Projective Techniques Examples in Qualitative

One of the most common techniques we use in Focus Group / In-Depth Interviews / Ethnography is Projective and Enabling Techniques. To make it simpler, it is a tactic of asking a question that taps into one’s imagination rather than logical/factual and often used because of two main reasons:

Why do we use projective and enabling techniques?

  1. To help the respondents express their opinion / articulate their thoughts/opinion.
  2. To explore deeper subconscious attitudes towards motives or behaviour or even brand perception.

The technique is also good powerful exercise to energise the discussion, and based on my experience using this technique, the participant loves it (and observers too – the client / your colleagues behind that one-way mirror) simply because we are tapping into the participation’s imagination and it is so much relaxing.

Things that you need to consider before using these techniques

  1. This is just a tool for your discussion. It might not suit you or your client/professor / whoever initiate the research. If you are not comfortable with it, then do not use it.
  2. This technique is not fixed, so be creative and play around with it as you see fit.
  3. It might seem simple, but your participant might not find it as easy as you thought it would be. Normally, you need to do some warm-up, and you need to set up the mindset that it is only a game or mental exercise, and you want to hear what they think.
  4. Some groups/cultures might find it easier (the US and Europe) and some would find it difficult (Asia mostly) because of our cultural, values and communication differences. However, I believe all human beings are born with imagination, so you need to rephrase or make it easy for them to allow you to access their left brain (figuratively of course).
  5. The researcher/moderator/person who asks this question will need to make a judgement call if the technique is suitable with the audience/type of participant. For example, when you talk to a profession like an accountant dealing with factual and numerical data day-in-day-out, they might struggle with this technique.
  6. Again, use it only when you are comfortable. Under no circumstances you start asking this question by saying – oh I have a stupid question to ask, bla bla bla. If you don’t believe it, others won’t believe it too.

So, let’s get down to it.

1 – Word Association

Objective: Identify top of mind associated with an activity/brand

“What comes to your mind when I mentioned the word breakfast?”

It is as simple as that. Pro-tip; use a warm-up exercise before you ask this question. For example; “if I mentioned the word beach, what comes to your mind.” The participant would probably answer along the line of “relaxing, bikini, sand, castles, family time, picnic etc.”, then you proceed with your actual question.

You would then get something similar like this when you want to visualise it into word cloud (use free online word cloud like WordArt, information can be beautiful too)

Projective Technique Sample Output - Word Association - Shell

2- Using Adjectives

Objective: To encourage participant to express or articulate their thoughts what they feel about a certain brand/activity

If you are using adjectives, you can prepare different adjectives and ask the participant to associate each adjective with the brand/activity.

For example; “I have several cards here that say premium, affordable, cheap, stylish, luxurious, conservative, modern, innovative, boring, value for money, not value for money, down to earth and successful, please pick the adjective that you feel best associated with Volkswagen.

For each adjective that the participant picks, you can then ask why they pick that adjective and why there are differences for each one and where the association came from.

Projective Technique Example - Adjective

3- Using Images

Objective: This technique is useful when you want to understand the visual brand imagery and personality and for the participant to express their thoughts and opinions.

Sometimes, images would act as a springboard, people interpret images differently, and it would help them to articulate easier. This is especially a useful tool, particularly when discussing/finding out more about a topic that is unusual, too familiar or less familiar or interviewing a certain type of demographic, i.e. teenagers.

You can either use two ways to use this technique:

  1. Prepare a variety of pictures that represent a different type of visuals. One of the famous set of images was developed by a Harvard professor called Gerald Zeltman, but the images they used would probably cost you 4 kidneys. You can get a different type of pictures for free from many websites like Pexels or Unsplash.
Projective Technique - Images Example - Collage
  • Prepare magazines/newspapers (if you still manage to find someone that buys them) and ask the participant to create their visual image of a brand/activity/feeling using pictures cut from the magazines.

Once the participant selects a particular image, some questions that you can ask:

  • Tell me what the image(s) represents? Why did you select this?
  • Why do you feel that way?

It is also worth mentioning that this method would only work if the participant is allowed to explain their interpretation of the images they choose because it is highly subjective to the individual, and we may misinterpret it. Hence, this technique has high involvement, but it is also time-consuming. If you want to use it half-heartedly, don’t bother.

4- Benefit Laddering

Objective: To uncover emotional / functional / benefits for an activity / brand. Very useful for brand positioning exercise or communication development.

This is my personal favourite since it is fun for the moderator and the participant; it is involving and empowering at the same time – a win-win in my book.

Similarly, you need to provide some context so the participant would have a good idea for what’s coming next. Normally I would write something on the paper / or flip chart to get the ball rolling, let’s choose Pizza for example:

  • If I say Pizza what comes to your mind?
    • Potential answer: Cheese, fast food, celebration, chilling, party etc.
    • Write everything on the board / that piece of paper.
  • Let’s pick one as an example: What comes to your mind when you see the word fast food?
    • Potential answer: Unhealthy –> because it can lead to obesity –> makes me feel anxious.
    • Potential answer: Tasty –> because it is an indulgence for me –> makes me feel happy.
  • The idea is to keep asking why and how it makes you feel until they can’t go further than that.

At the end of the day, you would get something like this. I visualise the mind-map using Canva (Note: referral link), else you can use PowerPoint.

