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Arindam Chaudhuri, Editor-in-Chief, 4Ps B&M Chief Consulting Editor's Desk
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Building a Better Brand: How Feelings Shape Product Evaluation
Traditional branding strategy would say that a label should tell the consumer what the product is all about. New research suggests that just the opposite might be true – the consumer should see himself in the label.
Issue Date - 03/11/2011
Animals on wine labels are becoming an increasingly popular and lucrative way to sell wines. In fact, a 2006 report by the market research company ACNielsen finds that about one out of five table wines introduced in the last three years featured a “critter” on its label. Moreover, critter wines outsold other new table wines by more than two to one.

A frog, a hippo, or a penguin may have nothing to do with the wine itself, but a new study – “Of Frog Wines and Frowning Watches: Semantic Priming, Perceptual Fluency and Brand Evaluation” – by me, Ravi Dhar of Yale University, and Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan suggests that such an unusual label can be an advantage. The reason goes deeper than just trying to grab the consumer’s attention and turns conventional branding wisdom on its head.

A customer typically scrutinises a product’s colour, durability, and other qualities before deciding whether to purchase it. However, the decision to buy that product may also depend on the influence of objects, creatures, and events that touch the customer’s life and how they make the customer feel about the product. People usually believe that the concrete attributes of a product – not subjective feelings – should influence our judgment. What we have done is to examine the feelings of ease or difficulty that get associated with a product.

For instance, a woman who has a son who loves Kermit the Frog may see and hear about Kermit all the time. Neither frogs nor Kermit have any relation to wine, but if this mother has to rush to the supermarket to buy a bottle because friends are coming over for dinner, then there is a good chance that she will reach for the wine with a frog prominently displayed on its label.

That may seem irrational, but we say that familiarity with Kermit the Frog actually makes it easier for a consumer to visually process the image on the label. This enhances the label’s appeal and as a result makes the “frog wine” more desirable relative to its competitors.

Fluency and Liking
Researchers have shown that a person’s opinion of an object becomes more favourable the more familiar the person is with that object. For instance, social psychologist Robert Zajonc found that after exposing Chinese characters to non-Chinese speakers several times, they preferred those characters to the ones that they had not seen. This is also true in marketing where exposure to logos, brand names, or pictures of products increases “perceptual fluency” or the ability to recognise the physical features of a product.

Similarly, prior exposure can also enhance “conceptual fluency” or ease with which a related product comes to mind. A 2004 paper by me and Angela Lee of Northwestern University found that seeing an advertisement for mayonnaise increases liking for ketchup. Because mayonnaise and ketchup seem to naturally go together, the mayonnaise ad activates the ketchup product in the consumer’s memory and makes the ketchup seem more attractive when viewed.

But one area that has not been explored is whether perceptual fluency can lead to a positive evaluation even if the consumer does not see an exact image of the product beforehand and even if the consumer is exposed to something that has no relation to the product.

I, Dhar and Schwarz test this hypothesis by “priming” experiment participants in ways that will make them think about a certain creature, object, or concept. This replicates a situation in which a consumer is surrounded by familiar objects. If consumers see something in a product that connects with their personal lives, then that should make it easier to like the product. “If the environment reminds you of something, then you will see it more clearly on the product itself, and you will like it more.

The test becomes even more interesting because we use “visual identifiers” that are entirely unrelated to the product – like a frog on a bottle of wine. If consumers end up choosing that wine, then it must be primarily because its label pops out at them when they see it.

Frog Wines and Smiling Watches
In the first experiment, participants were asked to visualise a word. For instance, if they were given the word “frog” then they would have to imagine a frog. Participants were then shown two bottles of wine, one of which had an image of the word they were asked to visualise. They were then asked to choose which of the two wines they preferred.

A crucial part of the experiment involved exposing the two wine bottles for either 16 milliseconds or three seconds before participants had to make a decision. Several previous studies report that exposures of less than 50 milliseconds rely more strongly on perceptual processing. If participants who were asked to visualise a frog then picked the frog wine even if it was flashed at just a fraction of a second, it would indicate that they relied more on the ease of recognising the frog on the label. Exposing the wines at three seconds, on the other hand, may make perceptual fluency weaker because it gives participants time to think and let other factors feed into their judgment.

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