The Hidden Tug of Marketing

Originally Published in Psychology Today


Subtle marketing techniques influence how we spend our money.

Like many folks, I subscribe to Amazon Prime, although admittedly, it was a piece of cake for them to win me over. The promise of free shipping and the convenience of seeing my favorite pea soup and other sundry goods just waiting for me at my doorstep?  Yes, please!  And in an effort to win over more people, the company devised one of the most adorable commercials ever.  The ad features a precious, lonely mini-horse whose caring owner swiftly installs a pet door so he can come inside for company, courtesy of Amazon Prime (of course).  It won’t give you specific information about Amazon Prime, and it doesn’t need to.  The ad pulls viewers in through its delightful, warm-hearted vibe, leaving them amused, attentive, and curious to learn more.  Arguably, the intent here is to forge a connection between its brand and humor, warmth, and caretaking in the hope that it will persuade you to buy an Amazon Prime subscription.  They wouldn’t invest the time, creative energy, and money into this kind of marketing otherwise.  But are they onto something?  Is it such a cakewalk to sway how we think and behave that darling mini-horses and endearing stories will do the trick?  Well, um…yes.  Thanks to diligent research, marketers know how to pull our strings while we don’t have a clue it’s happening.  And that’s precisely the point.  We can’t resist what we don’t recognize.  

We’ll address an assortment of persuasive techniques in future articles.  In this post, we’ll focus on some of the nonverbal strategies that marketers use to airily pull our strings on how we see a product, what we buy, and how much money we’re willing to spend. 

                                The Shape of Things

It’s not a fluke that logos are everywhere.  They offer immediate, smooth brand recognition. Just consider this example:

You can’t see a letter on this logo, yet you can probably pair it with the company and the products it represents.  But logos have a far more potent and unseen impact than brand recognition.  A recent study reveals that the logo’s shape alone affects how we see the product it’s associated with. Shoes or couches with a rounded logo?  We’re more inclined to view them as comfy and snug.  But simply swap in a sharp-cornered logo and that changes our perception.  Then we’re more apt to regard them as dependable and well-made.  Why would the shape of a logo have such an impact?  In all likelihood, because we connect a cushiony feel to round logos and firmness to angular logos and then view the product in the same light.

And the wheels of influence spin again when we pair ads with logos.  If the ad’s language matches the logo’s design, we’ll like the product more.  For example, if we see an angular logo with an ad highlighting a shoe’s sturdiness and reliability, or an ad focusing on how cozy a shoe is alongside a rounded logo, then we’ll prefer the shoe and are more willing to dip a little deeper into our pockets to buy it.  And for some of us, the shape of a logo can impact how we view customer service, with round logos linked to the impression that we received considerate service.

Think of all the times you walked into a store.  What was it like?  Was it pleasant and inviting, or vaguely off-putting?  Did you find yourself sticking around longer or spending more money in some stores than in others? If you’re like most of us, yours truly included, the answer is yes.  But do you have any idea why you linger more or hand over a greater fraction of your paycheck in certain establishments?We may think we know why we behave the way we do in stores, and at times we may be right.  But we’re not fully clued in.  One of the primary directives of a business is to make you feel good while you’re there.  After all, if the environment feels enjoyable, you’ll be more inclined to associate this feeling with the products around you.  And stores have figured out that the right sort of stimulation at the ideal level is crucial to your comfort and enjoyment.  Ultimately, it heightens how much you spend.  Let’s take a closer look at some of the shrouded yet highly persuasive elements of our shopping world. 

What we see: Colors are emotional, and they affect how we feel.  They also guide how much money we believe items are worth.  Take the color black, for instance. We tend to link it to high-end products.  Or consider the lighting in a store.  We direct greater attention to products placed under radiant lights–we’ll even handle them more.  And those of us who prefer intense java will consume more of it in a well-lit coffee shop.  However, if we prefer our coffee on the mellow side, then lower lighting fosters more coffee drinking.   

What we feel: We’re creatures of habit, as the cliché goes, but we’re creatures of touch too.  And companies know this.  When we get to put our hands on an item, we’re more inclined to buy it.  That’s why shrewd clothing companies will arrange their stores in a way that offers you ready access to their clothes.  A store’s temperature is also often deliberate.  The next time you walk into a store with more expensive prices, you might notice that the atmosphere feels cooler than a store with products that have a lower price point.  What would be the advantage of a cooler store?  In general, we tend to make less practical, reason-based choices when our body feels colder, which might lead us to spend more than if we were a little warmer.   

What we smell: The sway of smell is potent, yet its influence can fly right under our noses.  When we’re in a store with an inviting smell, such as the scent of flowers, we’re more prone to linger and feel the urge to buy something.  We’re even willing to spend extra money.  But the scent strategy doesn’t always pay off.  If the smell of someone’s perfume or cologne has ever motivated you to scoot a tad farther away, you’re well aware that what qualifies as an appealing scent for one person may not feel so inviting for another.  And if a store has a smell that’s unattractive to a number of its customers, it can lose profits.  It’s another example of how even a seemingly mild detail in a store’s space mightily influences how we spend our money.

What we hear: Let’s think about the music piping through a store.  Like some of the other elements we’ve been talking about, it only seems inconsequential.  In reality, it carries a great deal of weight.  If the music is set at the proper volume, we’re more apt to take a peek inside.  And when we’re in stores with slower music, we tend to take our time shopping and we’ll shell out more money, whereas rabid beats encourage us to increase the pace of our shopping and exit the store sooner.  On top of the volume and the beat, the type of music in the background determines how much we spend.  For instance, have you ever bought a bottle of wine?  If so, the amount you’re willing to pay for it is likely to rise with classical music in the background because most people tend to think of classical music and wine as being chic and classy.  The music fits the environment.  The type of music also influences what kind of wine you’ll buy, leaving you more inclined to buy German wine or French wine depending on whether there is German or French music playing.  We tailor our purchasing decisions to the music in the background and we’re not remotely aware of it.

And if it’s humbling to realize that the mere shape of logos and the intricate details of a store’s environment can impact your behavior in unforeseen ways, for what it’s worth, it means you’re human.  Thankfully, we also possess the human capacity to shine a light on those unseen spaces where we’re more persuadable, where charming mini-horses possess colossal power. 

Holly ParkerComment