WHEN KIRK KERKORIAN last put MGM on the block, analysts tried to put a price on the James Bond franchise, which has sold some $3.7 billion in movie tickets. Now that “Casino Royale” is set to roll for Sony with Daniel Craig as 007, a different question has emerged: How do you market it?

Is the most famous super spy of the Cold War still a safe bet at the box office? Or have years of “Mission: Impossibles,” “Bourne Supremacies” and “XXX’s” dulled our interest in a Savile Row playboy bent on saving the world from criminal syndicates with names like SMERSH?

Put these questions to Hollywood market researchers and the first thing they’re likely to do is assemble a focus group. But focus groups have their limits. A recent Adweek cover story, “Why the traditional focus group is dying,” reported that for the first time in 50 years, the industry is abandoning traditional testing practices like focus groups in favor of new research methods that dig deeper into consumer behavior.

Gerald Zaltman, co-director of the Mind of the Market laboratory at Harvard, is among those leading the charge. Zaltman, whose Olson Zaltman Associates provides research for numerous Fortune 100 companies, believes traditional market research isn’t an effective way to tap into a consumer’s unconscious drives and impulses, where, in his opinion, the most important marketing data resides.

I’D BEEN INTERESTED in Zaltman since seeing a New York Times story several years ago that described an ad he developed for Coke, which showed a Buddhist monk meditating in a soccer field.

What did a Buddhist monk tell us about Coke? Turns out that Coke elicits feelings of calm and solitude in its drinkers, and that’s what the ad was meant to express.

Zaltman’s method for arriving at such ideas: a patented research tool called the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET). Adapted in part from clinical psychoanalysis and art therapy, ZMET interviews are done one on one; they typically run for several hours; and participants are given an assignment letter in advance and asked to assemble a series of pictures that express their thoughts and feelings about the product in question. Those images are then Photoshopped into a collage.

The ZMET interview is a far cry from the Pepsi challenge. It’s not designed to tell a studio exec if, for example, trailer A is more effective than trailer B. It’s designed to analyze such things as what role a product (or movie character) plays in a consumer’s mind, what latent needs products satisfy, and why consumers are loyal to some brands and resistant to others.

SO WHAT COULD ZMET tell us about 007?

To see for myself, I met Zaltman’s son and colleague, Lindsay, at a local research facility and offered myself as a test subject.

I’d done my homework. I’d brought in pictures from magazines that reminded me of Bond: a luxury car; a Grey Goose vodka martini; a NASA space suit; a shot of Jessica Alba sprawled naked on a bed. 

For two hours, Lindsay asked me a series of open-ended questions: Why did these images remind me of Bond? How did it feel to look at them? Did they form a complete picture of Bond? What are the colors, textures, smells and tastes I associate with Bond? (I found him tasteless, but he somehow smelled like the interior of a new sports car).

It was an exhausting process, by design.

“You’re never talked out after a focus group,” Zaltman said. “We’re working people’s brains. There are people who will be a total dud in a focus group. Either they’re not engaged or they’re bullied by someone else. Those people just open up in ZMET interviews.”

Lindsay’s conclusions were surprising: I consistently drew a distinction between Bond the character and Bond the movie. I found the character “empowering”; he induced in me “a childlike sense of wonder.” But I found the movies pat and predictable.

“The idea of Bond is pure to you,” Lindsay said, “but he’s often put in a storyline that isn’t deserving of him.”

The implications for marketers are clear, he said. For the trailer, you might highlight Bond the icon and dispense with the plot details. It should be a brand campaign, not unlike a brand campaign for Coke.

A TV spot showing James Bond meditating in a soccer field? Why not, provided a new Aston Martin is idling on the sidelines.

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