On the Face.

Don’t kid yourself; it’s hard not to judge the book by its cover. It turns out that the way we evaluate products is likely a remnant of evolutionary biology. Indeed, recent research claims the way we evaluate products has similarities to how we evaluate other’s faces.

The face of a product is often the first thing we see and thus the first thing we evaluate in determining our impressions. Having products that reflect one’s self-image is essential to consumers, whether they realize it or not. People tend to believe the way that a product looks or what the brand represents says something about them. The way we form an impression of a product also takes into account if that product represents us.

Recent research has found that the way we form impressions about a product’s face – that is the front and the imagery we often initially exposed to – is similar to the ways in which we evaluate and form impressions about human faces. Recent research by Ahreum Maeng from the University of Kansas and Pankaj Aggarwal from the University of Toronto found that just as evolutionary accounts of human face perception suggesting that the face width-to-height ratio – what they describe as f WHR: bizygomatic width divided by upper-face height – can signal dominance and affect its overall evaluation, so too can this principle be applied to consumer evaluation of product face.

Through their studies, they show that product faces with high (vs low) f WHR are perceived as more dominant – just like human faces. In contrast, based on measures of consumer preference and willingness to pay, they also uncovered that although human faces with high f WHR are liked less, products with faces that show high f WHR are more preferred. They argue that this is due to a motivation to signal dominance to others or enhance one’s own status. They use a compelling example:

“Imagine that you are driving on a highway and an automobile is tailgating you. When you glance in the mirror, the car behind you looks menacing, as if it has an angry face. Would you feel intimidated and change lanes to let this car pass you? Would you feel and act differently if the car behind you had a friendly “smile” and was pleasant-looking? Alternatively, if you were the person driving the mean-looking car, would you feel more empowered and be inclined to act like a bully on the road?” (p. 1).

Why are first impressions and specifically the first point-of-contact with a product’s face important? Pleasing design has been shown to improve the strength of a brand and perceptions about the brand’s quality. Product qualities have also been shown to impact consumers’ emotions and purchase intentions. Impressions matter. This leads to a number of things that managers should consider regarding product design and packaging.

For example, have you considered the impact of how a product looks when it is shipped? Although the goals of shipping might be more functional that flair, its’ still an important consideration as the impressions consumers initially make can stick moving forwards.

It is also critically important for designers to consider what the qualities of their product and packaging could say about a consumer who purchases it. Self-image motives can be very powerful and play a role in the formation of brand loyalty. Thinking about the signal potential of your product and product face, in particular characteristics of dominance akin to those evaluated on a human face, could have a substantial impact on how the product fairs in the marketplace.

For consumers, this proposes a time to be self-reflective. What’s the message you are trying to send with your mean-looking car? It’s up to you to decide if what’s on the inside counts more than the cover.


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