Morphological Market Psychology – A Comprehensive Depth Psychological Research and Consulting Approach

by Dirk Ziems, Rochus Winkler, and Thomas Ebenfeld, Managing Partners

Concept m is delighted to have received the award for the institute with the best methodological skills in the Image Study for Market Research Providers 2020/2021. This recognition that we have earned from company market researchers and colleagues from other institutes is an opportunity for us to present our research and consulting methods in greater detail. Morphological market psychology is at the heart of our work.

In the context of depth psychological approaches, morphological market research has become one of the leading methodological tools on the global stage.

As early as in the 1980s, morphological market psychology developed comprehensive models, encompassing all central issues of marketing research in a systematic and holistic way. We would like to cite just a few examples of its application:

  • Fundamental motive insight research on product fields and topic worlds
  • Trend and culture research, for example on Generation X, Y, Z, or golden agers, on current trends like sustainability and purpose marketing, or the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Intercultural analyses for international marketing
  • Deep dives into relevant psychological mechanisms of target group types (personas) or usage situations
  • Fundamental psychoanalysis of brand personalities and brand myths, and brand consulting and positioning based on depth psychological findings
  • Depth psychological communication research in various fields (TV commercials, social media campaigns, OOH, and packaging)
  • Research on customer satisfaction and customer journeys that allows us to identify the psychological drivers and pain points that really matter.

Morphological market psychology has developed specialised research and analysis tools for each of these areas that go beyond a purely descriptive qualitative methodology. Sceptics often criticise the standard procedure used in qualitative focus groups and interviews, saying it only scratches the surfaces and doesn’t look beyond immediately visible phenomena – and the critique is justified. Individual statements of respondents are taken literally or weighed disproportionally based on a gut feeling or subjective assessments. Morphological market research, on the other hand, wants to shed light on the structures behind the phenomena – and some of these structures are always unconscious.

The psychological point of view deciphers unconscious correlations

We would like to illustrate this with an example of an interview with a young driver: During the interview, the respondent stated that her car only has a purely functional purpose for her, and that is to get her form A to B. She said she bought her Renault Twingo second-hand and only for financial reasons while she didn’t really care about design or components. If you stop the interview process at this point you are stuck with the superficial stereotype that young digital target groups are not interested in car ownership. A car, to them, is nothing but a commodity without any emotional value.

In our morphological in-depth interviews, we always see the first version of the story level as an initial introduction to the research process. We expect turns and breaks in the second version, which reveal the preconscious and unconscious drivers and motive tensions which are actually relevant. And indeed, we observed a change in this interview, too: When asked to describe her Twingo, the respondent used affectionate language. The car had “a cute baby face with big googly eyes”, her relationship to her car was emotional. Her Twingo reminded her of a teddy from her childhood that she loved very much. Over the years, she had grown closer to the car, it was like a partner or friend with whom you stick together through thick and thin.

The complex attachment pattern revealed in this interview is addressed in various forms in commercials and advertisements for city cars. Morphological research can support the development of communication concepts to identify the images describing the relationship to the car that fit perfectly and are extremely attractive on a subconscious level.

Depth psychological thinking categories expand the horizons of understanding

As the interview example has shown, morphological market psychology sees research as an open process that moves with the turns and twists of the research topic.  Things that seem like a commodity at first turn out to be highly emotional. Brand logos point to deeper symbolic meanings: the Mercedes star – a symbolic expression for the claim on uncharted territories and goals yet to be achieved.

The thinking categories listed below are examples of the aspects morphology focuses on during the explorative deep dive:

