Business Psychology

Article No. 366
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Product Positioning

New research suggests new rules to align products with thinking preferences in purchase decisions.

Imagine a sculpture of children playing with their dog, frozen in bronze as they race across a grassy lawn. The dog's long ears flow behind him as he runs at full gallop in hot pursuit of a frisbee that floats just in front of his wide-open jaws. The children, in close pursuit, flail their arms in encouragement with the girl's pigtails rising from the sides of her head.

OK, retailer. There's the product: a bronze sculpture, 2 feet tall and 5 feet long. How would you sell it? (Be glad you never had to answer a question like this when you were in college.)

Let's start with how your customers will encounter it, and let's try two choices. First, you can put it on the floor so customers will look down on it, just as it would appear on their lawns. Second, you can put it up on a raised platform. When these customers look into the eyes of the figures in the sculpture, they must raise their eyes slightly upward. Which will it be, low or high?

This problem illustrates a principle of decision making that was the subject of a series of experiments by Anneleen Van Kerckhove from Ghent University in Belgium. For this product, customers should look up.

The principle Kerckhove studied involved physical movement. Movement, she found influences the way we make decisions in predictable ways. In her most recent experiments, she studied head and eye movement. She explored trade-offs between desirability and feasibility in product choice problems provoked by upward and downward head and eye movements. She also explored brand loyalty to market-share leaders. She defined desirability as an emphasis on the "whys" of a choice. With feasibility, the emphasis was on the features of the product. The former provokes abstract thinking. The later, concrete thinking. For retailers, her work translates into product positioning rules that align decision-making preferences with products offered for sale.

Products stronger in desirability than feasibility, like the bronze sculpture described above, should be placed so that head and eye movements rise as a purchase decision is considered. Spike heels,for example, should be placed high in a womens' shoe display. Sensible, nurse shoes, should be low. Caribbean vacation cruises should be advertised high on billboards. Furnace filter advertisements should occupy the lower half of the page in print ads. Products with the largest market share should be placed low. More exotic, higher-priced brands should be placed high. If all products in a choice set are placed low, the share of the market leader will increase. If they are all placed high, it will decline.

When people look down, they're looking for things close by, snakes, for example, to avoid stepping on them. Products intended to protect customers from loss, like smoke alarms, should be positioned low. When people look up, they're looking at things far away, like the ideal future selves they hope to fulfill someday. Sports cars, college degrees, and weight-loss programs should be positioned high. Pharmaceuticals intended to enhance your life should be placed high. Drugs to protect you, like vaccinations, should be placed low.

The decision-making preferences Van Kerckhove explored and the principles she discovered offer retailers a new set of considerations as they design the physical conditions of choice settings for their customers. Upward and downward movement of head and eyes are ubiquitous in brick and mortar stores and as customers face computer screens and print ads. Intelligently crafting these settings to make them consistent with the choice problems customers face is just one more advantage a knowledge of research findings offers to retailers.

Reference: Van Kerckhove, Anneleen, Maggie Geuens, and Iris Vermeir (2015) The Floor is Nearer than the Sky: How Looking Up or Down Affects Construal Level. Journal of Consumer Research, 41(6), 1358-1371.

© Management Resources

Keywords: Product positioning, Physical conditions of choice settings, Decision making
Consult Subject Index for related research.

Back to home page