Practical Projective Techniques
for Focus Groups and Depth Interviews

In qualitative marketing research, projective techniques explore associations with brands, symbols, products, advertising, and images.

It explores people’s subconscious feelings, beliefs, and desires.

Respondents project their feelings and beliefs about other people or objects. In doing so, they reveal feelings and beliefs about themselves.

With sensitive subjects, the technique works well.

Four Practical Projective Techniques

Here are four practical and simple techniques. This is not an exhaustive list.

  • Metaphors, Analogies, and Similes
  • Third-Party Projections
  • Role-Playing
  • Associations

Metaphors, Analogies, and Similes

A metaphor represents or explains something in terms of another. Metaphors explain complex or new subjects [target domains] by using a familiar subject [source domain].

Metaphors are a window to the mind. The purpose of understanding metaphors is to understand people’s mindset and feelings about something.

Most importantly, metaphors can reveal underlying emotions about a target domain…such a product or brand. And, one can infer whether emotions are positive, negative, or neutral.

You can use the results from metaphor techniques to develop advertising, brands, sales pitches, and to support product or brand positioning.

Here is a simple sentence completion exercise using similes. Ask respondents to complete the sentence.

“My cell phone is like a…”

Here are some results at the category level for cell phones.

“A cell phone is like a best friend.”

“My cell phone is part of my body.”

“A cell phone is like my wallet. I would never leave home without it.

“A cell phone is like a lifeline now. Leaving it behind is like cutting off the oxygen supply.”

“A cell phone is like a leash.”

The results show cell phones are a necessity for a segment of consumers. A minority find them annoying.

Besides sentence completion, you can also ask respondents to associate a product or brand to pictures and images.

And, you can ask them to draw pictures. Another way to elicit metaphors is to ask respondents to complete storyboards.

Look for metaphors, analogies and similes. Think about what feelings and emotions they reveal. Judge if they are positive, neutral or negative.

Third-Party Projections

With this technique, you ask respondents to describe what other people are doing, thinking, feeling, believing, and saying. Ask respondents to project to a third-party.

Here are some example questions.

“What does your friend think about brand X?”

“What does company X think about you?”

“Who uses brand X? What is the real reason they use it?”

Ask follow-up questions and probe answers, using the third person.

Use third-party projections for sensitive subjects. In other words, when people hide or deny their real thoughts, feelings, or beliefs.

Role Playing

You ask respondents to assume a role and act the part. It is a variant of third-party projection.

“If you were the product manager, what would you do to improve the product?”

“If you were the CEO of this company, what would you do to reduce customer complaints?”

“If you were the creative director, what would your ad say?”

“If you were in your friend’s shoes, what would you do?”

Use role-playing when asking for product or advertising recommendations.


You ask respondents to link a word or image to a category, product, brand, or event. Then ask how the association ties to the topic.

You get people to bind one concept to another. Often associations produce metaphors, analogies, and similes.

Some association techniques include word associations, imagery associations, and personifications.

Here are examples,

Word Associations

Provide a prompt in the form of a word, phrase, or sentence and ask respondents to associate something with it.

“When you think of your service provider, what is the first thing that comes to mind?”

“What comes to mind when you hear the term customer service?”

“When you see brand X, what image comes to mind?”

Imagery Associations

Show people an image, or ask them to bring or select an image.

Images are pictures, drawings, or illustrations. Then, ask people to describe the image.

Ask how it links to a product, brand, object, or person. Also, ask the respondents to imagine an image and describe it.

“Please select a picture that best represents product X. How does the picture speak about product X?”

“How does the image describe product X?”

“What does each person in this picture feel about brand Y?”

Ask several follow-up questions about how the association relates, and probe to clarify.

Personification Associations

Personification asks respondents to give human characteristics to products, services, or brands.

“If your Volvo could talk, what would it say to you?”

“If brand X were a person, what would he or she look like?”

“How does your digital camera feel about you?”

Personification is fun. The challenge of personification is interpretation of data and analysis.

Use associations to understand imagery and stimulate memory recall.

Advanced Projective Techniques

Some advanced techniques include the Rorschach Inkblot Tests and Thematic Appreciation Tests.

Projective techniques have their roots in psychoanalytic psychology. Several psychoanalytic theories abound. The more advanced techniques require training in application and especially in analysis. Analysis of sophisticated techniques involves judgment based on training an experience, and is often open to interpretation and debate.

Projective Techniques and Laddering

In product or service marketing research, laddering works well as technique to identify how people perceive functional and emotional benefits of a product or service.

The advantage of laddering is it clearly links specific product features, benefits, and emotional benefits together.

People buy product features, functional benefits, high order benefits and emotional benefits. They are primary drivers of wants and needs.

Use projective techniques to complement laddering.

Use practical projective techniques in focus groups and depth interviews to gain new perspective and to dig into underlying feelings and emotions.

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