To assess the way a campaign, product or brand will be perceived by your target audience accurately, you will need to learn how our perceptions come to exist. This article is meant to help marketeers, communication specialists, designers, product developers and even people in leadership roles comprehend how we, as humans, shape the world around us.
Back in the day, our senses were said to function as a camera, making a copy of reality. Our perception was purely seen as a reception of a message that was sent by the messenger. That conviction led us to believe that everyone perceived their surroundings in exactly the same way. Modern psychology has debunked this theory by demonstrating that our perception is, in fact, a very complex process in which the construction of images, depend on variable aspects.
Although we wished we could explain everything there is to know about our perception in one comprehensive piece, we would never be able to finish it. The scientific field, specialised in our perception, is still in its infancy and there are so many variables involved when it comes to perception that we could dedicate an entire book to it. For that reason, we decided to cover the basic principles of perception instead.
Structural and functional influences
In earlier articles, we have spoken about the way stimuli are processed by individuals and groups. Our main focus in these articles was how to appeal to the five human senses: touch, hearing, smell, taste and our sight in marketing and HR, in short: this articles focussed on how to create an experience by using sensory marketing.
While our senses do determine how we receive a message, they do not tell us how we derive meaning from them. Our perception is not purely based on the sensory input but is influenced by additional factors like the construction of the message (media, characteristics, language) and our social and cultural history (this influences the way we process information). Together, all of these variables lead to the final image we construct, our perception.
In science, we use two collective terms when talking about important elements that influence our perception.
- The structural influences consisting of physical aspects of the stimuli to which we are exposed. These structural influences are connected to our bodily functions. For example, think of the placement of three loose stripes on a piece of paper: the closer these lines are placed together, the quicker we create a shape by combining these stripes (we give meaning to them).
- Functional influences consisting of the psychological factors that influence our perception and are subjected to subjectivity
As we stated before, our cultural environment in which we live(d) or have been exposed to over longer periods of time during our formative years* influence the way we perceive the world. Hence, your cultural background is connected to your value-system and because of that, to the things that matter to you as a person. Most countries have two or more active and dominant value-systems. These value-systems can shift per generation and research has shown that these value-systems are valid indicators to predict future behaviour.
We are inclined (both consciously and consciously) to prefer brands that validate our own value-systems or that of the groups we are a part off and to avoid brands that contradict these systems. This phenomenon is called selective exposure.
There are a couple known cultural variables that influence perception globally, that influence the way we receive messages and influence our purchasing processes because of that:
Collectivism versus Individualism
The most well-known differentiation within our culture is that of collectivism versus individualism. This variable is often used in cross-cultural research to validate research.
In collective cultures, individuals usually prefer to focus on mutual relations and group goals. It is expected and preferred to put shared interests (those of the family, community or organisation) in front of any personal objectives. In individualistic cultures, however, individuals prefer independent relationships and will often place their personal agenda above that of the group.
These variables can be broken down further into horizontal and vertical cultures. Within horizontal individualistic cultures ( Sweden and Norway for example), people will prefer to place themselves on the same level as others in terms of status. The emphasis within these cultures is placed on conveying independence and personal unicity. Within vertical individualistic cultures (The United States or France for example), people are much more competitive and also tend to focus more on improving their own status compared to the status of people around them.
In collective and horizontal cultures (Egypt and the Kibbutz in Israel for instance), the focus lies on reciprocal dependence within an equalled environment. While within collective vertical cultures (Japan and India for example), people or more prone to improve the status of their groups in comparison to other groups (they aren’t part of). Without too much reserve, these group goals are placed above the goals of an individual.
There are several other broadly accepted variables with respect to cultural differentials. Risk aversion, masculinity and femininity, assertiveness versus insolence and allocentric versus idiocentric cultures. Al of these variables can vary in terms of importance per culture (western / non-western), per country and even per region (difference in weighting factor).
Since we have established that differences in our cultural contexts occur, it might prove to be valuable to translate these differences to our markets:
Imagine yourself being responsible for the marketing of a specific course. This course is about to be launched internationally and you have been made responsible for tailoring the campaign to both the French and Indian market. If you would take the cultural context into account, chances are that your campaign message will differ in both countries because of their cultural dispositions. It seems likely to focus on strengthening one’s knowledge and position towards peers in France while you would probably focus on strengthening the position of one’s family in India.
Another example: when you have innovated a product, you could prefer to introduce your new version to your target audience within a country that isn’t risk averse. The acceptance of new features will prove to be more difficult within a culture that doesn’t like change. On the other hand, conformality in terms of brand and product choices are the very example of a vertical hierarchy, because it shows respect towards known authorities.
