Psychological representation

A main task of market research is to obtain basic knowledge that can be employed in making strategic marketing decisions. And marketing wants to be able to rely on this basic knowledge. Psychological representation means representing all factors and contexts of meaning relevant to product usage, image perception, etc.

Psychological representation is the principal quality criterium guaranteeing that market research analyses are strategically relevant. If one knows why consumers use a certain product, why they prefer a specific brand, and what this brand means to them, one can develop measures to optimally hit consumers motivational nerves. So psychological representation should guarantee that market research covers and depicts all strategically relevant factors or motives that make a product or brand successful.

Statistical representation is often seen as a central quality criterium, although it usually only has peripheral significance in market research. Statistical representation requires that the sample constitutes a reduced, as far as possible true-to-reality representation of the overall consumers relevant to a product or brand. But most market research studies cannot guarantee statistical representation. If the respondents were to actually represent the entire population (relevant to a product), several thousand would have to be interviewed. So anyone who expects a study to be statistical representative is deceiving himself.

Thus, it is a relief to know that statistical representation is only required by marketing in very few cases e.g., in establishing TV viewer ratings or making election prognoses. In order to understand the secret of success of a brand, one needs an exact representation of all the factors contributing to its success, which is not the same as an exact representation of all consumers. In most cases, therefore, statistical representation is not required. But psychological representation is.

Psychological representation indispensable, but usually not fulfilled

The demand for psychological representation seems to be a matter of course, but in practice it is seldom met. Psychological representation can be fulfilled only by means of extreme openness in the research process. One has to be open to the life reality of the consumer in order to get at the truly important and purchasing-relevant motives and factors. Prefabricated questions and answer categories are not suitable here. They presuppose that one already knows what is of issue in a market and what is truly relevant to consumers. But what is truly significant only comes out in the course of the research process, which is characterized by surprises as well as unexpected and at times embarrassing insights into the daily life of a consumer.

An example of psychological representation: the magazine SportBild

SportBild is Europes biggest sports magazine. In 1997 around 600,000 copies were sold each week. rheingold was commissioned to carry out a qualitative psychological study to discover SportBilds recipe for success. In consultation with the client, 50 depth interviews were carried out with male sports enthusiasts of different ages and levels of education. The bulk of the sample consisted of regular readers of SportBild and Kicker. The size of the sample was based on experience; 50 respondents would suffice to represent all the success factors relevant to the questions addressed. A larger number of interviews would not have yielded any further knowledge.

The aim of the depth interviews was, in a first step, to identify consumers general motives for occupying themselves with sports reporting (on TV, radio; newspapers and magazines). In a second step, rheingold analyzed how SportBild served and fulfilled these motives in contrast to the competition.

Motive: "Achieving sports competency"

In the very first interviews it became apparent that some motives were not problematical, that they could be freely articulated. However, there are other motives for reading, watching, or listening to sports reports that people do not want to admit to others or even to themselves. For example, many respondents said they watched sports on TV on Saturdays, read the sports section of the daily newspaper, and bought Kicker on Mondays or SportBild on Wednesdays in order to "achieve sports competency." They said they wanted to keep up on the most important sporting events so they would have something to say at work or in private circles.

Motive: "Zealous participation"

Peoples excitement and enthusiasm at reading sports articles points to another motive: "Zealous participation." People seek rousing experiences watching sports reports on TV and listening to them onthe radio, but also when reading SportBild. Psychological drama annoyance and happiness due to the outcome of sporting events is aroused and reaches a peak. As when one views an event live in the stadium, one participates in the action, feverishly takes sides, lets off psychological steam. SportBild fulfils this motive, in particular, because it dramatizes sports activity with scandals and gripping topics, with large action and atmospheric photos.

Motive: "Ordering follow-up treatment"

Surprisingly, sports reporting also serves the exact opposite motive. It calms one down, lest one "cool down," guarantees an "ordered follow-up treatment" of sporting events. Sports fans are normally not very conscious of this. But their descriptions reveal that after a sporting event they usually after theyve viewed a soccer or boxing match live are in a very tense and excited emotional state. They are euphoric because their team won, or depressed because it lost. The sporting event matures in their minds and continues to occupy them. It dominates their thoughts at first they have little left over for other issues or for people. Sports magazines help the reader come to terms with sporting events, enabling him to turn his attention to other aspects of life. They enable one to deal with the tense drama of sports after the fact and to establish a clear order (standings) or come to a conclusion ("My team lost because ''").

A successful sports magazine has to perform an emotional balancing act. It has to rouse and calm at the same time.. Indeed, all thriving sports magazines achieve this feat, but with different emphases. While SportBild tends to be more "rousing," Kicker is on account of its matter-of-fact, distant style and sober, colorless layout more of a calming establisher of order.