Projective Technique - Benefit Laddering Example - Using Pizza as an example

It is easy to get the participant to talk about functional benefits because it is often tangible and obvious. It will get more interesting when we go deeper into emotional territory.

This is also time consuming, but it’s worth it.

5- Complete this sentence

Objective: When you want to discover the likes and dislikes to a certain brand/product/idea/application etc.

This is fairly simple and straight-forward.


  • People who drive a Honda…
  • Mercedes is a brand that…
  • And Audi is a brand that…

I use cars as an example but you get the idea.

6- Brand Personification

Objective: When you want to discover the likes and dislikes to a certain brand/product/idea/application etc.

This is a good exercise to see the brand image or perceived user of a certain product or brand.

For example;

Now I would like you to imagine that I have this wand, like Harry Potter (aww Emma Watson). And I have this magical power that would transform whatever that this wand touches into a person. And if this brand X came alive and became a person, what kind of person would it be?

  • Demographic; how old? Is it a he/she? What’s their job?
  • Lifestyle; What do they like to do? Their outfit? Where do they live?
  • Values; what is important to them? What do they value?
  • Relationship; if this is a person, how is your relationship with this person? How do you feel about them?

There are so many ways to ask this question.

  • If this brand is a celebrity, who would it be? Why?
  • If this brand is at a party, who is he/she? Who is he/she mingle with? Would you approach him/her?
  • Etc.

In the end, you would get something like this;

Brand personification example using Shell

7- Brand Mapping (or some call it Brand Segmentation exercise)

Objective: This method is useful when you want to find similarities/differences / key dimensions between brands/products.  

To set up the context, normally we would ask the participant to list down all the brands/products related to what we would like to understand. PRO-TIP; I find it easier to list all of them on a Post-It notes so it would be easier for them to arrange and rearrange it during the exercise.

For example;

  • Now please tell me all the music streaming applications that you are aware of
  • What else? – keep asking until they list out all the brands/products
  • If the brand you want to compare was not mentioned, as smooth as a criminal, try to insert it but don’t be too obvious. Say something along the line what about brand Y? and brand ________ (the brand that you want to be in the comparison)? And brand Z? – give a few other brands as a smokescreen.
  • Now I would like to do one exercise. Remember, when we were in high school, the teacher would put us in different classrooms because of a certain trait. It can be based on the subject that we studied, or it can be based on our academic performance, for example.
Brand Segmentation Example using music streaming provider

Then when the setup is done, there are two ways you can approach this, or you can do both;

  1. Spontaneous grouping – this works well when you want to get a basic understanding of how the participants segment the market / see your products/brand

“Now I would like you to discuss as a group, how can we group and sort all these brands in whichever way you think is relevant / however you want it” (if they are in Focus Group Discussion, don’t say this when you are interviewing one-on-one, I mean come on

2. Prompted grouping – if you have certain dimensions that you want to test and would like to see a certain brand relates to other brands 

“Now similarly, if we want to group these brands into two categories; popular and unknown. What about premium vs. cheap?”

The initial output can be something like;

Brand Segmentation Sample Output using Music Streaming Provider

8- Deprivation

Objective: This technique is used when you want to understand motivations for using a certain brand/product. 

“If this brand were no longer available in the market, how would you feel? What would you miss the most? What would you do? Who would you substitute it with?”

“If tomorrow your high-speed internet is no longer available, how would you feel?

Projective - Deprivation Technique - using meme as an example

9- Boat Game

Objective: To find out about participant relationship with a certain brand and also its brand values 

“Imagine a boat with 4-5 passengers (brands or products) …It is sinking. One passenger must be unloaded to save the other two. Which one goes, which stay on the boat and why?”

Participant may work as a group or each individual in a group may ‘be’ a passenger. And they must defend their ‘passenger’/ brand until only one is left. Depressing, but whatever floats your boat, man.

Projective Technique - Boat Game - Titanic scene where jack is going under

10- Shelf Scream technique

Objective: To understand the brand key strengths and weaknesses

“Now let’s play a game. Imagine if you are trying to purchase a laundry detergent from the supermarket and you are in front of the shelf. Each one is screaming at you to purchase them. These are the brands that you have met (Brand X, Brand Y, so on and so forth)

  • What will each one say about itself? What positive points will they highlight?
    • What will other brands say to run it down/ criticise it?

If only the brand could talk yeah? Imagine what kind of experience we would have next time we go for our grocery shopping.

11- Psycho-drawing

Objective: Similarly, this exercise is to help the participant to articulate their thoughts / feeling better

“Can you please draw what it feels like to walk around in supermarket during COVID19 pandemic?”

“Can you please draw what it feels like to have a toothache?”

This can be challenging for some. Use it sparingly.

12- Brand drawing

Objective: Help to identify visual cues; normally used in packaging design study or brand equity study.

“Can you please draw the current logo for Honda?”

Projective technique - drawing logo for Honda
Source: Seb Lester

That’s all! A lot of these projective techniques are super easy and really add flavour for moderation and report writing. Let me know what’s your favourite technique!

Fazrul is a qualitative moderator/researcher based in Malaysia. He advocates simplicity and publishes qualitative tutorials. When he is not sleeping, he is usually awake.

3 thoughts on “Projective Techniques Examples in Qualitative”

  1. I find this article enlightening, clear and very useful.
    Tahnk you for sharing it.
    Best regards,


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