People’s beliefs and behaviour are determined by how they perceive the world rather than the objective state of affairs. In the marketing context, understanding customer perceptions and influences of brands and products is crucial for campaign effectiveness. This blog will discuss five factors that affect perception and perception change.
People have evolved to build an image of the world in a heuristic way – using mental shortcuts, rules of thumb and cognitive biases. An example of such heuristic is the exposure effect. The more frequently we are exposed to a stimulus the more favourably we perceive it. In a classic experiment by Robert Zajonc, university students were presented with meaningless “Turkish” words and asked whether they think the word means something positive or negative. The more frequently students were exposed to a given word the more positively they perceived it. This insight lies at the heart of all advertising – the more customers see a product the more favourable is their perception of this product.
Another factor influencing perception is our affective state. A positive mood or emotion results in more positive perceptions of the world. This is because we project the positivity onto the outside world. According to the affect-as-information theory, people find it difficult to disentangle information coming from the environment and the information about internal affective states. As these two are mixed, the positive emotion influences how we see the environment. This explains why customers are more likely to convert when they are in positive mood. The presence of humour in adverts is also one of the strongest predictors of ad effectiveness. An exception of this rule relates to the charity sector where negative mood has been found to be more predictive of donations.
Context is also an important factor influencing perception. In a study by Dan Ariely participants were asked to say the last two digits of their social security number. Then, they were asked to assess the price of a given bottle of wine. Participants who were primed with large numbers (80-99) on average perceived the bottle of wine to be worth $56. However, participants who cited small numbers (up to 20) on average said that the bottle is worth $16. This shows that our perception of the fair price depends on the seemingly irrelevant contextual information that we are primed with.
Another important factor is the source of information. The more trustworthy the source the more likely we are to accept the information. Emotional attachment or history of previous positive interactions also predict higher levels of trust. This represents the power of social media advertising where brand information can be disseminated among friends or among followers of an influencer. Facebook uses this insight when adding a nudge to a page like ad “[your friend] X likes this page”. This short sentence works better than any other type of direct persuasion. We also trust information more if it comes from a neutral source rather than the source who can have an active interest in provision of this information. We can see that in the fact that people are more likely to trust reviews and opinions of customers rather than information provided by the brands. Marketers can use this insight to frame their message as coming from a third-party source rather than from the brand itself.
Finally, our existing beliefs also influence how we perceive the world. Our perceptions are created by the information coming from the sensory organs (bottom up process). However, the information retrieved from the memory (in a form of schemas and expectations) is also taken into the equation. This is known as the top down process. A good illustration of this phenomenon is a study in which participants were given two identical ice creams, but they were told that one is made from natural ingredients in a traditional way, while the other with artificial ingredients and sweeteners. The task was to say which of them tastes better. Despite both ice creams being the same, most participants perceived the “natural” ice cream to be better. This demonstrates that our mind can bend the reality to make our perceptions consistent with prior beliefs and expectations. As such it represents a significant challenge for marketers, whose job is to effectively produce a perception change by knowing what matters to customers and framing the campaign accordingly.