How to anticipate the consequences of key visual design decisions

By our News Team | 2023

Capitalise on the power of perception to influence beliefs about brand performance, which influences product interest and choice.

Researchers from two US universities – Oklahoma State and University of Florida – have published a new article explaining how marketers can capitalise on the power of perception through the structure of visual communications.

The study, forthcoming in the American Marketing Association’s peer-reviewed Journal of Marketing, is titled ‘Marketing by Design: The Influence of Perceptual Structure on Brand Performance’ and is authored by Felipe M. Affonso and Chris Janiszewski.

Brand Performance

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Brands are constantly updating their visual identities. This new study finds that a sense of order and structure can reinforce claims about a brand’s utilitarian benefits. 

“It is well known that customers are subliminally influenced by visual marketing tools such as logos, packages and retail displays; they use them as a basis to make judgments about brands delivering on their promise,” the research team observes.

“We find that for brands that promise utilitarian benefits (functional, instrumental and useful), consumers are encouraged by visual designs perceived as more orderly and structured. This suggests marketers can capitalise on the power of perception to influence beliefs about brand performance, which ultimately influences product interest and choice.”

Utilitarian versus hedonic brands

At the other end of the spectrum are brands, such as Pepsi, which promise benefits related to enjoyment, pleasure, and experiences – collectively referred to as hedonic benefits. In this case, marketers can benefit from using visual design properties that convey lack of structure. 

The visual elements of Pepsi’s marketing communications are relatively more asymmetric, free-flowing, unbalanced and irregular. The research suggests that these characteristics reinforce consumers’ beliefs about the performance of hedonic-positioned brands.

As Affonso explains: “We find that visual design characteristics that encourage structured perceptions of visual communications – such as high proximity, high similarity and symmetry – can reinforce beliefs about utilitarian-positioned brand performance. 

On the other hand, visual design characteristics that encourage unstructured perceptions of visual communications – such as low proximity, low similarity and asymmetry – can reinforce beliefs about hedonic-positioned brand performance. These reinforcements occur because structure and lack of structure have specific associations that consumers use to make inferences.”

Experiments and data support the observations

These observations are supported by a series of experiments, both in the laboratory and in the field, and an analysis of industry data. 

First, in a large-scale field experiment when a perfume was positioned as utilitarian (“Long-lasting. Great for work and everyday occasions”), consumers were more likely to click on the advertisement depicting the perfume with a visual design perceived as more structured than its unstructured counterpart. Yet, when the perfume was positioned as hedonic (“Delightful. Great for special and fun occasions”), consumers were more likely to click on the advertisement depicting the perfume with a visual design perceived as more unstructured than its structured counterpart.

Second, when consumers made choices considering functional goals (such as choosing a restaurant that provides a fast and reliable experience), they were more likely to pick a restaurant perceived as structured. However, when the choice involved hedonic goals (such as choosing a restaurant providing an entertaining and exciting experience) they were likely to pick the option perceived as unstructured. 

Importantly, the research finds that these effects, across a variety of visual marketing communications, induce a structured versus unstructured perception in different ways.

Finally, for brands perceived as more utilitarian, structured perceptions are associated with greater financial brand valuation and customer-based brand equity than unstructured perceptions. The opposite is true for brands perceived as more hedonic.

“Our research offers actionable insights for marketers and visual design specialists working with design, advertising, social media communications, visual merchandising, and the appearance of retail environments. Specifically, the findings suggest that perceptual structure can be used as an efficient marketing communication tool. And it can encourage consumers at the point of purchase, being a relatively costless way to reinforce brand positioning,” says Janiszewski.

You can find out more about the research here.

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