Understanding Perception for Marketing

Sensation and Perception

Dr. Brian Monger

Sensation is the immediate response of our sensory receptors (e.g., eyes, ears, nose, mouth, ringers) 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.  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 interpreted it 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.

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 five 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 smell of 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 imagery is 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 

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.  The makers of Microsoft software revamped the old forest green package to red and royal blue after it found that consumers associated green with frozen vegetables and chewing gum but not software. The colour black connotes quality and elegance, and is used by Johnnie Walker Scotch to convey a sophisticated image.

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.  Researchers have also claimed that rooms painted all pink appear to calm down delinquents and prison inmates, and a Canadian dental clinic used a blue room to relax anxious patients.  Some fast-food chains rely on the colour orange to stimulate customers’ hunger.

Personality 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.  For example, 25 percent of college women say that their favourite colour is purple, but less than 10 percent of college men state this preference.

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 and Sound Perception

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.

Tactile Clues

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 i-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.


Dr Brian Monger is Executive Director of MAANZ International and an internationally known consultant with over 45 years of experience assisting both large and small companies with their projects.  He is a specialist in negotiation and behaviour He is also a highly effective and experienced trainer and educator

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These articles are usually taken from notes from a MAANZ course.  If you are interested in obtaining the full set of notes (and a PowerPoint presentation) please contact us – info@marketing.org.au

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MAANZ International website http://www.marketing.org.au

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