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What a face !!

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An article published in the latest issue of the « Journal of Marketing » (It’s got the look : the effect of friendly and aggressive « facial » expressions on product liking and sales ; Jan R. Landwehr, Ann L. Mc Gill, Andréas Hermann ; vol.75 May 2011, pages 132-146) confirms in a scientific manner what some of us may have discovered themselves: we perceive human faces in products shapes (the case study of the article is based on cars and cellular phones) and this perception influences our liking.

Design as a strategy

In order to influence customers, companies bet more and more on products design in purpose to increase their attraction, due to their likeness with human emotional expressions. This situation comes from the human being ability to anthropomorphize what is surrounding him (like, for example, depending on the door and windows position, a human face on the front of a house). But studies show that the human face configuration and stimuli are processed more quickly and with more attention than most other stimuli in our environment. From that, the authors of the article had identified the most stimulating emotional expressions and the most efficient one in order to increase the liking and trigger the purchase. They validated their postulate by analyzing car sales, same segment and same color, in the German market during 2008 and extended their findings to some cellular phones, with specific features.

Design and emotions

This study case shows that people not only perceive the analogy between products and human face: they also perceive the underlying emotions conveyed by emotional expressions. This perception has a direct effect on consumers liking and mental picture of the brand. Thus, product designers’ ability to suggest human face is a very powerful tool for marketers.
Joy and anger, mouth and eyes, cooperation and attack are the most used studied and useful emotions, expressions and reactions. Someone is happy, smiles and we find that person friendly: everyone acts according to his state of mind and triggers the appropriate behavioral reaction from other people. However, even if their action is always mixed, friendliness is only expressed by the mouth when aggressiveness depends on both mouth and eyes. Thus, a downturned grille (because the case study is about cars, mouth is represented by the grille and eyes by the headlights) will reduce the perceived friendliness and increase the perceived aggressiveness, compared with an upturned grille. For the headlights, their shape has no influence on the perceived friendliness but slanted headlights will increase the perceived aggressiveness compared to arched headlights.
Aggressiveness and friendliness are the « strongest » emotions and trigger arousal and pleasure. A friendly stimulus will trigger more pleasure than arousal and vice versa for an aggressive behavior.
While, for biological reasons, emotional expressions of the mouth and the eyes can’t diverge, products designers can mix shapes with contradictory emotional meaning. Thus, even if the pleasure level is higher with a friendly grille and arched headlights, the car liking is maximized when the design can elicit high levels of pleasure AND arousal: a downturned grille will decrease consumer’s liking and slanted eyes will increase arousal. Therefore, with a friendly grille AND slanted eyes we obtain a high level of pleasure and a high level of arousal: this is the most appealing combination, which is proven in terms of sales on the 2008’ German cars market.
Liking the front car is the result of a pleasure-arousal mix triggered by the perception of both friendliness and aggressiveness. This conclusion applies also for cell phones (with two upper buttons corresponding to the eyes and a larger lower button corresponding to a mouth).

Conclusion

This study case states four important points:

  • In the car industry, if a brand only wants to convey positive values (kindness, friendliness…), designers should only focus on the grille because it’s the only features taken into account to express such values.
  • No matter how friendly or aggressive a car is, the most sold are the ones which shapes provide both.
  • Showing the consumers’ preferring for a « smiling mouth » and « aggressive eyes » is not only working for cars but also for cellular phones, the authors of the article pose they can extent those observations to all the products designed with eyes and mouth.
  • The preference friendliness-aggressiveness being confirmed by the sales, we can say that it is a determining factor for the deed of purchase.

However, as interesting and encouraging as can be those observations on the use of design as a massive persuasion weapon, it is still important to keep in mind that the consumers’ perceptions may, nevertheless, be influenced by their cultural membership and their state of mind, making, so, impossible to identify an “universal” favorable design.

Author: Tina Turay-Benoit (tt@intotheminds.com)

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Author: Pierre-Nicolas Schwab

Dr. Pierre-Nicolas Schwab is the founder of IntoTheMinds. He specializes in e-commerce, retail and logistics. He is also a research fellow in the marketing department of the Free University of Brussels and acts as a coach for several startups and public organizations. He holds a PhD in Marketing, a MBA in Finance, and a MSc in Chemistry. He can be contacted by email, Linkedin or by phone (+32 486 42 79 42)

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