the Zaltman method


Today I was at the Advertising Research Foundation meetings in New York City.  This was organized by the esteemed Joe Plummer of ARF. Joe asked the panel I was on to address issues that emerged in his recent interviews with Gerry Zaltman.


I have long observed the Zaltman research enterprise.  Gerry was once a colleague at HBS and I believe him to be one of the nicest human being God ever created.  (I once  did a drive around Carmel with Gerry and his wife, and I came away thinking that there was something positively saintly about the guy.  Coming as it does from a low church Protestant, this is very high praise indeed.)  My regard for Gerry was enough to make me hold my tongue when I came across examples of his work. 

But now that I had been asked to comment publicly, I felt obliged to speak candidly.  As I said this morning during the panel, I believe that there is something wrong with the Zaltman model.  I believe the model is missing something.  That something is culture. 

This wouldn’t matter if Gerry were just talking about brain structure, function or chemistry.  But that is not what Gerry does, not for consulting purposes anyhow.  What Gerry does is solicit images from consumers (as pictured, to Gerry’s right) and then presume to tell us what these images mean. I understand that Gerry’s book is called "how customers think" but when he hires out for consulting purposes what he gives us is "what customers think."


I have friends in the marketing world who have used Gerry’s Zmet technique to great effect.  And I believe all of methodological infighting and territory claiming must defer to this.  If the method works, the method is good.  The proof of the pudding has nothing to do with the theory of the pudding or the method of the pudding.  The proof of the pudding is a client who says, "this was illuminating.  I understand my consumer and my market in ways that I did not, could not before."


I am obliged to say that Gerry is making unsound assumptions.  He believes that culture and cultures don’t matter.  In How the Customer Thinks, he speaks blithely of "human universals" and the "myth of diversity."

Here’s the thing: If cultural diversity doesn’t matter, marketing doesn’t matter.  Is this not precisely what we do: account for the ways in which one group of consumers is different from another group of consumers?  Segmentation, I believe we call it. Changes in consumer trends?  Isn’t this what we do?  Aren’t we always looking for not the state of human universals, but the changes in culture that have changed our consumers?  What matters for marketing purposes, is always human specifics, not human universals.  My target, this brand, the marketing opportunity, right now.  What would have happened at Motorola if Geoffrey Frost had been driven by a pursuit of human universals instead of his exquisitely particular understanding of what the technology could do and what the culture would respond to, right now?


I believe that these cultural differences and developments are the very bread and butter, the very point of marketing.  But, if what Dr. Zaltman is correct, marketers may strike their tents and surrender the world of marketing to those who are prepared to posit a few simple human universals.  Really?  Shouldn’t we take exception to this savage act of intellectual reduction?  Shouldn’t we insist that consumers are more complicated than this.  A few deep and universal meanings inhabiting and informing all human consciousness?  Really?  Perhaps human beings are actually a little more various, nuanced, and multiple than this.  (And if this is not the case, marketing is just so much sound and fury.)

When Dr. Zaltman sits down with composite images and claims to see what they mean, I get nervous.  To suppose, for marketing purposes, that a single individual can use this technique to capture what anyone from any culture must mean, this is not a persuasive claim.

The problem is not just that Gerry doesn’t get culture.  The problem is that he doesn’t understand American culture.  In fact, Gerry doesn’t understand contemporary American culture.  And this is crucial.  God help the marketer who loses touch with where and what his or her culture is at any given moment. 

Now, granted, Gerry thinks that knowledge of culture, American culture, and contemporary culture, is gratuitous.  And maybe for some analytical purposes it is.  But you cannot talk about consumer meanings unless you have a very clear idea of the cultures that supply these meanings.  It is important to know how consumers think, and Gerry’s work here is interesting and important.  But if we are going to talk about what they think, we have to do what marketers have always done, understand the world in which the consumer lives, understand the life the consumer leads, and understand the cultures that make these worlds and lives make sense.


