Does language bias market research? Why pictures are more precise than words

The standard model of market research has relied on language as the main medium for understanding behaviour for more than 100 years. But recent discoveries in psychology and behavioural economics suggest that behaviour is driven more by emotions than reason, so is language still the best medium for communication in research (or in marketing more broadly)?

TapestryWorks recently undertook research on research to understand the impact of different stimuli, verbal and visual, on human responses to the same set of questions. Our focus was on the motivations underlying women’s perceptions of beauty, and we ran the same study across four different countries: Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the UK.

The findings are revealing about the use of verbal vs visual stimuli. In all, we tested 36 concepts relating to beauty goals, through verbal and visual representations of the concepts. The verbal versions were in English for two markets, and carefully translated (and back-translated) into Bahasa Indonesia and Thai to ensure that the full meaning of the concept was captured as closely as possible in the local language.

We also tested different sets of visual stimuli. A set of Western visual representations of each concept was tested across all markets. Additionally, we tested a third set of stimuli in each market, using Indonesian visual representations of the concepts in the UK and Indonesia, Asian visual representations in Thailand, and a multi-cultural representation in Australia. Each set of stimuli comprised 36 concepts, representing 12 overall motivational segments (based around TapestryWorks’ proprietary StoryWorks® model).

The results are fascinating. Starting with our verbal stimuli, there was a high degree of agreement about the single most important goal of beauty: confidence. The word ‘Confident’ (percaya diri in Bahasa Indonesia, meaning ‘believe in yourself’; and  มั่นใจ  in Thai, meaning ‘stable heart’) was by far the most popular choice of verbal concepts, chosen by 63% of women in Indonesia, 55% in the UK, 53% in Australia, and 49% in Thailand. Does this mean that confidence is really all there is to beauty, and does it really mean the same thing around the world?

The second, third, fourth, and fifth verbal choices trailed far behind in their popularity and had much less agreement in terms of the choices that were made. By contrast, the top five choices of visual concepts were completely consistent across the four countries, although they were given different rankings.

‘Confident’ remained the most important concept in Indonesia and the UK, but other options were closer in popularity. The first and second choices in each country clearly show the difference between Western and Asian beauty culture, with ‘Confident’ and ‘Powerful’ being the top two choices in Australia and the UK (‘Powerful’ was the number one choice in Australia), while ‘Confident’ and ‘Hopeful’ were the top two choices in Indonesia and Thailand (with ‘Hopeful’ being the number one choice in Thailand).

So which set of responses gives a more accurate representation of beauty goals? Given the very strong bias towards ‘Confident’, the answer depends on how you interpret the meaning of ‘Confident’ and the emotions associated with it. Below are three pictures that were first choice in at least one of the four countries. They are very different versions of ‘Confident’ that reflect the different priorities of women in Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the UK.

What accounts for the differences in responses to verbal and visual stimuli? Firstly, verbal stimuli force us to engage the rational brain in finding the right answer, encouraging explicit rather than implicit responses (implicit responses give a truer picture of emotional goals). Secondly, verbal concepts can be very broad and flexible, spanning many ideas across many contexts or situations. This makes them useful communication tools, but less precise for understanding real behaviour, especially where the local language has a smaller vocabulary (than English, for example).

This leads to the third and most important reason: verbal concepts can span multiple situations, with very different emotions and needs, and it’s only when a context is made clear that the concept becomes more precise.

For example, in TapestryWorks’ experience of beauty in Indonesia, the more formal meaning of confidence (i.e. transformation, glamour) is only relevant on special occasions such as parties and weddings. While these are very important to women’s perceptions of their own beauty behaviours, they only represent a small slice of their normal everyday beauty behaviours, which are associated with different emotions and goals.

‘Confidence’ is a catch-all term for the emotions associated with feeling beautiful, but as a catch-all it can mean different things to different people in different situations in different cultures (ignoring any issues of translation). TapestryWorks believe that visual concepts have much greater specificity and therefore provide much more accurate cross-country comparisons.

Visual stimuli do not need to be translated and, in our survey, the choices of images were much more consistent across the different stimuli sets than were the verbal stimuli. A final advantage is that images are processed quickly and intuitively by people, providing a very simple, quick, and engaging question that takes less than a minute in a survey.

Image choices revealed the subtleties of cross-cultural differences that were obscured by responses to verbal questions, which were much less clear. It’s time for research to get more visual and learn to use the power of pictures to understand the emotions, cultural values, and contexts that drive human behaviour.