Remember Sally Field’s ebullience in receiving her Oscar in 1985: “You like me right now! You like me!”

Yes, I’ve just dated myself.

Everyone likes to be liked. But as researchers, why do we care so much about whether consumers “like” things? I’m not talking about Facebook “likes,” but whether they like or dislike a product name, an advertisement, a package design, or a logo. So much research into new design focuses on the likes and dislikes of consumers that we can lose sight of other things that matter as much or more.

A famous example of this was the Super Bowl commercial from a number of years ago: a beautiful and highly amusing production featuring a bunch of grizzled ranch hands herding cats. Viewers loved it. They also had no clue whom it was for or what was being advertised. As I write this, I have no clue whom it was for or what was being advertised. (I just looked it up – it was for Electronic Data Systems.)

If I’m testing a product name, like and dislike are certainly part of the equation. Obviously products available in the color “willow” will sell better than if that same color were called “festering pustule.”

But like and dislike are only part of the equation. Also highly important is what people associate with that name. What does it make them think of? What does it sound like? What images, associations, memories, or feelings does it conjure up? Consumers may really like a specific name, but think it sounds very feminine and soft. That’s probably not the name you want for your company’s new steel-toed work boots.

Or, you may find that lots of consumers really like a name, but that a small portion associate the name with something highly negative. You have to decide whether you can live with that negative association. Testing names for a new SUV, I uncovered the fact that combat veterans associated a strongly negative emotion with a particular name. The client decided the level of risk was unacceptable, even though other consumers were drawn to the name.

Does it sound or feel like something that’s already out there? If you’re a car company, you probably don’t want to be constantly confused with a kitchen appliance or a deodorant.

Does it support the brand promise? A logo that looks nostalgic may not be what you want for your new high tech gizmo. I remember testing a bunch of names for a vitamin supplement. The client was strongly considering names that sounded pharmaceutical, in order to lend perceptions of credibility to the product. Problem was, many people who were taking vitamins were doing so in the hopes of escaping the need for pharmaceuticals. Customers wondered why in the world they would want to ingest something that sounded like what they were trying so hard to avoid.

Visual design is much the same. I’m far less concerned about whether consumers like a brochure than I am with whether they understand the message, and whether it is hitting the points that will motivate their interest. Logo design is far more than just which one is most visually appealing – if that were the case, half the logos in the world would probably feature flowers or butterflies. Which design stands out? What does it communicate? Does it fit the brand?

Particularly in qualitative research, it is easy to be seduced by a room full of people laughing at the clever new advertisement they’re viewing. Yes! They like it!

But does it matter to them? Did they get the message? Did it carry out the brand promise? Does it pound one important point home or is it scattered all over the place? In many cases, like and dislike have relatively little place in research.

If what I’m saying here doesn’t make sense to you, think of it this way. Which would you rather be: the researcher everyone likes, or the researcher everyone respects, values, and really wants to work with?

That’s what I thought.


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