Perception in Marketing

Like computers, people undergo stages of information processing in which stimuli are input and stored.  Unlike computers, though, we do not passively process whatever information happens to be present.  In the first place, only a very small number of the stimuli in our environment are ever noticed.  Of these, an even smaller amount are attended to.  The stimuli that do enter consciousness might not be processed objectively.  The meaning of a stimulus is interpreted by the individual, who is influenced by his or her unique biases, needs, and experiences.

From Sensation To Perception

Sensation is the immediate response of our sensory receptors (e.g., eyes, ears, nose, mouth, fingers) to such basic stimuli as light, colour, and sound. Perception is the process by which these stimuli are selected, organised, and interpreted.  Like a computer, we process raw data (sensation).  However, the study of perception focuses on what we add to or take away from these sensations as we assign meaning to them.

The subjective nature of perception is demonstrated by a controversial advertisement developed for Benetton by a French agency some years ago.  The ad features a black man and a white man handcuffed together.  This ad was the target of many complaints about racism after it appeared in magazines and on billboards around the United States, even though the company has a reputation for promoting racial tolerance.  People interpretedit to depict a black man who had been arrested by a white man.’ Even though both men are dressed the same, people’s prior assumptions distorted the ad’s meaning.

Such interpretations or assumptions stem from the schemas, or organised collections of beliefs and feelings, that a person has.  That is, we tend to group in our memories the objects we see as having similar characteristics, and the schema to which an object is assigned is a crucial determinant of how we choose to evaluate this object at a later time.

Stages In The Perceptual Process

The perceptual process can be broken down into the following stages:

1.   Primitive categorisation, in which the basic characteristics of a stimulus are isolated.

2.   Cue check, in which the characteristics are analysed in preparation for the selection of a schema.

3.   Confirmation check, in which the schema is selected.

4.   Confirmation completion, in which a decision is made as to what the stimulus is.

Sensory Systems

External stimuli, or sensory inputs, can be received on a number of channels.  We may see a billboard, hear a jingle, feel the softness of a cashmere sweater, taste a new flavour of ice cream, or smell a leather jacket.

The inputs picked up by our senses constitute the raw data that generates many types of responses.  For example, sensory data emanating from the external environment (e.g., hearing a song on the radio) can generate internal sensory experiences when the song on the radio triggers a young man’s memory of his first dance and brings to mind the smellof his date’s perfume or the feel of her hair on his cheek.

Sensory inputs evoke historic imagery, in which events that actually occurred are recalled.  Fantasy imageryis the result when an entirely new, imaginary experience is the response to sensory data.  These responses are an important part of hedonic consumption-the multisensory, fantasy, and emotional aspects of consumers’ interactions with products.’ The data that we receive from our sensory systems determine how we respond to products.


Colours are rich in symbolic value and have powerful cultural meanings.

The powerful cultural meanings attached to colours make them a central aspect of many marketing strategies.  Colour choices are made carefully with regard to packaging, advertising, and even store decor.

The expectations created by colours can actually affect consumers’ experience of products.  Consumers ascribe a sweeter taste to orange drinks as the orange shade of the bottle is darkened.  

Package Design: Telling a Book by Its Cover. 

The choice of colour is frequently a key issue in package design.

Some colour combinations come to be so strongly associated with corporations that these companies are granted exclusive use of these colours through a legal device known as trade dress or livery.   As a rule, however, trade dress protection is granted only when consumers might be confused about what they are buying because of similar coloration of a competitor’s packages.’

Since the number of competing brands has proliferated for many types of products, the colour of a package can be a crucial spur to sales.

Marketers know that consumers tend to associate certain qualities with colours.

Theories About Colour

Despite the almost mystical effects that colours seem to have on people, little is known about the degree to which these effects are due to the colours themselves or to the cultural meanings that become attached to them. While it is premature to draw any firm conclusions, some evidence indicates that colours can actually affect us regardless of their cultural connotations.

In one experiment, for example, a phone company painted some of its phone booths yellow and found that people making calls from these booths on the average finished their conversations faster.” Exposure to “warm” hues such as red, orange, and yellow appears to raise blood pressure, heart rate, and perspiration, while blue exerts an opposite, caring effect.

