The Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique *

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ZMET stands for the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique and was developed by Harvard Business School Professor Gerald Zaltman, the Joseph C. Wilson Professor of Business Administration and Co-director of the Mind of the Market Laboratory. The Mind of the Market Laboratory has moved to Olson Zaltman Associates. Please see their website for updated information.

ZMET has been used in over 20 countries around the globe by the world's leading companies to explore business to business and business to consumer issues. It is also being used increasingly to address organizational issues.

A Consumer-Based Approach to Marketing Strategy

Managers have been saying for years that their organizations should be consumer-oriented and market-focused. Of course, expressing a goal and fulfilling it are not the same thing. Achieving this goal requires basing marketing decisions on a thorough understanding of current and potential consumers. Gaining this knowledge is not easy, but it is essential to gaining and sustaining competitive advantage.

Business executives deal with a variety of interesting and challenging issues in managing their products and brands, including the following:

  • What basic value or equity does my product or firm have in the consumer1s eyes?
  • How can I build or reinforce this value?
  • How can I establish a loyalty relationship with my consumers?
  • How can I anticipate and understand consumer needs, especially those they find difficult to express?
  • How do the habits of mind among my managers influence their thinking about consumer issues?
  • What am I really saying about my product or company in my advertising and by my promotions?
  • How can I establish a consumer focus as an integral part of my corporate culture?

Answering such challenging questions requires an in-depth, fundamental understanding of how current and potential consumers think and feel about a product.

Typical Research Purpose

To develop creative strategic solutions to marketing problems managers need: (1) detailed knowledge of the consumer and the marketplace, (2) clarity of thought guided by effective models and theories, (3) creativity and imagination, and (4) reasoned judgment and experience. Where these needs exist it is appropriate to consider using ZMET.

ZMET research provides fundamental understandings of consumers, by identifying a broad set of meanings, at several levels of experience. It helps understand how unconscious and conscious processes interact to: (1) create needs, (2) influence the criteria for satisfying them, (3) shape the experience of satisfying needs, and (4) spawn judgments about those experiences. These understandings are necessary foundations for building effective marketing strategies.

A Word on Images

ZMET uses visual and non-visual "images" gathered and/or generated by consumers to elicit and probe the metaphors that represent consumers1 thoughts and feelings about a topic.

Images are important units of analysis for marketing managers. When augmented by consumers1 explanations during careful probing by an interviewer, the images provide a clear idea of what consumers really think and feel. Almost invariably these insights are far deeper and more clear than the insights to be gained from verbal discussions alone. Although many images are visual, images may take other forms (tactile, olfactory, auditory, etc.). Whatever the form (technically, every image is a neural activation), an image represents a thought or feeling consumers have about, say, privacy, treating heartburn and indigestion, or the meaning of art in their daily lives, or what they think a company thinks of them. For this reason, we refer to images as metaphors.

A metaphor is the representation of one thing (a thought, feeling, action) in terms of another thing (a picture of someone screaming, a swimming pool, the color blue, the sound of a breeze). During a ZMET interview, we collect verbal descriptions of the thoughts and feelings represented by these images to help us understand their meaning. Strong evidence exists that these verbal descriptions are far more complete and far more useful to managers because they were stimulated initially by these images or metaphors.

→ More on ZMET Interviews

→ More on ZMET Analysis

By having people select their own images, the ZMET process gives participants control of the research stimuli and a greater sense of involvement with the interview topic. Thus, participants are able to represent their thoughts and feelings more completely and accurately than when responding to stimuli presented by the researcher. The pictures participants bring to the interview are metaphors that serve as entry points into their thinking process. Exploring the meaning of these metaphors allows us to elicit many important ideas. ZMET is especially effective in helping consumers uncover hidden or tacit knowledge--understandings they didn't know they had.

* ZMET is a patented process. Any use of the process or its constituent elements is prohibited unless under license or by written permission of the patent holder. This includes indirect use involving unauthorized third party use of any aspect of ZMET. Also included under this prohibition is inadvertent use where any party unknowingly uses or accepts use of the process or its elements. This patent has recently been extended to include the use of neruoimaging and other physiological techniques in market research.