Advertising continually tries to capture consumers' eyes with visual images, from the jewelry on a gown-clad model in a glossy magazine ad to the juicy-looking giant cheeseburger on a highway billboard. But as new research shows, sight isn't the only way to make the sale. A number of recent studies show that your sense of touch exerts a powerful influence upon your brain, to the extent that when you're shopping, you may unconsciously choose a product because its shape resembles something that you're holding in your hand.
In a 2015 study published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, Zachary Estes, a marketing professor at Italy's Bocconi University, and Mathias Streicher, a management professor at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, found that after blindfolded subjects held a familiar product — a bottle of Coca-Cola, for example — they were able to recognize the brand name of the product more quickly when it appeared on a screen. The subjects also more frequently included the product when asked to list brands in the same category. Beyond that, the study participants were more likely to pick the product as the reward that they wanted to receive for participating in the study.
The same researchers followed that work up with another study, published in Journal of Consumer Psychology in 2016, in which they put products such as bottles of soda and chocolate eggs into the hands of subjects who were blindfolded or had their eyes closed. They showed that holding an object can prime a consumer to pick a product of the similar shape and size from a display. In a Bocconi University press release about the research, Estes explained it this way: If you have your smartphone in your hand when you go to the candy rack at a convenience store, for example, you're more likely to unconsciously choose a Kit Kat candy bar than a Snickers, because the Kit Kat has a similar shape to the phone.
Estes says that although we don't usually notice its influence, the sense of touch is second only to vision in its effect on how we perceive a product. "We regularly use tactile information to clarify or confirm our expectations from the visual sense," he says via email. "When you see a sweater that looks nice but you're undecided about whether to buy it, its texture, weight, and rigidity may become the decisive factors."
One of the most intriguing discoveries the researchers made was that consumers are even more strongly influenced by tactile information when confronted with a crowded assortment of products in a display. "In that case, the visual system sort of becomes overwhelmed, so the hands become even more decisive," Estes says.
The researchers aren't yet clear on precisely what degree of similarity in shape and heft objects need to influence a consumer's perception. "We suspect that it has more to do with specific, salient features of the shapes rather than their overall similarity," Estes says. "Holding a small ball in your hand might facilitate perception and increase choice of Coca-Cola over Pepsi because Coca-Cola has the more curved bottle, similar to the ball. But this is purely speculative and remains to be tested."
Estes says that there are "very important" practical applications to the research for marketers. To return to the Kit Kat example, makers of gum, candy and other impulse-purchase products might gain an advantage by designing their packaging to resemble the smartphones that more and more of us have in our hands at all times.