Personality Differences and Individual Preferences

Some people believe that people’s preferences for colours are somehow indicative of their personalities.  While there is little evidence to support this claim, there are clear differences among consumers in terms of their colour preferences.  Some of these preferences vary by sex, region, social class, or culture.

Some product designers believe that lower-income consumers prefer simple colours-those that can be described in two words, such as “grass green” or “sky blue”-and that these people find complex colours dirty or dull.  In contrast, higher-income people are thought to like complex colours such as “grey-green with a hint of blue.” Simple colours are said to “declassify” or extend a product’s appeal, while others “classify” a product by elevating its perceived status.


Music is an important part of many people’s lives.  In one survey, respondents were asked what experiences gave them thrills.  Musical passages were cited by 96 percent of the respondents, as compared to 70 percent who cited sexual activity and 26 percent who named parades (respondents could list more than one item).

Music and sound are also important to marketers.  Consumers buy millions of dollars worth of sound recordings each year, advertising jingles maintain brand awareness, and background music creates desired moods.

Many aspects of sound may affect people’s feelings and behaviours.  Two areas of research that have widespread applications in consumer contexts are the effects of background music on mood and the influence of speaking rate on attitude change and message comprehension.

Time Compression

Time compression is a technique used by broadcasters to manipulate perceptions of sound.  It is a way to pack more information into a limited time by speeding up an announcer’s voice in commercials.  The speaking rate is typically accelerated to about 120 percent to 130 percent of normal.  This effect is not detectable by most people; in fact, some tests indicate that consumers prefer a rate of transmission that is slightly faster than the normal speaking rate.

The evidence for the effectiveness of time compression is mixed.  It has been shown to increase persuasion in some situations and to reduce it in others.  One explanation for a positive effect is that the listener uses a person’s speaking rate to infer whether the speaker is confident; people seem to think that fast talkers must know what they are talking about.”

Another, more plausible, explanation is that the listener is given less time to elaborate in his or her mind on the assertions made in the commercial.  This acceleration disrupts normal cognitive responses to the ad and changes the cues used to form judgments about its content.  As change can either binder or facilitate attitude change, depending on other conditions.”


Although relatively little research has been done on the effects of tactile stimulation on consumer behaviour, common observation tells us that this sensory channel is important.  Moods are stimulated or relaxed on the basis of sensations of the skin, whether from a luxurious massage or the bite of a winter wind.  Tactile sensations also influence our behaviour via the physical messages that products send us.  We use tactile sensations to evaluate cars in terms of how they “feel” on the road, and detergents brag about how “baby soft” they will get our clothes.

Symbolic Meaning of Tactile Clues: “Smooth As Silk”

People associate the textures of fabrics with underlying product qualities.  The perceived richness or quality of the material in clothing, bedding, or upholstery is linked to its “feel,” whether it is rough or smooth, flexible or inflexible.  Silk is equated with luxury, while denim is considered practical and durable.

Fabrics that are composed of scarce materials or that require a high degree of processing to achieve their smoothness or fineness tend to be more expensive, and thus are seen as being higher-class.  Similarly, lighter, more delicate textures are assumed to be feminine: Roughness is often positively valued for men, while smoothness is sought by women.  When was the last nine you saw a commercial in which a man was fretting about “dish pan hands?”


Our taste receptors obviously contribute to our experience of many products.  Specialised companies called “flavour houses” keep busy trying to develop new tastes to please the changing palates of consumers.  Their work has been especially important as consumers continue to demand good-tasting foods that are also low in calories and fat.

Taste Testing

Food companies go to great lengths to ensure that their products taste as they should.

Blind Taste Tests.

Are blind taste tests worth their salt? While taste tests often provide valuable information, their results can be misleading when it is forgotten that objective taste is only one component of product evaluation.  The most famous example of this mistake concerns New Coke, Coca-Cola’s answer to the Pepsi Challenge.”

Sensory Thresholds

If you have ever blown a dog whistle and watched pets respond to a sound you cannot hear, you know that there are some stimuli that people simply are not capable of perceiving.  Of course, some people are better able to perceive things than are others.

The science that focuses on how the physical environment is integrated into our personal, subjective world is known as psychophysics.  By understanding some of the physical laws that govern what we are capable of responding to, this knowledge can be translated into marketing strategies.

