Perception vs Reality: Building A Reality For Consumer Perceptions

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Perception is reality.” Nowhere does that hold more true than for marketers trying to drive awareness and purchase of their products and services. We all make personal evaluations of situations and purchase behaviours are greatly impacted by perceptions. As marketers, we can work to create these perceptions and realities in the consumer’s mind. As an individual, we all act and react to situations, products, brands and occurrences based on our individual perceptions of reality, not objective reality. So finding a way to access and influence a person’s perception and how it relates to how they consume and purchase is critical. So let’s take a look at how we as marketers can tune into this idea and use it to influence people’s views, usages and interactions with the things around us. 

If you have ever studied or read about consumer behaviour you may be familiar with the process of perception. This is the idea that the physical stimuli from the external environment in combination with your beliefs work to form your personal evaluations and perceptions of a situation. Basically, the process starts with a stimulus that we are exposed to. Once we become aware of the stimuli we either decide that it is important and we will pay attention to it, or we filter it out. Now we are left with the important or relevant stimuli, which we will interpret and organize.

To dive a little bit deeper into how we are able to select certain information and not others, we are going to take a look at the cocktail party effect. We are constantly being exposed to stimuli so there has to be some sort of way to streamline the selection process, to determine which stimuli we will engage with. Picture yourself at a party with your friends, or out at a bar. With so much going on around you, you are still able to carry on a conversation with your closest friends or favourite coworkers. This is the basis of the cocktail party effect – being able to filter out stimuli and focus on the conversation at hand or one stimulus.

After we have selected what stimuli we will engage with or have deemed as important, there are factors that influence our attention and interpretation of the stimuli. These are things such as our needs, interests, experiences, limitations and personal characteristics. If we have a need or requirement we will pay attention to information that helps fulfill that need. For example, if I’m hungry I will start to notice all the delicious restaurants around me. 

So now let’s focus on one factor known as our experience and how it has a profound impact on our perception and ultimately our reality.

As consumers we have created beliefs about what we think is supposed to happen in situations we may have encountered before or similar experiences. If we are expecting to experience something – we can become unsatisfied if that thing does not occur. What we are looking at here is the process we take to ultimately get to what we experience. To understand this a bit better let’s take a look at a few products and how our experiences and marketing techniques have influenced our behaviours.

All of us wash our hair with shampoo (I’m sure some more than others, with the creation of dry shampoo). As consumers, we have come to expect the presence of lots of suds as an indication that the shampoo is working and our hair is clean, and sometimes when we wash it once the volume of suds can be quite low. Is it that our hair really isn’t clean, or that we have an expectation of seeing the suds to tell us that our hair is clean? Our ‘experience’ influences our reality and reception to stimuli. Consumers are looking for those suds to feel a sense of satisfaction and indication that the product is working and their hair is actually clean.

The shampoo-twice thinking came from manufacturers who recognized our reception to the visual stimulus of increased suds as an opportunity to sell more shampoo. Back in the 1950s when they first started mass-marketing shampoo, most people weren’t daily bathers and definitely not daily shampooers, so recommending two shampoos meant simply promoting good hygiene. Moving forward they began to notice that by instructing people to use more shampoo, people then bought more shampoo. In fact, when manufacturers began telling people to ‘rinse and repeat’ they were able to double their sales of shampoo.

Supplement companies are another example, but they have a habit of underdosing and over-marketing product ingredients. We could call it a ‘mystery mix’ of random amounts of clinically proven ingredients. Many consumers of these products are unlikely to actually know the correct dosage amounts or usages. This allows supplement companies to take advantage of our lack of knowledge. Many of the benefits from pre-workouts can actually be obtained through a healthy diet and a boost of caffeine from a cup of coffee. So why do we spend good money on these types of products? Could it be our expectations to feel a physical sensation of increased energy? Or merely a ‘placebo effect’. 

When taking pre-workout supplements you can generally expect a boost in energy, sustained endurance, and increased focus. These are brought on by ingredients like caffeine, l-citrulline and BCAAs. But supplement companies often tend to throw in another ingredient known as beta-alanine. In the fitness industry, there seems to be a love/hate relationship with beta-alanine due to ‘the tingles’ users’ experience. Although beta-alanine offers no acute benefits to a workout, for many it is their perception that the ‘tingling sensation’ (or stimulus) is associated with the product doing its job and giving them the energy and increased endurance they need to get through their workout. Supplement companies can toss 2-3 grams of beta-alanine into their products to enhance the “sensory” experience and connect that preconceived association consumers have with the product.

You are likely aware of the placebo effect – people’s expectations about a treatment can influence the effects that treatment has on them. Through research, they have discovered that over the last decade (and just to note the study I am discussing was done in 2015), people expect branded medicines to be more effective and to have fewer side effects than their generic counterparts. There was a study that looked at university students who suffered from frequent headaches. When the study concluded they found that when it came to the active doses, there was no difference between the branded and generic Ibuprofen – both were equally effective at pain relief and the students reported the same amount of side-effects for each. However, the branded medicine was deemed more effective than the generic at pain relief and was associated with fewer side effects. Our perception that branded products are better, allows companies to alter things such as price because they know we have an association with the branded counterpart and will likely value it more highly.

While our perceptions may not always be based in reality, we can witness the power and influence perceptions have in driving customer behaviour. That’s why it’s essential to understand your audience’s perceived realities and position your communications to appeal to these perceptions.

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