The following is adapted from Marketing to Mindstates by Will Leach.

As a marketer, if you don’t use messaging to activate your consumer’s goals—especially the higher-order, aspirational goals—you can’t empathize with their heart’s desires.

Your brand will feel hollow, your solutions are dull, and you won’t connect emotionally with customers. So brands spend a lot of time and money asking consumers what they want.

Here’s the problem: most of the time, people aren’t truly aware of their goals nor really what they want in the first place. They’re simply moving toward that goal, oftentimes non-consciously making decisions and buying products to help get them closer to reaching them. 

Therefore, one of the most important jobs marketers have is to understand AND activate the higher-order, aspirational goals of their customers and help them reach these goals.  Young man climbing up a mountain. Self improvement and life goals concept

Here is a hard truth. The vast majority of your customers don’t care about your brand. They just don’t. 

They DO care about how your brand will help them reach their aspirations though.  If you help them reach these goals, they will continue to buy and praise you on social media. It’s as simple as that.   

Before that can happen, marketers must be aware of the consumer’s true desires by identifying the higher-order, aspirational goals of their consumers. Here are eight strategies you can use to discover the non-conscious, highly emotional goals of your customers:


1. Projective-Based Techniques

In psychology, projective techniques mean “projecting outside oneself.” In marketing, they mean tools you can use in in-depth interviews or focus groups to identify all your customers’ feelings that are below rational, conscious awareness.

People who are not thinking about themselves are more able to tap into their own nonconscious, higher-order emotional drivers of behavior. 

Projective techniques help people ladder from functional goals to higher-order ones. Some examples include:

  • Word associations
  • Imagery associations
  • Grouping and choice ordering techniques
  • Imagery associations with consumer personalities
  • Personification activities

2. Storytelling

When people tell stories, they often reveal the important things that are nonconsciously influencing them. Rather than asking people, “Tell me why you purchase cereal,” you can say, “Why don’t you tell me the story of the first time you bought Honey Nut Cheerios and how did it compared to other things you bought that day.” 

Stunning long exposure landscape image of Wast Water in UK Lake District coming out of pages in story book

Great research moderators use customer stories to help people more easily access their higher-order goals and emotions without overly thinking about it. Over-thinking is often the kiss of death for good insight.

3. Image Sorting

Similar to imagery associations, image sorting can reveal key insights to what your customers’ higher-order goals may be.

Here’s how it works: Ask people to sort through different images and place them into categories that make sense to them. Then talk through why they put images into one category versus another. 

The ways people categorize things tells you what is most important/not important to them. If they struggle with this exercise, give them a helping hand for God’s sake and give them categories to sort through.  

For example, I might tell them to categorize all the images into piles that make them similar, or how you’d like to feel after using a particular brand.

When the images are all sorted into piles, talk to them about the piles they made and why they were organized in this fashion. With one particular pile, they may say something like, “Well, these are about being a good dad.”  Delving into this space is where the richest insights lay.


4. Collage Building

Collages aren’t just for arts and crafts. You can use collage building to uncover deep human truths. 

Using only a few disparate pictures, ask people to use any images to build an overall picture or story that explains how they feel when they reach their ultimate goals in your category. 

Urban youth lifestyle photo collage

When people build collages and talk about the collective picture in detail, they may use words such as “secure” or “innovative.” A consumer’s collage, and the story they tell with it, will help you get a clearer picture of what matters to them and how those desires relate to your brand.


5. Third-Party Role-Playing

Role playing helps people bypass often unknown, personal biases that keep their deepest thoughts trapped inside their own heads. Therefore, we often ask people to pretend to be some other being. 

We might say, “Imagine you’re an extra terrestrial and you just flew to earth and landed on top of your house. I want you to report back to your alien civilization what you’re seeing as you watch breakfast being made and served, and what just doesn’t make sense.”

Research respondents will often see things in their rituals and behaviors that they wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

6. Personification

This is where we say, “Hey, if this brand were a superhero, what would be its traits? What type of superhero would it be? Why?”

We might hear things such as, “This brand would be Captain America.”

Why? “Captain America is strong and fast,” they might say. And if they did, you’d be getting the clear message that people associate the brand with speed and strength.

superhero businessman looking at city


 7. Deprivation

Ever hear of absence makes the heart grow fonder?  Well, there is real truth to this, particularly when trying to determine the real significance of your brand in people’s lives.  

We often ask, “What would you do if you didn’t have this brand of cereal? What would you eat? Would you choose not to eat cereal at all? Would you not eat breakfast at all?”  

And if we’re in a particularly challenging brand study, we have research participants STOP using our clients’ brand for a few days and report back to us. You’d be surprised how substitutable and unimportant your brand can be in the bigger scheme of life.   

Deprivation helps you understand the broader context of how a product like cereal fits into people’s broader lives. Somebody might answer, “I’ll have waffles and here’s why.”

When you understand the broader context, human goals become more visible.


8. High-Level Questioning

Use these questions in combination with the storytelling technique to understand your consumers’ life objectives and how the product fits (or doesn’t fit) within those goals:

  • Were other people’s interests or preference involved in that final decision?
  • How did the product make you feel when you bought it and used it?
  • How does the product fit into the broader goals you’re trying to accomplish?
  • What were you using before this product? How is this specifically better?
  • How do you currently use it? Show me, if you can, but be specific. (Get them to use your product. Identify the steps of how they use it.)


So What Happens Next?

Take this information and summarize the functional and more importantly, the higher-order goals people have related to your category and brand.  With this, you have the first element needed to drive emotional engagement with your brand.

Once you have identified your customers’ higher-order goals, you can use psychology and neuroscience to create marketing that targets those specific goals. And there’s no better way to get started than with the Mindstate Marketing Partnership Plan.

This program allows you to meet with the Mindstate Group team in an interactive workshop to create highly effective (and impactful) marketing essentials. Using your business’s data and information from your specific customers, we’ll teach you how to get results using Mindstate Marketing while making complex scientific principles simple.


Learn More


Topics: Marketing, goals, Research