Review of “How Customers Think” by Gerald Zaltman: This book talks a lot about insight but doesn’t deliver much.

Disappointing.  If you have read some bestsellers touching on recent findings in neuroscience (e.g. Antonio Damasio) and memory (e.g. Daniel Schacter) then what’s left of this book for you is largely an advertisement for Zaltman’s commercial and patented (!!) market research technique called ‘Zaltman’s metaphor elicitation’.

Yes there are good reasons to doubt focus groups (more reasons than Zaltman discusses) as well as management intuition and market research that asks consumers why they bought what they bought.  But that doesn’t mean we need to resort to Zaltman’s consultancy which bears a strong resemblance to some of the excesses of 1960s motivational research.  Anyway Zaltman makes a very poor case for this logical leap, he simply presents it as a fait accompli (“I believe so so should you”).

For marketing managers the greatest weakness of this book is the lack of integration with known facts of buying behaviour.  The discoveries of even 20th Century marketing science are ignored.  So there no facts in this book about how consumers actually buy, or consume media.  So of course these facts aren’t used as a check against Gerry’s ideas.  Indeed there is no testing of any ideas.

The book’s marketing examples are purely anecdotal, and often very vague – suggesting a lack of first-hand knowledge (they read as if they were mentioned by 3rd parties to the author at the end of a seminar or over a chat).  I can’t recall anything convincing about sales results, or anything that could be externally validated, the anecdotes have to be taken on trust.  Even so they tend to make very weak vague claims:

e.g. “managers at Coca-Cola’s German office found that new research on memory contradicted many of their prevailing assumptions about how memory worked and how to design effective advertising campaigns.  By applying several key findings about memory.. [they] launched a successful marketing program in that country.”  You don’t say, wow!  What assumptions, what research, what sort of advertising program?  All we readers get is:

“Specifically, the company created more meaning (sic) and effective advertising by understanding the reconstructive nature of memory and the various factors affecting the encoding and retrieval of memory”.

It would perhaps be acceptable if that sort of anecdote came at the start of the book – you’d expect more exciting, harder, detailed evidence to come later once the reader was familiar with the book’s key concepts.  But this example comes from page 258 – indeed, this sort of lame anecdote is about as good as it gets as far as evidence that this book has any real-world application value.

As other reviewers have noted it’s also an overly long, and rather abstract, book with somewhat indulgent structure, for example the third part is about management thinking not “how customers think”.

This book talks a lot about insight but doesn’t deliver much.

Professor Byron Sharp

2 thoughts on “Review of “How Customers Think” by Gerald Zaltman: This book talks a lot about insight but doesn’t deliver much.

  1. Is it legal to write a book like this? I am not a scientist and not reading a lot (thats apperently why I bought this), but hey, this are mostly no facts, just vague assumptions, persuasive interpretation.
    People without questioning a lot may just read this as it was science and so are lied to. Ah, I forgot that lying is allrihgt nowadays. Thanks to marketing btw.
    Ahja, thanks Byron, good blog

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