Laddering: A Step by Step Guide

Laddering: A Step by Step Guide

The Laddering Technique

Laddering is a qualitative interviewing technique used to uncover subconscious motives.  While its practical use is limited due to its labour intensity and lack of scalability it remains a powerful insight tool and one that marketers should have in their mental toolkit. Think of it as the spare tyre in your car.  Not required very often but nice to know it’s there if you need it.

Thomas J Reynolds and Jonathan Gutman developed the concept of laddering in 1988. At its simplest it uses the repeated question, “Why is that important to you?” to move the interviewee from superficial reason why they buy a product to higher levels of abstractions such as the values driving the decision.  An example will make that clearer.


Interviewer:   What do you look for in a moisturiser for your face?

Respondent:  Non-greasy, easily absorbed and long lasting moisturising.

Interviewer:   Why is that important to you?

Respondent:  I want to use it everyday.

Interviewer:   Why is that important to you?

Respondent:  I want keep my skin soft

Interviewer:   Why is that important to you?

Respondent:  I want healthy looking skin with fewer wrinkles

Interviewer:   Why is that important to you?

Respondent:  I want to look as young as I feel



The criteria for choosing facial moisturizer in this example is not the initial answer of ‘non-greasy, easily absorbed, and long lasting but the deeper value of self-esteem.  Which we get to by continually asking, “why is that important”.

No shit, Sherlock.  You probably didn’t need some fancy interview technique to figure out that most personal grooming products are purchased for reasons of self-image or self-esteem.  This simple example is used purely to explain the process and to introduce the three elements that cover the insights you would expect to get from a laddering interview; attributes, consequences and values.


Attributes are what describe the product; ‘non-greasy’ is an attribute from the example. Other attributes, depending on the product being considered, might include, ‘long battery life’,  ‘colour’, ‘weight’ and so on. These descriptions are not that useful, and in reality they don’t always come up. Attributes are the lowest level of description but with a simple “why is that important” question they soon lead to next level; consequences.

Consequences are things that happen to, or are experienced by, the user.  In marketing terms you could think of these as benefits or outcomes.  The translation of what a product is into what it will do for the customer. What outcome will they experience, both tangible and intangible, by using or consuming this product.  ‘Keep my skin soft’ is a consequence.

Much of marketing operates at the level of understanding and delivering on customer benefits, or consequences in the language of laddering.  This is particularly so in B2B, industrial, scientific and technical products.  And as many in those sectors are aware, the effects of competing by delivering improved benefits can be relatively short lived.  Creating lasting competitive advantage may be helped by understanding the next level of abstraction; the values driving the decision.

Values are the reason why we do what we do.  This is a pretty broad topic and one I will write about in detail on a future article, but for now accept that there exists hidden, or at least unstated, reasons why people buy products or generally act the way they do. In the case of our moisturiser example from earlier the driver behind the purchase is ‘stay looking young’ which is a self-esteem type value.


This is easy to understand in terms of a personal grooming or lifestyle product.  Marketers of these types of products are well aware of this and most advertising implicitly addresses these values; aspirational models, attractive situations, and desirable consequences are all pushed towards consumers. What can be harder to believe is that ‘values’ also drive the behavior of business customers, at least to some extent.

Laddering theory suggests that attributes (A) derive their relative value from delivering consequences (C), which in turn, derive their significance from satisfying higher order personal values (V).  This A – C – V hierarchy is what marketers should look to understand for their specific markets and customers.  The question is how?

You could, obviously, simply use the technique by interviewing customers.  This has a few practical limitations, though.  It requires a certain level of skill from the interviewer, to keep asking ‘why is that important?’ several times without becoming very annoying, or seeming very intrusive. Even if you are prepared to train your staff to a sufficient level you will face a scalability problem.  These interviews take time and you would need a significant number to create a reasonable data set.  Add to this the fact that respondents typically feel uncomfortable talking about personal values and it seems like a non-starter. Yet there are some occasions when it can be useful, as the following example explains.



I was working with a client in India and they were looking to understand how doctors made decisions on which pharmaceuticals to buy. I helped a few researchers with understanding the laddering technique and they scheduled discussion with around ten representative doctors.  The results were as you might expect; some doctors were interested in expanding their knowledge, some wanted to simply heal the sick, others wanted to grow their practice.  But it was the contrast between two doctors that initially seemed very similar, that provided an insight.  Both of these doctors were looking for the same attributes from a supplier and wanted the same consequences, or benefits, essentially they both got to point up the ladder where they wanted to make more money. It was the next ‘why is that important?’ question that put them miles apart.

One wanted to buy a Mercedes; the other wanted to invest in a mobile clinic to provide free healthcare for poor people in rural areas. Their values couldn’t have been further apart but until the last question they had answered each question exactly the same.  This led to more research that ascertained that the ‘altruistic’ doctors represented a significant segment and programs were put in place to provide practical help for this expansion of healthcare into rural areas.

Even when you can only interview a small representative sample you may gain insights that lead you into a new strategic approach.  If you don’t have the ability or desire to conduct even small-scale interviews, you can still use laddering theory in strategy development.  You simply hypothesise and imagine what a customer might say. It’s not as crazy as it might sound.

In workshops we will often have groups list all the consequences (benefits) that customer have either historically stated they rate as important or are generally accepted as being important. They then ask themselves ‘why is that important to these customers?’ and brainstorm what the value drivers might be.  They can make this more real by considering actual customers they know and considering how realistic it seems.  They are essentially completing a ladder on behalf of their customer.

Obviously this has risks but with the right people in the group, and some critical analysis and discussion, they often get close to the truth, close enough to generate a testable hypothesis that will allow them to experiment with various positioning.

Laddering is one of those tools that has huge potential but is impractical for use in a full-blown customer survey for most businesses.  By understanding the principles behind it, and adapting its use to suit your circumstances it can be a useful and powerful insight generator.  Add it to your toolbox (or, to continue with the ladder analogy, strap it on the roof of your van)

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