snack (snack chips), their ideal "Ice Cream Stash" as well as with the new ice cream product they were evaluating.

Based on the 20th-century Swiss Psychologist Carl Jung's identification of core images and instincts in the human psyche, the cards graphically represent universal archetypes and mythological figures such as "Mother," "Mystic," "Rebel," and "Virgin." Asking consumers to relate a product to these symbols helps us to tap into their unconscious associations, providing invaluable insights and imagery for the development of effective marketing campaigns. By requesting that consumers choose a card for snack chips as well as the "ideal" ice cream product and the new frozen novelty product, we would learn more about "The Ice Cream Stash" and how closely the new product meets this emotional need state. The cards would help us obtain a clear picture of how consumers see the new product and the story that my client's marketing needed to tell in order to drive sales.

The respondents' choices of archetype cards for the two ice cream products were similar and very revealing: "Mystic," Lover," and "Healer." Consistently across all four groups, women described "the power of ice cream" to comfort, restore, and heal them, both from everyday challenges as well as from the craving for ice cream. The new product clearly met the identified consumer need state for "The Ice Cream Stash."

  • "When you're feeling sad about something — maybe after a bad blind date — you eat ice cream…and you feel a little better, because you have something that satisfies you."
  • "You can count on it to be there for you in good times and in bad."
  • "When you're having a bad day, there's always ice cream to pick you up."

On the other hand, respondents' choices for snack chips imagery were more straight-forward and less emotional. They focused on the archetypes of Transformer and Companion, explaining that they typically paired chips with another product such as a dip and tended to take them for granted; they didn't consider them to be particularly special.

One respondent articulated, "After all, you don't race over to your best friend's house with a big bag of chips after she's just been dumped by some guy. You take a quart of ice cream and two spoons. Ice cream comforts and heals."

With that remark, I knew we were done. The research led to the creation of a marketing campaign for the new product based on "the mystical powers of ice cream." Imagery and fanciful copy positioned the new frozen novelty as a soothing, comforting sweet treat that rescues women from everyday struggles.

Our psychological approach went beyond the typical surface reactions to a new product's taste, texture and appearance to exploring the underlying emotions of the target consumer — getting at feelings they probably didn't even know they had about ice cream. By tapping into the consumer's unconscious, my client was now in a very good position for moving forward with a compelling marketing strategy for the new ice cream product.

Because consumers may forget what a brand says or does, but they will always remember how a brand makes them feel.


Jenny Schade is president of JRS Consulting, Inc., a firm that helps organizations build leading brands and efficiently attract and motivate employees and customers. Subscribe to the free JRS newsletter on

© JRS Consulting, Inc. 2011