Visual Cues and Product Positioning – Understanding Research Techniques


The first assessment of any new product is what is initially seen by customers. As researchers Hollins and Pugh wrote in their 1990 study on product design, "Whatever the product, the customers see it first ... The physical performance comes later; the visual always comes first." 

 First impressions are so important that they can be one of the most critical components of product success. That is if customers cannot quickly and effectively assess what a product is all about, they are far less likely to engage with it. Researchers Fuchs and Diamantopoulos demonstrate through their work that the ability to effectively position a product in the mind of the customer through elements like the visual cues present in a product's design are critical to market acceptance. Product appearance is what can demonstrate product advantage to consumers more rapidly than any other marketing technique because it can do so without even using words.

Given the importance of first impressions on consumer habits, many have attempted to craft effective marketing research techniques to understand how product design cues affect consumer perception. Without effectively studying customer reactions, it is very easy to embed the wrong meanings unintentionally. This failure can lead customers to misunderstand product features or outrightly reject a product. 

The idea behind much research in this area is that customers have within their minds an entire library of associations with particular visual cues. For example, consumers have learned to associate angular forms with dynamism and masculinity, roundness with softness and femininity, and, in automotive, bright colors with aggression.

A review of the research literature demonstrates that there are two primary methods currently used in understanding customer associations with visual cues. The first utilizes qualitative elicitation techniques which focus on investigating what ideas come to customers' minds when presented with a product. The second is the comparative technique, which involves comparing the positioning of a product versus others in terms of a list of attributes (e.g., "which appears more durable?"). 

However, both of these techniques suffer from the fact that most customers are not particularly adept at reflecting on their mental associations with visual cues. For this reason, some researchers are attempting to develop implicit research techniques to understand customer meaning without asking them to state associations explicitly. For example, researchers Belboula, Ackerman, and Mathieu recently tried to craft an approach utilizing "Semantic Priming." The idea behind this technique is to see if associations between forms and terms become shorter after being primed with particular designs. If the response is quicker, the idea is the participant has a stronger association. 

Given the importance of research in this area, we expect that market research techniques will continue to evolve in this area. 

Greg VanderPol