Zaltman, Gerald. 2003.  How Customers Think.  Essential Insights into the mind of the market.  Boston: Harvard Business School Press. 

8 thoughts on “the Zaltman method

  1. GrahamHill


    Not an easy one to resolve.

    It strikes me that all research methods, including ZMET, ethnography, particularly focus groups, etc, are all gross simplifications of reality. Whose model is the best? Nobody’s. They all need melding together to make sense of the world at the individual, group and societal levels. Culture cuts across all three.

    Dr Zaltman may have you worried. But all market researchers have me worried. That’s why I listen to a variety of them, then make up my own mind, then run marketing experiments to see what really works.

    As you say, the proof of the marketing pudding is in the eating.

    Graham Hill

  2. Tom Asacker

    “When Dr. Zaltman sits down with composite images and claims to see what they mean, I get nervous.”

    That would make me nervous as well, Grant. But that’s not what I remember happening when I experienced Dr. Zaltman’s ZMET firsthand.

    Instead, as a participant, I was allowed – with the aid of a trained facilitator – to extract my own meaning from the collage. It was an intriguing way to bring my subconscious thoughts to a conscious level.

    Since most marketplace decisions are made at an intuitive level and the data we use to reach those decisions resides below the level of conscious awareness, ZMET appears to be a sound way to discover that data. What the marketer chooses to DO with that data is a different matter entirely.

  3. Carol Gee

    Grant, a good post. First, it takes courage to take on a person’s idea, about whom you had originally thought differently.
    Some thoughts: Overgeneralization is perhaps, his cognitive error. Universal archetypes certainly infuse our unconscious perceptions, but so does culture and socialization both at the micro and macro level. It is always handy for consultants to have THE ANSWER, but that answer is rarely applicable across all clients’ challenges.
    That is why cookie-cutter or “recipe” therapeutic interventions never worked for my counseling clients. Each was an individual. And market segments have that kind of “individuation,” I think.

  4. steve

    I don’t know anything about ZMET, but Grant’s logic about non-universals in marketing is compelling.

    I am sure there are human universals–I own an anthropology book with that title. Their relevance to marketing is questionable, however. Maybe there’s a small number of universals which can be combined in a very large number of ways, or something, but the degree and importance of cultural (and situational) variety seems overwhelming.

  5. Graham Hill


    Tom’s points are very salient. Neuroscientists like Damasion have shown conclusively that 95% of our decisioning is non-conscious. We couldn’t cope with life if it were any other way.

    But we also know that other individuals, peer groups and society’s mores also heavily influence individual decisioning.

    What we really need is a way to understand what drives individual decisioning within this richer context of the real world. And in a unified approach rather than an eclictix mix of techniques somehow melded together.

    Any ideas?

    Graham Hill

  6. Tom Guarriello

    Understanding the blending of the universal and the particular is always the challenge. Archetypal stories infuse our experience with timelessness and the churn of the NOW (lived somewhat differently by each individual) contextualize those experiences uniquely. Ignoring either misses something crucial about the world in which consumers live. I’ve always felt the ZMET was heavy-handed on the former and light on the latter. Your post clarifies that feeling. On the other hand, at least he’s not Rapaille!

  7. PS

    This is terribly late to add to your post on Zaltman, but my own experience with the ZMET was with the shameless marketing of it by people who couldn’t explain it, though they assured me we needed it. The notion of “trained facilitators” and trained analysts all sounds nice, and is exactly what I think I’d want to do with such material. However, as an experienced, eclectic, market researcher looking for a new way to gain insight, I was repeatedly stone-walled by folks who were representing the ZMET process for Dr. Zaltman and yet could not provide any sense of the structure of the analytic process. I didn’t need to know exactly how to do what they said would be done with the metaphores, I just wanted to know generally what approach they would use to doing analysis; what were the internal reliability and validation steps perhaps? Five years later, I’m still waiting for an answer. The technique has intuitive appeal. The implementation, as marketed to me seemed beyond shoddy.

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