Projective Techniques - 10 Examples

By Dr. Sharon Livingston


Understanding motivation in the marketing of products and services is obviously very important. Today's research questions have generated a need for a richer, deeper understanding of the marketplace.

More and more we hear management asking research to clarify today's more savvy consumers' practical wants and needs as well as to unearth the emotional elements that drive them to brand selection.

Most consumers, particularly in a testing environment, are more comfortable expressing their socially acceptable, functional and rational needs than their feelings, which may be judged by others and themselves as impulsive, selfish, risky or wrong. In psychological terms, people often censor unconscious needs and motivations before allowing them to surface, in order to avoid the discomfort or self-judgment experienced when these feelings emerge.

This is unfortunate, as very often the driving forces in any purchase strategy are based on these very same underlying feelings and perceptions.

Projective Techniques are aimed at recovering the thoughts, images and fantasies associated with motivation and our emotional side in a manner which circumvents the censoring we all do to preserve our self-esteem and avoid anxiety.


Below you will find a brief description of 10 of our more popular techniques, presented for educational purposes only. If you'd like to be trained to apply such techniques (as well as to thoroughly understand the theory behind their application and interpretation), please visit for course scheduling, detailed descriptions, and pricing information.


Quick exercises designed to draw out consumers' perceptions of particular brands as compared to the people who use them. The image of the brand is often distinct from that of the user. Or, the brand image may be a role model to which the user aspires in lifestyle or values.

As an example of the differences between brand and user. . . .

The image of a brand of toothpaste might be characterized as a tall, attractive middle-aged man in an expensive three-piece suit, who is described as gentle, pleasant to be with, trustworthy, established and who drives a Mercedes Benz.

The user, on the other hand, might be a plaque conscious mother who is worried about gum disease for herself and her husband, who uses a more colorful brand that might be personified as a good natured, funny clown for her young children.


Another technique used to obtain impressions of brand images is called Category Sculpting™. In this exercise, an entire category of brands is considered as a mega- family. Each brand within the family is personified and assigned a role with specific character traits. We ask questions such as where does this family member live, with whom, how does he/she spend his time, how old is he, what does he value, how does he dress, what kind of car does he drive, what is his relationship to the other family members/brands, how is he regarded by the rest of the family, etc.

For example, in the cereal category, four brands out of a much larger grouping were nicknamed: The Family Pet, The Irresponsible Uncle, The Domineering Mother, and The Teeny Bopper Teenager. The actual brands discussed for the four were: Lucky Charms, Shredded Wheat, Fruit Loops and Crispy Critters. For fun, guess which refers to which. As a hint (which you probably don't need), The Domineering Mother title was granted by a group on non-users of that brand. Users in another session named the same product "Aunt Sarah." If you're not sure of the match of brand to profile, ask on of us at the end of this talk.


This is a form of guided imagery in which respondents are asked to close their eyes, relax and imagine an "Alice in Wonderland" - like mirror which permits them to step through to a broadened reality. On the other side of the mirror, they are guided towards doors which can be marked with brand or corporate names, product benefits, short strategy statements or positioning differences. After each door is identified, respondents open them one by one and explore what they see behind each. This technique takes pressure off the respondents because they do not have to come up with a rational or "right" response.

People tend to forget themselves in their involvement with the process, allowing them to be more creative in their inner thoughts and feelings. This leads to richer, deeper and more textured pictures and stories.

This flexible tool is particularly useful in understanding differences in consumer perceptions. It has been used effectively in problem detection, understanding of brand imagery and creative development.


Tellepathy™ is our creative group story-telling excursion. This technique is particularly useful in understanding the common denominator in the imagery created by a concept or statement for strategy development.

We often start with The Looking Glass™, and lead respondents to a door labeled with the core concept. Respondents are invited to cross the threshold, guided through their experiences and then welcomed back into the room to jot down a summary of what happened on the other side of the door. They are then instructed to create a group story, including timing, setting, characters, plot and resolve with the same title as the core concept. The story must be based on the commonalities experienced by all or most, yet be garnished with flourishes of individual differences.


Market researchers sometimes employ the "Modified TAT," an adaptation of the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) used by psychologists, in developing print ads and billboards.

The participants are first shown an unbranded visual that is under consideration for the ad and asked to create a story around it. The moderator or interviewer encourages participants to go beyond the literal and release some of the more elusive feelings and associations that the imagination stirs up.

What is happening in this picture? What are the characters doing, thinking, feeling? What happens next? What will the outcome be?

Participants do not directly address their feeling about a product or brand, but reveal them indirectly through their responses to visuals. Even a slight change in presentation-a tilt of the model's head in a photograph, for example-can evoke a significantly different response.

The picture might be shown a second time with a brand name and a tagline. The participant is asked whether he or she sees the same scenario and how well the picture and the brand match. Sometimes an appealing story loses its intrigue when a less than popular brand is added.

On the other hand, a neutral visual can become more exciting when a well-liked product or tagline is added. The interplay of brand and visual can then be explored.

Because most people view these exercises as fun, they take the opportunity to express themselves more fully and openly. One interesting finding is that people from different segments of the population tell similar stories about the same photos or images.


This technique is useful in exploring new avenues of communicating an important product benefit.

Respondents are directed to imagine a time when they had a positive experience with a particular product. They are asked to experience that memory fully-picturing where they were, being in touch with how they felt, remembering conversations that may have been happening at the time, etc. They are asked to capture the feeling they had and hold it for a moment. The situation that they described will be allowed to dissipate while the feeling will be maintained so that they can imagine a different, unique occasion when the same emotion was present. This exercise works well in eliciting themes that could be developed in terms of product positioning and advertising strategies. In particular, it provides unique visuals and situations that can communicate underlying motivations attached to use of the product.


This technique is used in new product ideational sessions to help establish future needs and wants. Participants are invited aboard a time machine that's set 3, 5, 10 or even 25 years in the future. When they step out into their town, they are asked to fully explore their environment in terms of differences, new items and products in use and new problems created by the changes. These differences are utilized to develop a wish list of possible product innovations that would be relevant for that future time.


Scent-Sations™ is the technique we recommend when scent and aroma are a key characteristic of the product. The sensing of aroma is registered in the temporal lobe of the brain which is the seat of primitive memory. A potent and highly productive way of eliciting early memories associated with a particular fragrance is to stimulate through scent.

The respondents are asked to close their eyes and inhale the aroma of unidentified product. This would be used as a catalyst to guide them to an early memory connected to their first use. They are then told the brand name of the product they sniffed to see how that alters their memories and feeling. The results can help marketers understand a product's emotional heritage, both positive and negative.


In Synesthesia, participants are asked to mix up the senses to more fully understand a particular attribute, product quality or marketing application, i.e., What does the color red smell like? What does red sound like? If it could talk, what would the color red say? What does delicious taste/look like? What color is delicious? How does delicious feel in your hand?


Communication research indicates that:

  • only 7% of what we say is conveyed through the actual words we use;
  • 38% by tone and inflection;
  • 55% by non-verbals.

Market-Plays™ is a system of action techniques borrowed from the performing arts and Psychodrama utilizing consumers and/or marketers as the players.

Participants enact and express their feeling about a product or brand indirectly which allows them to go beyond the literal and convey more of the elusive feelings and associations that the product evokes.

Market-Plays™ is used to demonstrate and better understand the dynamics of:

  • product posturing and position
  • the in-store drama between brands
  • the impact of marketing applications, i.e., name, graphics, packaging, color, etc.
  • the interplay of consumers' functional and emotional needs in brand selection