Motive "Partial participation"

But there are other motives that a sports magazine has to serve if it is to be successful. Sports fans are partial. They build up a central identification reference point, a focus from which they view the (sporting) world: the home club or a sports star. The club or star becomes a kind of "branch" of the sports enthusiasts own personality. The motive "partial participation" reveals that sports fans want to absorb everything concerning their reference point and to participate intensively in his or her developments. One is disappointed when the sports magazine doesnt devote enough attention to ones "personality branch."

Motive: "Following twists of fate"

The sports fan can normally openly admit that he is partial. But he is not conscious of the fact that during the time he spends reading his favored sports newspaper he deals with things other than the last World Cup race or the latest soccer matches. The reader uses stories from the world of sports to shed light his personal life and his non-sporting surroundings. From stories of rises and falls, of obstacles and how they are overcome, he tries to understand the vicissitudes of life and to develop personal strategies for coping. The respondents did not reveal such peripheral psychological aspects of the reading of sports magazines in the interviews. They only became apparent in the psychological analysis of Freudian slips, of seemingly trivial statements, of remarks that seemed on the surface to be beside the point. Why, for example, did respondents tell stories about Otto Rehagel, even thought they werent Kaiserslautern fans? Why were they so interested in the power struggle between Stephan Effenberg and his coach? Why did they continually drift away from the world of sports and talk unprompted about professional or private problems? Why was the atmosphere of the interviews always so reflective and serious, which is atypical of sports?

When the respondents described the articles they had read and what had gone on in their minds, it became evident that they wanted to "follow twists of fate." They wanted to plumb their sports heroes to find out about problems and dilemmas that can emerge in life in general. SportBild, especially, serves this motive: it deals with fateful issues that come up in daily life. Submission to the paternal authority of the owner or coach, or rebellion? Loyalty or betrayal? The fate of Otto Rehagel shows that through hard work the phoenix can rise again from the ashes. While he moves through the article, the reader unconsciously draws conclusions about his own life ("If I battle on persistently, Ill come out on top like Rehagel.")

Hurdles on the way to psychological representation

Psychological representation is indispensable if the secrets to success of a product are to be brought to light and the conditions of market success ascertained. If one does research based on statistical representation, but overlooks the relevant psychological success factors, there is the danger that erroneous marketing decisions will be made or important aspects will be neglected. The example of SportBild reveals that many consumer motives are unconscious, and this is a big hurdle on the way to psychological representation. Unconscious motives only become apparent in the context of the interview and on the basis of a psychological analysis of the interview material. Therefore it is recommendable to have depth interviews conducted not by trained amateurs, but by trained psychologists who learned during their studies how to uncover and analyze unconscious forces.

Motive: "Delving into colorful dream worlds"

During the analysis of SportBilds secret of success, a motive was discovered connected with strong embarrassment: "Delving into colorful dream worlds." While reading sports magazines people often forget about time. When these "black holes" were addressed in the interviews, most of the respondents fell silent or turned red. After the psychologist persisted in a sympathetic manner, light was brought to the darkness. As they read, the respondents drifted into a dreamy mood that they described as being very relaxing.
As when one gazes into shop windows, they were inspired by the illustrious events of the sporting world to dream and fantasize about greatness and success. The readers of SportBild, in particular, fell into such daydreams. They not only dealt with burning and fateful life issues; they gave free rein to their secret or unfulfilled wishes: to be at the very top, to be in the limelight, to win the favor of women, etc.

Dream worlds and advertising reception

This daydream state of mind creates a virtually ideal climate for advertising reception. Advertising in SportBild is not experienced as being disruptive; instead it organically enables the reader to continue his daydream. The readers fantasies about achieving greatness, success, or a state of harmony are given visual form by the ads. Hence the advertising blends seamlessly and playfully with the articles. This explains why the SportBild readers remembered the advertising so incredibly well. Many could recall, unprompted, exactly where the ads were placed in the last issue they had read.


Psychological representation requires that all of the motives and factors relevant to consumer behavior be represented in an analysis. Psychological representation achieves two things. First, it conveys a comprehensive picture of consumer perception and the function of a product or brand. Second, it provides the best basis for a market strategy geared to the realities of consumers.

SportBild, for example, can retain and extend its successful, special position in the market if in the future it not only increases its sporting competency, but also alludes to general life issues in the guise of sports. Then SportBild will carry out its twofold function better: it will convey competency in sports and in life. The implementation of these strategic maxims has repercussions for the actual choice and handling of topics, for the design of the title page, for the dramaturgical structure of the magazine, for media planning, and for advertising.

Market research quality does not hinge on the number of cases explored, but on the expertise and depth of the exploration, and on its analytic penetration. Only by ascertaining consumers real motives can one pave the way for successful marketing measures.

© 2015 rheingold