  • Mediating between motive tensions Products are usually successful if they manage to mediate between contradictory motive drivers. A classic example are diet foods which balance the opposed requirements of enjoyment and health/tolerability: A diet cream yoghurt can meet both tendencies at the same time. But brands can also take a one-sided position in motive tension fields. Various cleaning agent brands, for example, position themselves in the tension field of getting heavily involved in cleaning combats on the one hand (strong, effective experience qualities) and of wanting to get relieved from the cleaning effort on the other hand (magical, quick experience qualities). Being aware of these aspects, we can see why cleaning brands have positioned themselves in a certain way: “Der General” focuses quite strongly on the cleaning combat pole (as the general commanding the floor army). Swirl, on the other hand, focuses on the pole of relief (promising effortless shine with easy spraying foam)
  • Meaning of archaic patterns: Morphology doesn’t believe in the purely reasonable, always civilised and cultivated behaviour of consumers. Some of the key drivers of consumption are always rooted in archaic motives. We have to be suspicious of rationalisations! Car categories like SUVs are not only booming because it’s easier for drivers to get into these cars and because they offer better sight. The category is also about self-assertion, feelings of superiority, and boasting. We can often see pronounced tribal notions linked to the brands (tribalism): In China, BMW drivers and Mercedes drivers team up in opposing fan clubs, holding ritualised tribal competitions when they meet.
  • Concentration into symbols and myths: The cultural and individual psyche are expressed in stories and images. If they didn’t participate in the symbolic and mythical treasure of their culture, the lives of the individuals would be void of meaning. Brands have long ascended to the function of cultural story tellers and iconic cultural figures. Morphology allows us to systematically decode the unconscious meaning behind brand symbols and brand myths. The brand Red Bull, for example, lives off its exciting Icarus brand myth. Just like Icarus heading for the sky, Red Bull gives you wings. Red Bull provides the fuel for the individual to live an exciting life on the edge – the companion for ecstatic techno raves, or for pit stops at the petrol station during long drives. This spirit is constantly kept alive with elaborated event marketing covering extreme sports, soap box races, and mass sports. The downside of “gives you wings” is Icarus’s risk of crashing (which is also true for vodka Red Bull). But without this interplay of flying high and the risk of falling, the brand wouldn’t provide any thrill.
  • Decisive impact of the cultural psychological framework: Individual products and brands are mediums for consumers to participate in the trends of their culture. Based on decades of cultural psychological research – concept m has published about 50 studies on this topic in the past 12 years alone – morphological market research is able to make highly accurate deductions about the cultural psychological developments seen in general culture, which are reflected in specific products and brands. For example: Against the backdrop of a culture of maximisation and the social trend of becoming ever better, faster, and more perfect as an individual, smart watches were an innovative symbol of the culture of self-optimisation: tracking ourselves and checking physical function data around the clock, driving ourselves to a more active and fit lifestyle. But the tides have turned and our culture is now increasingly turning inwards, back to the roots. Smart Watches are struggling to reposition themselves in this context: Instead of pushing the user to ever greater performance (an uber-self at your wrist), the devices should have more caring functions in the future. Instead of a movement app that constantly requires 5,000 steps a day, users now prefer options like mindfulness apps, leading them to more breaks, calmness and meditation relaxations.

The Morphological Tool Box – making depth psychology particularly easy to use and implement in marketing

Morphological market psychology hasn’t stopped at general thinking categories in research and consulting. Based on the morphological idea, we have developed highly specific analysis tools which enable us to find very exact, specific, and hands-on replies to marketing questions. It would be too much to go into detail about the Morphological Tool Box at this point, so we just would like to briefly point out some of the essential morphological basic tools:

