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Best Practice in Stimulus Usage in Qual Research

~ Aparna Khadilkar, Tanvee Dixit, Deepa Soman

Stimulus for colour

Stimulus is something that evokes response viz., action or exertion or quickens action, feeling, thought. Stimuli in research are any materials or items used as an aid along with discussion guide to gain responses that allow that extra layer of understanding, including emotional drivers, unconscious behaviors’ and the otherwise unsaid. It is a key element in both qualitative & quantitative studies to get an early feedback on a new product, pack design or advertising for a brand. Today with attention deficit/ hyperactive consumers’ use of stimulus can give deeper understanding. Co-creating stimulus with consumers is a way to increase participation and can result in rich data.

Different Types of Stimulus

In DIRECT stimulus, relationship to marketing & advertising is well established.  INDIRECT stimulus is not related to or has no resemblance with product/brand/marketing.

Stimulus can be SIMPLE like list of words, images, brands or can be COMPLEX i.e. written idea, audio, video (narramatic, animatic or finished TV commercial), online link or magazine collage.

Direct stimulusis used primarily to develop new product, communication idea or pack usually prepared by client along with advertising agency.

What (DIRECT STIMULUS) Description Suited for
Written concepts /Concept board Written description of a product/ brand/pack/advertising idea is expressed verbally&/or visualised. (in the specific insight, benefit, reasons to believe, tagline format) New product development

Advertising development

Competitive sets Range of products within a single category for use as discussion points of reference and comparison
(can also be used for perception and benefit mapping exercises)
New product development; brand development


Narramatics An audio tape on which a voice artist narrates the dialogues & explains the action of commercial Advertising development
Animatics Key frames for a commercial are drawn & then filmed into a video with a sound track like an animated film Advertising development
Story board/Flip over boards Key frames for a commercial are drawn consecutively, like a comic strip

Key frames are exposed one by one

Advertising development
Mock up packs (physical or recently, shown as an animated visual over a laptop to save time and cost) The new design (box, label or physical shape)is mocked up in 3-D to make the product look ‘real’ Packaging development


Indirect stimuluslike words or vocabulary list is specially designed to find a range of words to express a view that may be felt rather than thought. Visual collages/collage boards can create & express aspects of brand’s personality or to explain the user-image of a product or advertisement. It can be also used to identify symbols for the brand. To explore the mood colour boards or collages can be used. Auditory stimuli to explore associations and imagery in creating sonic or sound identity for brands.

Stimulus usage is popular across research categories. It is especially useful where consumer vocabulary and expression may be limited. Here stimulus serves as an aid to enable and empower consumers to articulate better and build greater comfort and interest in participation.

Some examples:Use of stimulus (words/images) was get emotional associations, values linked with a financial services brand. The association helped to create brand identity and arrive at the brand archetype.

Use of stimulus in fragrance development for a personal care product to generate consumer language and expressions across regions for the fragrance.

Picture collage created by consumers

Mood boards & collages used to identify moods and emotions in developing a virtual world for a client company.

Auditory stimuli were used to explore associations and imagery of a powerful sonic identity of brands. It is a relatively underleveraged sense in stimulus testing.

What (INDIRECT STIMULUS) Description Suited for
Image banks Large bank of images presented to respondents – can be random or in organised groupings
Aids in descriptions of emotions and sensorials that can be difficult to put into works
Can be effective in comparing and developing imagery/ TOV
New product development

Brand development

Need space identification

Advertising development

Mood boards Pre-prepared collections of images into territories used to develop imagery and TOV New product development

Brand development

Need space identification

Advertising development

Communication testing

Timelines Respondents write down a process/ decision on a pre-prepared map, identifying the main stages and milestones contributing to that process/ decision and how they were affected Customer journey/ buyer behaviour; target understanding
Collages Respondents source a number of pictures from magazines that best represent their perceptions of a brand/ product/ person/ etc (often with an emotional focus) New product development; brand development; target understanding


Preparing Stimulus & Execution Guidelines

Language:Stimulus is customised keeping in mind the target group, category & brand. In India, stimulus is presented in English &  in regional languages. Stimulus presented in regional language is better understood and facilitates better articulation in lower socio-economic cohorts and smaller towns/ rural centres.

Visuals:In case of picture stimulus, pictures should be chosen considering the category, brand. A good stimulus set should have balance of functional benefits & emotional associations.

Consistency:In multi-location studies uniform stimulus (quality of material, coding/ marking, rotation protocol/ sequence of presentation) helps better execution and less scope for errors and inconsistency.

Preparation:The researcher/ moderator is prepared ahead of the consumer activity and has a grip on the stimulus in terms of number of words/ images, rotation grid, codes, probing planned, with an appreciation for the overall execution of stimulus activity

Analysis:Translating the information gathered on stimulus and linking it with raw stimulus, count of number of mentions, meaning and interpretation, pattern identification, and eventually, laddering, is needed to derive value and meaningful insights from the stimulus activity.

Conclusion:Choosing and preparing appropriate stimulus is a creative activity with a direct correlation with richer data due to enhanced involvement of consumers.


Qualitative market research by Wendy Gordon

Research studies conducted in area of food, personal care, BFSI & telecommunication




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