Wild Geese: Mining the subconscious for brand motivation
US job allowed Dublin woman to become expert in motivational research
Nicola Finnerty: “I’m sort of a therapist for brands, working out people’s relationships with them.”
Nicola Finnerty wants to know what makes people tick. As vice-president of qualitative research with global market research company TNS, she gets a unique insight into mindsets in her adopted home.
“My job is about breaking down people’s rationale for doing something so that we can find out their subconscious motivation for doing it,” says San Francisco-based Finnerty. Using focus groups, one-to-one interviews and home visits with regular Americans, the insights Finnerty and her team gather drive the marketing campaigns of big name brands.
Graduating with a masters in sociology from UCD in 1997, Finnerty and her boyfriend, both with good jobs, had no reason to emigrate. “It was a great time to be in Dublin. We were living the good life; we had a bit of disposable income. It was lovely.”
But when, in 2000, her boyfriend told her he’d been offered a transfer to San Francisco with Irish tech company SmartForce, things changed.
“My heart just dropped. We’d been going out for seven years at this point and I was thinking ‘Oh no’,” she jokes. “Then he just said, ‘Well I’m not going without you’. I practically had my bags packed before he even accepted the offer. I just thought ‘yes, let’s do it’.”
Lining up job interviews before travelling, the Dubliner had two offers on the table within weeks of arrival, both companies willing to sponsor her visa. After a stint with a tech-focused company that suffered in 2001’s dot.com crash, she moved to a market research business company subsequently bought out by TNS Global.
“With TNS, I got to work in Asia, South America and across Europe, and I was able to spread my wings,” says Finnerty. “There were so many different research approaches and methodologies that I was learning. I was really pushing my skills and expanding my horizons.”
The role has enabled her to become an expert in motivational research. “Motivational research is all about understanding why people do what they do,” says Finnerty. “Most people who buy a Coke might say it’s because it’s fizzy or they like the taste, but what we break down in our research is the subconscious motivation behind that. It’s often so much more to do with the brand’s personality and associating with the social identity of that.”
The insights Finnerty gathers for clients shape everything from new product development to brand strategy, packaging and advertising.
“I’m sort of a therapist for brands, working out people’s relationships with them,” says Finnerty. A current project is for a company innovating a product to elongate the life of fresh produce. I’ve spent the past week going into homes documenting and observing what people do. You’re exploring their habits and behaviours so that you can show the client how it is now, what are people’s pain points and their triggers and what solutions they might be looking for that they don’t yet know they are looking for.”