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: “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.”

She says specialist tools help her “go deeper” with interviewees. “Consumers may not realise that this is why they are doing what they are doing … often at the end of an interview people will say, ‘Wow. I feel like I’ve been to therapy’.”

Job satisfaction
She loves the interaction with people and the variety of the job. “The thing with the States is that there are so many markets within it. While I’m based on the west coast, I’ll travel to all sorts of cities depending on where my client’s target is – I’ll go down to Texas or Atlanta where there can be a very different culture.”

Finnerty says her Irish accent has been a plus. “People are very open and eager to help a ‘foreigner’ understand their life and interests and behaviours, so it’s helped my career quite a bit. I can never get through a focus group without people asking me where I’m from.”

To succeed in America, she says, Irish people need to learn to “toot your own horn”.

“They do that quite well over here. They’re good at saying they are good at something. I still struggle with it and I don’t think it comes naturally to any Irish person … over here, people push themselves forward. They are very hungry and eager to get up to the next level, to keep pushing and striving.”

Her emigrant experience has been positive. “Like so many Irish, I had a wanderlust, a desire to see and experience so much of the world and this job has really opened that door for me.”

What of the boyfriend who brought her to San Francisco 13 years ago? “The two of us came over with two suitcases and look at us now – there are five of us and a house,” she says of her now husband and three children. While Finnerty calls San Francisco home for now, she regards her family as Irish.

“This city has so much to offer. We love living here and we feel blessed that our kids are being brought up in an incredibly diverse and open society. But with regular trips back to Ireland, we aim to ensure our boys are very familiar with what we call ‘home, home’.”