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The Sensory Dynamics Of Consumer Perception

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How do you know whether your product will succeed in the marketplace? It all comes down to consumer perception, or how your customers feel about and perceive your product or service before they actually buy it.

Understanding this concept can help you build better products and differentiate them from the competition, ensuring your business will make more money from every sale. Read on to learn more about the sensory dynamics of consumer perception, or skip to the bottom of this page for a summary of these key points.



In the course of taking a shower in the morning, you probably don’t stop to think about the smell, or how much steam is in the air. Your senses are operating under the radar – so quietly that you hardly notice them at all. However, they’re in use constantly, and appeal to these sensory parts (sight, smell, sound etc.) during product design and this can have huge implications for brand recognition and preference.


It’s about how we experience products or services. Sensation is a combination of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch—or how a product looks, sounds, smells and feels. A good example here is Coke. For decades (read: generations), Coca-Cola has worked hard to market its product as a bubbly drink with great refreshment powers. If you think about it in sensory terms (the way people really experience things), that’s why Coca-Cola dominates so many minds. No other colas quite live up to its idealized sensation of refreshment—and that counts for something when it comes to perception. The same goes for every retail purchase: We make decisions based on sensation as much as anything else.


The absolute threshold

In psychology, absolute threshold is defined as the minimum amount of stimulus that can be detected 50% of the time. An example might be a specific sound level below which a sound cannot be heard by an individual at all, but that does not imply an absence of all noise. The term was first used by Ernst Heinrich Weber (1795–1878) and Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801–1887). The absolute threshold is different for every individual and for every sense. The reason why things are harder to notice when we get older is that our perception has become more sensitive to stimuli: We don’t need as much input to feel something anymore. Some advertising techniques used to overcome the absolute threshold are; scented ads, ambush advertising (eg: brand name projections onto buildings), product placements, magazine inserts and point of sale displays.


The differential threshold

The sweet spot for advertising is a phenomenon called the differential threshold. Differential threshold, also called the just noticeable difference (JND), is the minimal difference that can be detected between two stimuli. Consumers are less likely to notice small changes in products that fall within a certain range—the exception being when an item is positioned at either end of that spectrum. For example, Pringles made a mistake in their product packaging changes when they reduced the size of their canister and crisps. This was above the differential threshold for a lot of people, causing outrage amongst the public. 

The differential threshold is important in understanding consumer perception because it can make individual consumers perceive something in another way than they normally would.


Subliminal perception

The term Subliminal perception was first used by Arthur Holly Compton in 1922 while he was still a student at Princeton University. It has been defined as perception below the threshold. In general, it describes communication effects that are below people’s thresholds for conscious awareness, but which may affect their thoughts and behavior. The use of subliminal stimuli in advertising, sometimes called subliminal advertising, can be controversial since subliminal stimuli are usually undetectable by people perceiving them. A key finding is that individuals cannot easily report what they see or hear when exposed to subliminals, but they can often experience physiological responses to them.


Elements of perception

The sensory system detects and processes physical, chemical, or biological stimuli in our environment. We commonly think about five senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. This sense organ is what allows us to see, hear and feel marketing efforts, however there are elements to triggering and influencing these perceptions.


Selective perception

In consumer perception, selective perception describes how consumers tend to perceive messages through their own lens, which is influenced by many factors, including expectations, past experiences, emotions and their motives—and often doesn’t align with reality. For example, consumers rely on memory when it comes to making new product choices. The more a consumer uses a product the more likely they are to remember it. This also makes them more likely to purchase that particular product again and again.


Likewise, we are more likely to buy products that are related to our habitual purchases like coffee and smartphones. By being aware of how our past experiences shape our future perceptions – and how these impacts can be magnified by feelings and emotions – you can better tailor your approach to an individual consumer’s preferences and selective perception.


Perceptual organisation

Humans perceptually select the elements that they deem important to the environment. This concept is called perceptual organization. For example if you’re promoting a product through an image that can be easily interpreted by the human mind, then it should consider perceptual organization by focusing on the grouping of its subject matter and elements, the figure and ground and closure helping the audience form a complete picture. The perceptual organization of an image can greatly affect how well a consumer will understand and remember that image.


In a recent study, published in Neuron, it (Arvid Guterstam and Johan Wikberg) showed that perceptual grouping was enhanced by affective context. In particular, visual stimuli containing positive (vs. negative) emotional content were more likely to be grouped together into coherent objects and scenes. Our results suggested that it is easier to see positive things together than it is to see negative things together.


The fundamental concept in Gestalt psychology is that one object is perceived as distinct from other objects around it (the ground) if it has a different form, color, or brightness. This is a huge influence on consumer perception and what they notice in advertising. When you’re shopping at your local grocery store, much of your attention will be focused on items that are placed in front of other products (above them or to their sides). A recent study found that 80% or more of an individual’s attention during shopping was focused on figure-ground relationships , which illustrates just how important these two elements are for your advertising.


A key driver of consumer perception is closure, or how consumers interpret information in relation to each other. Closure can be bottom-up or top-down, meaning that it can occur at a global level (top-down) or a local level (bottom-up). One example of top-down closure is people’s interpretations of price. When they see one product on sale, consumers assume that all products with similar pricing structures are on sale. In effect, they’re trying to interpret prices based on their assumed point of reference and automatically close any perceived gaps by making less expensive items seem like better deals than those more expensive ones. Bottom-up closure comes into play when consumers try to fill in missing pieces about brands, their offerings and competitors.


Perceptual interpretation

A study published in Psychology and Marketing (1994) showed that sensory interpretation will affect one’s brand attitude. In two separate studies, they found that different consumers use different senses to make decisions. For example, males tend to base their purchase decisions on tangible factors such as Does it work? while females are more likely to purchase based on emotional factors like Will my friends like it? The authors go on to describe how they were able to predict whether a participant was male or female.


Using certain psychological marketing tricks, marketers can distort an individual’s perceptual interpretation generating a more favourable outcome. Some of these could include; Physical appearance (eg: using celebrities or attractive influencers), descriptive terms (eg: describing food as decadent or fulfilling) engaging in stereotypes to confirm our internal biases and expectations, irellevant cues (eg; high-end luxurious machinery), first impressions and the “Halo Effect” (where one trait of something encompases a number of others, eg: trustworthy would also encompass, noble and good).


Sensory perception in consumer dynamics-article 


The challenge

The dynamic effect of each sensory interaction is different but ultimately is interrelated on a very fundamental level to define overall perception. We receive more than 100 messages per second, but only attend to a small portion of them. From what we see and hear to what we smell and feel, things are always changing—and we as consumers don’t care about these changes individually; our focus is on how everything works together at a holistic level and this influences how we perceive and remember brands.

The challenge for marketers is learning how to make their brands stand out in an increasingly noisy marketplace. Understanding how our senses react to brands requires an understanding of both cognitive theory and environmental factors—which means marketing teams must be able to address both scientific and artistic approaches when it comes to their work.

Have you done a brand discovery session yet? Find out the brand discovery process in our post here. It will help with starting your content marketing strategy.

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