The Absolute Threshold

When we define the lowest intensity of a stimulus that can be registered on a sensory channel, we speak of a threshold for that receptor.  The absolute threshold refers to the minimum amount of stimulation that can be detected on a sensory channel.  The sound emitted by a dog whistle is too low to be detected by human ears, so this stimulus is below our auditory absolute threshold.  Obviously, though, it is not below a dog’s auditory threshold.

The absolute threshold is an important consideration in designing marketing stimuli.  A billboard might have the most entertaining copy ever written, but this genius is wasted if the print is too small for passing motorists to see it from the highway.

The Differential Threshold

The differential threshold refers to the ability of a sensory system to detect changes or differences among stimuli.  A commercial that is intentionally produced in black-and-white might be noticed on a colour television because this decrease in the intensity of colour differs from what preceded it.  Obviously, the same commercial being watched on a black-and-white television would not be seen as different and might be ignored altogether.

According to the differential threshold, a consumer’s ability to detect a difference between two stimuli is relative, not absolute as in the case of the absolute threshold.  A whispered conversation that might be unintelligible on a noisy street can suddenly become public and embarrassing knowledge in a quiet library.  It is the relative difference between the decibel level of the conversation and its surroundings, rather than the loudness of the conversation itself, that determines whether the stimulus will register.

Wanting (Or Not Wanting) Consumers To Notice A Change

The issue of when and if a change will be noticed by consumers is relevant to many marketing situations.  Sometimes a marketer may want to ensure that a change is noticed, such as when merchandise is offered at a discount.  In other situations, the fact that a change has been made is downplayed, as in the case of price increases or when a product is downsized.

The JND and Weber’s Law.

The minimum change in a stimulus that can be detected is also known as the JND, which stands for just noticeable difference.  In the nineteenth century, a psychophysicist named Ernst Weber found that the amount of change that is necessary to be noticed is systematically related to the original intensity of the stimulus.  The stronger the initial stimulus, the greater the change must be for it to be noticed.  This relationship is known as Weber’s Law.  Many companies choose to update their packages periodically, making small changes that will not necessarily be noticed at the time.  When a product icon is updated, the manufacturer does not want people to lose their identification with a familiar symbol.

Subliminal Persuasion

Most marketers are concerned with creating advertising messages above consumers’ thresholds.  There is, however, another side to this story.  A good number of consumers appear to believe that many advertising messages in fact are designed to be received unconsciously, or below the threshold of recognition.  Another word for threshold is limen, and stimuli that fall below the level are termed subliminal Subliminal perception thus occurs when the stimulus is below the level of the consumer’s awareness.

Subliminal Perception

Subliminal perception is a topic that has captivated the public for over thirty years, despite the fact that there is virtually no proof that this process has any effect on consumer behaviour.  In fact, most supposed examples of subliminal perception that have been “discovered” are not subliminal at all; they are quite visible.  Remember, if you can see it or hear it, it is not subliminal, because the stimulus is above the level of conscious awareness! Nonetheless, the continuing controversy about subliminal persuasion has been important in shaping the public’s beliefs about advertising and marketers’ ability to manipulate consumers against their will.  Because of this influence, the dynamics of subliminal perception are worth discussing.

The public’s fear of unconscious manipulation began with a widely popularised experiment that was performed in a drive-in movie theatre in September 1957.  During a showing of the movie Picnic, a firm caged the Subliminal Projection Company inserted messages that said “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Eat Popcorn” for 1/300 second every five seconds.  This rate was too fast for viewers to be aware that they had seen the images.

It was claimed that sales of popcorn increased by almost 20 percent and that consumption of Coke grew by almost 60 percent.  These claims created an uproar across America as journalists and social critics expressed fears that social scientists would team up with advertisers to invade privacy and control consumers against their will.  As one magazine put it at the time, consumers’ minds had been “broken and entered.

This experiment was never replicated and has repeatedly been criticised.  The design of the study was flawed in that other possible effects on consumption, such as the movie itself, the weather during the showing, and so on, could not be ruled out.  Indeed, the executive responsible for the test later admitted that he had made up results to revive his failing research firm.


3 thoughts on “Perception in Marketing

  1. A deep elaborate article Dr B. Really enjoy reading it.

    If i may add, perception is one thing but their behavior could be another thing which is different from their perception, so is perception doesn’t always reflect what the customer need and want and we need to consider other factors in ?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s