  • The motive hexagram allows us to decipher the psychological system behind the product-specific or topic field-specific individual motives and requirements of customers. A special benefit of this tool is that it makes the various motive tensions tangible in their context and their interactive dynamics. In addition to that, we describe motive sets in everyday language, going one step further than the generalised motive labelling that we see in neuropsychological approaches.
  • With the Brand ZIA model, we examine and consult brands in a holistic psychological way. “Z” stands for “Zielgerichtetheit” – which can be translated as “targeted”. Which motives, moments, target groups, trends, and cultural sensitivities does the brand address? “I” stands for the brand identity in the dimensions of heritage, perspective, innovation, performance, and archetypical personality. “A” stands for “Auftritt”, the brand presentation, its imagery and the interaction with consumers.
  • In communication analyses, morphological market psychology resorts to a plethora of extremely elaborated impact models. When we analyse advertisement dialogues, we see the advertising contact as an influential event that unfolds according to the pattern thesis – antithesis – synthesis (mediation). The Buzz!Types allow us to trace advertising instruments back to basic forms or archetypes of communication dramaturgy. We have developed individual impact models for the different communication channels moving images – social media – OOH, etc. Last but not least, out model of cumulative storytelling helps us understand the impact of cross-media campaigns (every channel is a chapter).
  • To live up to the challenge of understanding and keeping track of the change process for the permanently transforming and volatile markets, we use Transformation Monitoring based on social listening. Transformation Monitoring allows us to track the exact impact of mega trend topics on individual markets and brands (like sustainability – fast fashion – h&m) in real time or retrospect by systematically collecting and analysing thousands or even hundreds of thousands of posts. We understand the central inflection points in the change process and how opinions and attitudes are formed and influenced online.
  • Integrating research and consulting: Morphological market psychology is a creative tool because the analyses we draw up using it also always point to new opportunities to optimise marketing measures. We are an integrated institute that combines the areas of qualitative and quantitative research and consulting in a targeted and purpose-oriented context. We therefore consult businesses on how they can implement our research results most profitably and successfully. To safeguard this process, concept m supports their clients with an interdisciplinary team of experienced consultants consisting not only of marketing researchers but also of marketing practitioners and creative minds.

The depth psychological sub-text of industries

Our daily lives and the countless ways of consuming products that we see in everyday life are an almost unlimited field of expression of general mental motive tensions, of the opposing forces of archaic and cultivated tendencies and of psychologically meaningful myths and symbols. Based on this perspective, morphological marketing research started as early as in the 1980s to examine specific product motives, products segments, product target groups, communication worlds, and customer journeys in dozens of markets (i.e. diverse categories in the food, body care, banking, insurances, energy, pharmaceutical, telecommunication, or automotive industries). The fundamental knowledge of diverse sectors and industries that we have acquired over the decades provides us with extremely specific fundamental insights into the sub-texts of the respective fields. What is the psychological meaning of naturalness in juices? Which guiding principles dominate the world of fashion retail? Which developments have we seen regarding the motives and requirements for cosmetic products for men? Which barriers for the smart home remain to this day? In order to answer these and similarly specific research questions, morphological market psychology has deciphered the psychological subtext many times and supported businesses in developing successful marketing approaches based on these analyses.

Morphological quantitative research – depth psychological facts and figures

Psychological research decoding unconscious drivers is no longer limited to qualitative methods. concept m integrates in-depth interviews and focus groups with quantitative research and implicit measurement to turn depth psychological findings into tangible figures.

Qual and quant from one single source: The prevailing assumption about depth psychological market research is that it is only based on qualitative methods, in-depth interviews, and special forms of group discussions. People think psychological market research asks the consumer to lay down on the psychoanalytical couch.

This has made way for a problematic dual operation in the research practice: Qualitative psychological market researchers are called when “deep drilling” into the consumer’s soul is required.  In all other cases, standardised quantitative research is the way to go. The two approaches are often only loosely intertwined.  The problematic result: The potentials of a deeper integration are not tapped sufficiently.

At concept m, we therefore offer depth psychological quantitative and quantitative research from one source, based on morphological market psychology. What’s in it for you? There are many benefits!

