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Further thinking: The qualitative dimension

The conventional view of qualitative research sees it as being a more ‘in depth’, ‘psychological’ version of its quantitative counterpart. But the differences are more profound than this. The purpose of qualitative research is to understand ‘how’ respondents think rather than to just uncover ‘what’ they think in more depth or detail.

The ‘how’ of consumer thinking works along two axes and is applicable to all concepts, but especially those of brands.


Understanding meaning – the horizontal dimension

How consumers understand the world around them is determined by the way in which they slice it up. The words and concepts that they use to do this are arbitrary and the exact points at which they make distinctions are what create specific meanings. How consumers distinguish a yogurt from a dessert, or a snack from a piece of confectionery, is something that they learn from the culture that they live in. The answers in one culture will be different from another and, within one culture, there will also be differences between age, demographic groups and consumer need.state.

Understanding meaning – the vertical dimension

But concepts and, therefore, brands are not just ‘collections’ of associations and values. They have organising principles. The consumer is able to identify what sorts of values are contained within a brand, but there is another important dynamic which determines their meaning – how brands are structured along the vertical dimension. This is the dimension which determines at which level they frame a brand. We need to identify which values define a brand? Which values are near the top of a brand’s propositional hierarchy? And which are present in a brand, but working at a lower level? The meaning of a brand is more than just the sum of the values that consumers associate with it. Critically, it is also the outcome of how they are structured in the consumer’s mind.

The role of qualitative research

Qualitative research aims to understand the role of these two dimensions by identifying the distinctions that consumers make and the concepts that brands manifest. The task is one of understanding ‘how’ consumers interpret what they experience – not just listening to ‘what’ they say about it. Qualitative research is about understanding the structures of the concepts they use – not simply asking ‘Why?’ questions.

This leads to a number of key qualitative questions:

These questions are at the heart of qualitative research and they tie back to its linguistic cornerstone (the Latin word Qualis?). The quantitative way of looking at the world is based on the concept of counting – the Latin word ‘Quanto?’ is its etymological basis and means how many? The qualitative equivalent is less known, but equally as important. ‘Qualis?’ means ‘what sort of?’ and it demands a new way of thinking about the reality our respondents live in. Asking ‘Qualis?’ is where qualitative research begins.

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