Top 10 Projective Techniques

Projective techniques are a key tool in qualitative market research for accessing sub-conscious needs, motivations, attitudes and perceptions. Here we have a countdown of some of our favourites.

Projective techniques are useful on a number of levels. Not only are they useful for providing something ‘different’ to moderated discussion, but they can be essential for delving deeper into the sub-conscious. Projective techniques are also useful when exploring subject areas that consumers might not necessarily find it easy to elucidate an opinion (e.g. brand perceptions).

The key to success from the moderator perspective is to remember why the projective technique is being used! Knowing that a brand is similar in personality to Kim Kardashian is one thing, but understanding the relevance of those personally traits and how they come to light is where insights can be formed.

Here are our thoughts on the Top 10 projective techniques (and how best to use them!).

10 – Bring an item…

This doubles up as both a pre-task as well as a projective technique. At the point of recruitment, respondents are asked to bring to the group an item that they associate with, or makes them think of the brand in question. They are given creative licence! Mustard has used this technique recently when researching a range of kids multivitamins. Not only did it act as a great warm up to the group – setting the precedent for a creative session – but it also revealed a whole host of emotional attachments to the brand.

9 – Planets (and guided fantasy)

The ‘Planets’ projective technique involves quiet-time on the part of the respondents. They are asked to close their eyes whilst the moderator guides them on an imaginary journey through space. From leaving earth in their space capsule, all the way to returning again at the end of the expedition, they are asked to think deeply about the experiences and emotions associated with a visit to ‘Planet Brand X’. For example, What does it look like?, What are the people like?, What are the buildings like?, How do you feel?, What do you see?, What do you hear?, What do you smell?, Where do you go?, Who do you talk to? What do they say?, How do you feel about spending 6 months here?, How do you feel when you’re asked to  leave?.


During the course of this ‘guided fantasy’ they can visit other brand/planets and compare and contrast the environment, how welcoming it feels, how much they enjoyed the visit, etc. At the end of the projective the group make their notes and debrief to the moderator / each other. We find this delivers much deeper insight and more colourful descriptions of the customer relationship and/or experience.

8 – Psycho-drawings

Psycho-drawings are most commonly pre-prepared sheets of paper, with stick men and women and an empty speech or thought bubble. They are useful for capturing individual views on subjects, and particularly the “how would this make you feel?”. This is a handy technique for respondents that might be initially reticent about verbalising their own emotions in front of a group of strangers, as it also allows us to use a third-party perspective e.g. “this is how I feel most customers would react to this service experience”.

7 – The Treemen

The Treemen is another great example of using stimulus material to encourage respondents to disclose their feelings and emotions. Respondents can be shown pre-prepared drawings showing various characters living and interacting within a tree environment (climbing, falling, hugging, sleeping, etc.). Respondents can select the characters within the drawing that best represent how they (or someone else) might have been feeling in a given scenario. The insights are generated not by noting the individual tree character selected, but by questioning the respondent to understand specifically why that character was selected over others.

6 – Courtroom drama

The ‘courtroom drama’ projective technique is often used by Mustard when using focus groups to conduct concept testing and creative development projects. Most often used towards the end of groups, respondents break into teams and are asked to use the preceding discussion and their own opinions to form a ‘case for’ or ‘case against’ the client preceding with one or more concepts or service improvements.

Various interesting twists can be added. For example, asking respondents to ‘defend the indefensible’ by arguing the case for concepts that they were initially critical of. Teams can be constructed to balance the views of respondents that are more opinionated and vociferous in their views.

5 – Role play

Role play has been most often used by Mustard when conducting customer experience and customer journey qualitative research projects. Role play may be daunting for some respondents (and, for that matter, some moderators!) but is worth introducing into focus groups for several reasons. Valuable insights can be gleaned from studying the specific language used by respondents as they re-enact (for example) very good or very poor customer service experiences. It allows the ‘role players’ to express opinions, but also the other members of the group should be asked to react and respond to the role-play – for example, how would they have felt or how would they have reacted in that situation?

4 – Brand personification  and brand obituary

Within qualitative research, brand personification is probably the one that most immediately springs to mind when considering projective techniques. It is certainly one of the most fun (for clients and moderators as well as respondents) but can also be one of the most insightful. Like all projectives, however, it has to be used properly and in the right context. Moderators must be wary of making any assumptions regarding what is a ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ brand association. Furthermore, all associations and personifications need to be ‘researched’ in terms of what they mean for the brand in terms of how it displays those personalities and characteristics. As a broad rule-of-thumb, we often find that brand associations with cars (for example, “which make of car is Brand X most similar to?”) often provides insight on the more functional brand attributes, and those relating to performance and/or status. Brand association with restaurants often provides insight around the service attributes of the brand in question. Brand associations with people (for example, “if Brand X grew arms and legs and turned into a person, who/what type of person would they be?), is probably most renowned and provides insight on the more emotional brand attributes, and is often used for developing a better understanding of brand personality. Brands can be compared to celebrities, or ‘bespoke’ personalities and characteristics can be built that align with the brand in question. Building an understanding of how it exists in the wider brand landscape is possible by extending this technique to “Brands at a party”. Who would talk to who, how would they interact, which brand would perform which ‘role’?.


Taking this full-circle, we can also conclude with a brand obituary – respondents are asked to write the obituary assuming the brand had ‘died’, referencing the things it would be remembered for, who it would be missed by and why.

3 – Time machine

Time machine is a technique that we use to stimulate creative and ‘future thinking’ within the focus group environment. As an example, focus group respondents are asked to think back to what children received for Christmas, say, 30 years ago. They then talk briefly about what children receive these days for Christmas, before brainstorming what they think children will receive for Christmas 30 years in the future. This process is then repeated to explore ‘the future’ for whatever the subject in question.

2 – Mood boards

As a technique within groups, mood boards can be quite time consuming, but also very insightful. Respondents would typically work in small groups to prepare a ‘visual manifestation’ of the subject matter, be it a brand, a service or an ‘ideal’ proposition. The key to success is by giving respondents both clear instruction and creative licence (and, no, that’s not a contradiction!). I would suggest keeping excellent examples of mood boards from other un-related projects to use a creative stimulant. Be clear on timings, and provide as much ‘product’ as possible from which the mood board can be created – a wide variety of magazines, newspapers, fabrics, coloured pens/pencils, glitter, etc. Circulate around the groups as the boards are in construction to check on progress and clarify the requirements. Importantly, this is a great chance to understand individual’s motivations for selecting individual elements for the mood board. We have recently used mood boards to help better understand what students require from their ‘ideal living environment’ at University.

 1 – Withdrawal techniques

Withdrawal techniques allow us to better understand consumer’s relationships with brands and products by taking them away from them! This can be done hypothetically within focus groups (“e.g. imagine life without…”). However, fantastic insights can be generated by making the ‘withdrawal’ a reality. This technique may form part of a wider ethnographic study – we would recruit product loyalists or brand advocates and incentivise them to spend a period of time living without that brand or product, and ask them to record the experience by diary, dictaphone or video. The outputs from this can be quite dramatic and it truly allows us a window into their relationship with brands and products and the role they play in their wider lives. Such a process can conclude with convening all of those that have had a product ‘withdrawn’ to share the experiences either online or in a focus group.

These are just a few of our favourites – if you would like to suggest your own favourite projective techniques, or learn more about some of those presented above, please get in touch with Richard Walker