Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 307
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

The Path to Preference

Researcher measures a new way to improve product perception.

There is a moment in the forming of a preference when the initial choice is made. For example, when a customer faces a grocery display of ketchup brands and settles on one brand to examine more closely; when a student walks into an athletic footwear retailer and picks out a shoe and hands it to a clerk; when a new renter thumbs through the yellow pages looking for a nearby eatery and his eyes stop on one ad. This moment is your big chance, say your supporters. Don�t blow it, so that�s where all the energy, all the attention, and all the investment goes. But how to get that chance, how to influence that moment of choice . . .

Aparna Labroo, from the University of Chicago, studies perception in the formation of preferences, and he noted that past research has established an important role for ease of perception in the formation of preferences. That is, when a consumer faces a choice task like the ones described above, labels that are easy to understand will attract enough attention to win that battle that begins and ends in less than a second and is repeated countless times in choice situations every day: which one to select first.

�That ad just jumped out at me, right off the page.� �That packaging and that label stood out to me. I don�t know why. I noticed it first and picked it up.�

Marketing experts know that prior experience is the key, and business owners spend huge amounts of money to create it. Consider the example of the Nike shoe brand. Their television commercials typically end with a brief, full-frame view of their logo, the Nike arrow or �swoosh.� This becomes a prior experience, and in a choice situation, products displaying it will be noticed first because customers have an easier time perceiving the product. This advantage is valuable and is considered part of the equity of a brand. But is this the only way to create a perceptual prior experience, to buy it with advertising? Professor Labroo thinks not. He noted the striking success of a new trend in labeling of table wines, and it led him to conduct a series of experiments that revealed a new pathway to creating prior experience.

Nearly a fifth of all table wine brands introduced in the last three years feature a prominent figure of an animal on the label, e.g. a frog, a hippo, a penguin. These figures explain nothing about the product, but people do have prior experiences with these familiar animals � think Kermit the frog. Labroo�s first experiment explored this process.

Labroo �primed� his subjects by asking them to visualize specific words, such as frog, hippo, and so on. Next, he presented them with a choice task involving the table wines. Bottles with animals pictured on their labels were selected first if the corresponding animal had been primed in the word task he had assigned to them earlier. The difference was significant, and it helps explain the 600 million dollars of yearly sales such �critter wines� enjoy today.

His second experiment involved watches. He duplicated the effect of creating preferences by priming his subjects with common words associated with watches, such as clock, dial, and time, and he also tested a new kind of prime, one that involved the appearance of the target product. This second kind of priming word also worked, and the combination of both offered the strongest preference for specific watches in the choice part of the experiment.

Labroo�s final experiment involved dog shampoo. Subjects were primed with words associated with dogs and then asked to choose between brands. Products that featured a picture of a dog on the label were preferred. They were selected 33% more often than identical products with the dog picture deleted. For subjects who had been primed with dog words, it was the picture that made the difference.

All of Labroo�s subjects were deliberately primed with words that made the target labels easier to perceive, and it was this ease of perception that caused his subjects to select the target brands more frequently.

Conventional marketing practice directs business owners to pay for this priming through advertising and to use words and images that relate to the product, but Labroo has another view.

Customers are being primed with words, images, and ideas all the time. Labroo thinks we should take advantage of this by placing unique images on our labels and packaging, in our signage, and in our advertising. For example, the word �highway� is primed for many weary travelers, and the Highway Diner brand takes advantage of it. The green background of Interstate highway signs is used by Freeway Muffler Shops. These are unique visual identifiers that are relevant for the target market of these businesses, and neither has anything to do with the product the businesses offer.

What are important aspects of your customers� lives? What images could you put in the space you present to potential customers that will trigger these familiar images? Solve this problem, and you could give your product or business a little head start in the race for new customers. It would be like starting ten yards down the track in a 100-yard dash.

Reference: Labroo, Aparna, Ravi Dhar, and Norbert Schwarz (2008) Of Frog Wines and Frowning Watches: Semantic Priming, Perceptual Fluency, and Brand Evaluation. Journal of Consumer Research, 34(April), 819-832.

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