Advertising's raison d'être is to tell people what to buy. But a new study from a team of Canadian researchers suggests marketers may want to consider a lighter touch. As it turns out, consumers much prefer making up their own minds.
The forthcoming study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that people feel more affinity for a product or service that they have sought out, as opposed to the first thing they see.
The researchers proved this with a number of experiments where participants were asked to choose between two similar products.
In one experiment, people were told that they would be receiving a free granola bar, and then told that there was another flavour option, and asked if they would like to see it.
Ninety-five per cent of them said yes, and walked behind a partition to see the other bar. When they did, 68 per cent chose the second option over the original.
"They're much more likely to select the alternative that was initially out of sight," said Neil Brigden, a marketing professor at Miami University in Ohio. Prof. Brigden conducted the research with his former doctoral thesis supervisor at the University of Alberta and another professor at the University of Northern British Columbia.
"The conventional wisdom is that it's always best to make it easy for consumers to find your product or establishment, to be front and centre, to be the first thing the consumer sees. But there are some situations where being first could actually be a disadvantage."
The study included a number of different experiments, tested against a control group where people were simply offered two choices up front to see how the process of discovery influenced their preferences. Experiments included choices between two clock radios, electric toothbrushes, coffee makers, and, in one case, a hypothetical scenario where they chose between different restaurants.
The consistent finding was that the act of seeking out an alternative made people less attracted to the first option.
Participants felt on average no more attracted to the second option they saw than the average rating of the control group; but they felt significantly less positive about the first choice than the control group did.
To explain this, the research draws on an old theory of psychology called "self-perception theory."
It states that, just as we make assumptions about other people's attitudes, beliefs or preferences based on those people's actions, we do the same thing with ourselves. If we behave a certain way, then our brains adjust to infer that we believe in that action.
So, if you consider one restaurant for lunch but then decide to also look at the menu of a restaurant two doors down, you are likely to believe that you didn't really want the food at the first restaurant, simply because you kept searching.
This is similar to the theory of "cognitive dissonance" – the idea that when we do something that does not fit with our beliefs, we will often change or shift our beliefs to relieve the tension of having acted that way. "Self-perception theory" is like a gentler side of that psychological phenomenon, since the choice between two granola bars, for example, rarely causes the kind of angst that cognitive dissonance refers to.
"We were really careful in our experiment to make sure it's not more costly to go back [to the first choice]," Prof. Brigden said. The restaurants were not a far walk apart, for example, or there was not a great difference in quality between the alarm clocks.
The findings could have implications for promotional vehicles that brands spend a lot of time and money figuring out – including shelf placement, and maybe even Google searches.
It would be difficult to convince any marketers worth their paycheque that they should not try to get their brands near the top of Google search results or in a noticeable spot on a store shelf.
But they may want to question the conventional wisdom that would have them appear at the very top of the results, or most noticeable on the shelf, or the store closest to the entrance in a mall. It's a delicate balance.
"The big challenge with capitalizing on this knowledge is, you need to find this sweet spot where you're inconspicuous enough that the consumer might not be familiar with you, but not so inconspicuous that they never find you," he said. "… There's that element of uniqueness, and wanting to signal that I'm an autonomous decision-maker and not just buying what I'm told to buy."
This study is not the only one to suggest that is true. In June, a report from Veritas Communications and Northstar found that brand loyalty in Canada is on the wane. And they attributed that decline to a cynicism toward advertising.
According to that research, consumers are more likely to see themselves as "influencers" and to want to make their own decisions, or to lean on the advice of friends and family, than listen to marketing messages.
Word of mouth has always been powerful, but with the culture of social media, people have a growing sense of their own influence and may be less open to marketers' messages than ever.
"Consumers really want to be invested, and part of their own decision-making, as opposed to being sold something," Veritas president Krista Webster said. "We're savvier, because we research more. … The desire to discover, and research, is something that's untapped."
Indeed, Veritas found that Canadians on average do research with at least three sources before making a decision.
Ms. Webster pointed to the example of Popchips, the brand of lower-fat chips founded seven years ago, as an example of a brand that avoided the hard sell.
Competing against major brands in a cluttered snack food environment, it cultivated the image of an independent brand.
"It felt like consumers discovered it," she said. (Popchips is not a client of Veritas.)
This research does not negate the role of advertising entirely, of course.
Even the brands that benefit from a sense of discovery need to expand their promotional toolkit from time to time. After years of focusing heavily on online marketing, Popchips is launching its first TV campaign this week.
Editor's Note: This story corrects the surname of Krista Webster. It also corrects the name of the Journal of Consumer Psychology.