  • Integrated workflow of the research team: our qualitative morphological research consultants have been trained in quantitative methods as well, while our quantitative researchers also have solid hands-on knowledge of depth psychological methodology.  This guarantees that our projects are integrated into our interdisciplinary cooperation from the get-go. The input from our qualitative researchers is included in the development of the quantitative study from the very beginning. The transfer of expertise and knowledge from qual to quant remains under one roof.
  • Our quantitative research designs are psychologically sophisticated: Psychological findings and market psychological concepts resulting from our qualitative research provide valuable ideas for the design of the quantitative study. This becomes evident in complex segmentation studies, for example: Building them on morphological studies allows us to establish completely new connections between topics which might be overlooked in a standard segmentation study.
  • Higher item quality and improved stimulus material: quantitative research can only be as good as the input on hypotheses, statements, and stimuli measured in the study. Poorly differentiating or ambiguous items often obscure quantitative results. At concept m, however, we always draw up questionnaires together with the interviewers and moderators who were also involved in the qualitative research. They know exactly how the questionnaire statements have to be phrased to achieve the right nuance of consumer language, or which verbal or visual stimuli bring across the core of an idea from the consumer’s perspective. This way, quantitative interviews can really measure the relevant categories in a valid way.
  • Put a figure on consumer ambivalences: the insights gained in the qualitative psychological research step are also decisive when it comes to getting to the bottom of contradictions and ambivalences in consumers in the quantitative phase. We usually include several contradictory statements in different places of our questionnaires. Morphology believes that our daily lives are deeply contradictory and motives full of tension determine our approach to products, services, etc. To explore and balance these contradictions, we include them as respective statements in our questionnaires. This allows a direct measurement of the different “hearts” that dwell in every consumer’s chest. By looking at and comparing how much their responses deviate, we can understand which interviewee groups show particularly strong motive ambivalences.
  • In-depth Implicit Measurement: the new procedures of implicit measurement can be implemented in integrated psychological qual and quant study designs to produce particularly successful results. Complementary measurements of reaction times allow us to infer rejection processes of respondents, revealed by longer response times. Psychological mechanisms become directly measurable and we can put a tangible figure on depth psychology.
  • Psychological qual and quant research as a driver for innovation: underpinning research results with figures is a tried and tested way to increase the acceptance of these findings by decision-makers. Sometimes, the crucial inputs generated by qualitative psychological research are not fully tapped in the decision-making process because they lack a statistic foundation. But when qualitative research and quantitative research are developed and implemented in an integrated way from the very beginning, qualitative research can reach a whole new level of persuasion. Integrated psychological qual and quant research can therefore become an innovative force for businesses.

Global Cultural Studies – morphological analyses for international marketing

Morphological market psychology has not only taken root in Germany but also internationally for many years now. Countless globally active European, American, and Asian businesses, from SMEs to corporations, have made morphological insight analyses a central element of their marketing processes. As a Global Boutique Agency, concept m has become the morphological institute with the strongest international focus. We carry out research in over 40 countries and have branches in London, Los Angeles, Beijing, and Shanghai, where our local research teams take care of our local customers independently.
It is its capacity to fully capture and understand the psychological context of local consumption cultures in international research contexts that makes morphological market psychology so successful. Product motives and requirements are influenced by specific guiding principles, role model ideas, value and belief patterns, attitudes and imagery, which stem from national or regional cultural experience. Be it, for example, what consumers expect from service providers, which role food or kitchen furniture plays, how social media is used or how mobility is linked to certain values of freedom – each of these topic areas reveals fundamental psychological differences between Northern and Southern Europe, and, even more strikingly, between Eastern Asia, Europe, and the US. We support our clients in our international projects with effective insight analyses which shed light on cultural differences that normally get underestimated. Based on these insights, international morphological studies provide specific approaches to optimise marketing strategies or communication instruments for local markets.

Marketing in the post-COVID era – now is the time to set the course for fundamental transformation

Through our global morphological analyses, based on research in Asia, Europe, and the US, on the impact of the pandemic on consumption culture and marketing – which you can also read up on in our latest book “Global Viral Change” – we have learned: COVID-19 marks a watershed and the dawn of a new era for consumers everywhere in the world. We have identified change in manifold areas: The experiences people have made during the different lockdowns, which also put a damper on consumption, put into perspective the importance they attach to consumption in general. This affects different sectors to varying degrees: The travel or fashion industries have to brace themselves for profound and major paradigm shifts. The food or decor sectors benefit from people’s increased desire for more support, stability, and domesticity. All these trends are headed by an all-encompassing value shift, away from the culture of maximisation and towards a culture of reflection and mindfulness.

For businesses, the impacts of the pandemic present both a challenge and an opportunity. Those who show they get their customers and their new needs now, and spearhead change in their industries, will enjoy improved competitive standing in the medium run at the latest. Just like in previous times of insecurity (2009-11, banking crisis), morphological market psychology can once again prove a valuable resource for businesses in the post-COVID era to define the extent of the changes and to develop specific and targeted action strategies.

For further questions please contact:

Thomas Ebenfeld
Managing Partner

Rochus Winkler
Managing Partner

Dirk Ziems
Managing Partner