With context in mind…

12 May 2017 / Tim Holmes

I have terrible navigation skills!  Last year I was invited to Peru to give a talk at a neuromarketing conference and found myself with some time to kill in downtown Lima.  I decided to check out the Lonely Planet walking tour, only to fall foul of my own reluctance to look like a tourist by constantly checking Google Maps and completely failed to stick to the recommended route.  One of my less scary diversions took me into the most enormous market area I have ever seen.  I’ll return to this in a moment, but the contrast between this and some of the retail environments I’ve been spending much of my time researching was huge and it got me to thinking about the role of context in marketing and packaging when shoppers are making decisions.  The influence of context on human perception is often overlooked, by brand owners, graphic designers and market researchers and yet neuroscience and behavioural research both suggest that it is the single biggest influencer of the decisions we make every day.  In this post I’m going to talk about just how strong and varied these contextual influences can be and why they should be considered at every stage in the development of marketing materials.  But first let’s get back to that market in Peru…


I’m not a travel writer, and so I struggle to find the words to describe the sheer size of this market area.  In the largest Tesco in the UK a product category such as ready meals or soft drinks is limited to a number of bays and larger categories like clothing or electronics to a few aisles, but never so many they would qualify for their own post-code!  Not so in the downtown Mercados of Lima, where the meat section covers several streets, as does every other category ranging from electronics and clothes to party decorations and even surgical appliances!  I kid you not when I say that it took me the best part of an hour to walk from one end to the other, and that was without stopping to buy anything more than a bottle of water to relieve the dryness from constantly walking around with my jaw on the floor!


It was the area of streets selling cleaning products and detergents that got me first thinking about context, because here the very same products that are neatly stacked and blocked for standout in supermarkets back home were competing for attention in chaotic and over-crowded stalls in a labyrinth without end.  Now, if you’re a resident in the UK or US, you might be thinking that the number of sales in a market like this would be a fraction of those in the big supermarkets, and you’d be right for those countries, but in Peru small independent retailers dominate and so the ability to rely on consistent presentation of products is limited to the few big supermarkets in the more affluent areas of large cities, and these contribute a relatively low proportion of national sales.


In the UK it might feel like there’s a Tesco on every corner, but there are still many independent retailers, and even the pocket sized versions of the big supermarkets (Tesco Express, Sainsbury’s Local, ASDA Supermarket and Little Waitrose) present products in a very different context from the average superstore.  These differences in store size not only affect the sheer number of products available but also the number of facings of each product, the likelihood of first choice being unavailable and the presence and quantity of those all-important own-label versions which we’ve shown can have a dramatic effect on shopper behaviour as a result of their similarity to a leading brand.  Market research often considers these effects, but often too late in the process and after considerable expense on product and package design work as well as focus groups which frequently ignore the role of context in decision making at the point of purchase.


But so far we’ve only scratched the surface of what context really means for the shopper.  Store size also affects where a product might appear on the fixture.  Most package testing assumes something close to eye-level and yet this situation is entirely at the whim of the retailer, and so many packages that are recognisable from the front fail to be noticed when viewed from below (top shelf) or above (all shelves below eye-level).  Try looking a tin of almost anything from above and it will look like every other tin can!   Everything from stock level to store lighting needs to be considered when thinking about the contextual performance of a product, and it doesn’t stop with visual effects.

The human brain processes input from all the other senses in parallel with visual information, but not in isolation, and this means that the effects of other sensory signals need to be considered when thinking about visual presentation.  Research from Charles Spence’s Crossmodal Research Lab at Oxford, and others, has shown that the perception of one sense can be affected by another, and so the music played in a store might influence the wine choice of the shopper or their desire for something a little spicier than their usual pasta sauce.  Noise levels are also highly correlated with stress, something which tends to cause shoppers to rely on habits and fall back on the much vaunted automated (System 1) decision making which restricts exploration at the fixture, something which might be important if you’re a new product on the block.  Scent has also been shown to have a direct effect on shopper behaviour both in terms of price and trust, and of course it’s no coincidence that the likes of Costco pipe their bakery aroma directly into the carpark to ratchet up those muffin sales!


In highlighting this role of automated decision making in shopper behaviour, neuroscience and behavioural research has identified more than 90 cognitive biases which are driven by prior experience and can predict outcomes which will be unconscious for the consumer.  For example, if you’re in the soft drinks aisle looking for a cola, the strength of colour association between red and Coke means that colours like green will almost certainly be suppressed, or deselected, in visual attention – perhaps this is why Coke Life has finally been removed from the shelves? This means that context extends far beyond the environment the shopper exists in, and in fact, the shopper brings their own context to the fixture by way of everything they have seen and heard right up to the point of purchase.  Which of course brings us back to Peru, because the chaos in the market in Lima was not normal for a timid Morrison’s shopper like myself!  It was, however, normal for almost everyone else around me.  Strategies for visual search are a direct result of what you’re used to and so whilst I need structure and a signpost brand to find anything, my Peruvian counterparts almost certainly do not.


So when I talk about context being the most important factor in predicting shopper behaviour, I also include the shopper’s emotional state, the mobile devices they are carrying, the family members they are accompanied by and everyone else in the store.  And if you doubt these effects, you only have to eye-track one person in real store to know how much better all those stimuli are attracting attention than anything sitting on the shelf!


Factoring all of this into a research study is no mean feat, and in fact is almost impossible, but it’s why large real-world shopper behaviour studies, like the one we completed with Premier Foods last year and presented this week at the Retail Design Expo Shopper Marketing Conference are so valuable.  In that study we let context do its thing, and observed behaviour in the wild!  More importantly, for those running studies in more controlled environments like the many retail research labs around the world, this is why it’s REALLY important to think about what contextual effects you are controlling, and therefore excluding, from your study.  Context can kill a great product and a great design, and by eliminating too much contextual influence you risk missing the most important insights from your research.  Time of day, direction of approach, position in store, promotional offers and, yes, the presence of copycat brands are all going to play a part in determining the success of the product you’re about to launch and these are relatively easy to include in a lab study before it’s too late to do adjust a design.  Neglecting these effects is a recipe for disaster.


I’ll return to this topic in my next post, when I describe how AcuityVR can help overcome many of these challenges.  In the meantime, checkout my Twitter for more examples of how context can kill a design, and I’d love to hear your stories on this too, whether it be in store or elsewhere.

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