Differences in language also stem from our cultural dispositions. Therefore, our behaviour is affected by linguistic differences and figures of speech, according to research from the University of California. The words we use to describe a situation, partly determine how they are perceived by individuals and the way a message is processed, is partly determined by our linguistic background. This means that our mother tongue shapes the way we think about many worldly aspects, like time.
A few last words on the subject
There is still a lot of research to be done when it comes to culture in light of consumer psychology. Culture appears to be hard to grasp and a lot of the theories we use within the fields of marketing and communication are based and tested within the US but have yet to be ratified in Europe or Asia. This means that the theories we were educated with, aren’t universal truths per se. Also, the weighting factors of the tested dimensions differ from country and even region. The question is if previous research can be validated scientifically. Psychometrics and big data might provide us with the much-needed evidence in cross-cultural research.
Your perception is not only influenced by your culture but is also formed by other social factors: the social environment in which you grew up, the opinions of friends and family during puberty, your lifecycle and the social environment you are exposed to during the time an intention for behaviour develops.
The social environment
You are subjected to innumerable attitudes of your environment during your upbringing. From the moment you are born, you are exposed to the conceptions of your parents, your family and others in your vicinity. These experiences help you assign meaning to social roles and norms. You learn how people should behave themselves in specific situations and how these groups you are part of perceive those situations in different ways. It shouldn’t surprise you that this affects the way we experience the world and our own value-systems.
The experiences you gained as an individual, influence the way you see the world and the values you assign to the things around you. While your formative years are characterised by your social and cultural context, your lifecycle is not bound to any specific periods of time. Intense experiences like parenthood, war, accidents, sickness and trauma can cause changes within your value-system. By example, a person with a preference to avoid risks can later crave hedonistic experiences because of a severe illness. As a consequence, you will be more open to stimuli that embody those desires or needs.
Another strong example of how we are influenced by our experiences in life is called the association of memories. This refers to our habit to associate stimuli with past experiences or to certain people. Associated memories help us define moments and emotions, at the moment we experience them and later on in our lives.
People in your vicinity
When there is an intent to behave in a certain manner, the people around us tend to influence the way we interpret stimuli. Research shows that buying behaviour is often partially dependent on the people you bring during the buying process if a decision hasn’t been made and communicated beforehand (in that case you will often see cognitive dissonance, which means that people will reject any information that contradicts the decision that’s already been made). Any organisation would be wise to identify the influencers and decision-makers within the buying process. One of the most successful recruitment campaigns of the Lidl addressed the parents of teens and not the teens they wanted to recruit because they realised that parents have a great influence on the attitudes of children when it comes to work.
Other functional influences
That brings us to the other influences that are key in our perception like motivation and mood. Both of these factors are more bound to time.
Our mood influences our perception because of the modulation of activity in our visual cortex. A positive mood means that we will be more acceptant to the stimuli that surround us than when we are in a negative mood. During our positive moods, we receive more global components of stimuli while we are more prone to the local component of visual stimuli when we are down or frustrated.
Our perception is also influenced by our intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The importance of the goals we set for ourselves strongly colour our perception. It has to do with the cultural and group aspects we mentioned earlier, like the desire to belong. Anyhow, as human beings we are constantly searching for aspects in the world that confirm our values and norms and we are always trying to avoid any stimuli that are detrimental to them.
The extent of our motivation can be partly influenced by the way we present stimuli to our target audience. Research has shown that purchasing desires can be boosted by presenting a mental simulation that visualises an interaction with a brand or product. A piece of apple pie is considered to be more appealing when we use an image of a fork close to a person’s hand. This triggers the thought of one taking the fork to eat that pie, thus stimulating the desire to eat it. These effects on visual orientation can be undone when the hands of the consumer aren’t empty during the moment of perception, due to the fact that the person can’t simulate the behaviour. All mental processes require a certain level of sensory simulation which will affect our motivation to behave in a certain way.
The way we perceive a situation is also based on the way we believe we can perform an intended action. For example, we will feel more energised when we believe we can fulfil our training and when we play soccer and it goes well, we will feel more in control over the game.
The use of structural influences in product development, marketing and communication are powerful tools to affect the perception of our target audiences in favour of our organisation. These stimuli are addressed more easily by organisations because of the natural processes involved.
One of the stimuli that is manageable, is the principle of contrast. We are programmed to focus on stimuli that represent change. Our senses and brain aren’t capable of processing all stimuli at the same time, which means that we filter information. Only part of the stimuli are fully processed, the rest of the stimuli are simply ignored, suppressed or actions are constrained. The use of elements to create a contrast focus on activating our senses. Take our vision, for instance, contrast can be created by the use of size, movement, intensity, colour and prevarication.
Besides the principle of contrast, companies can address multiple senses to further improve retention and guide perception. The clear benefit of sensory marketing is that we are able to address several receptors of our target audiences which increases the chance our information will be actively processed and retained by them. That’s not all, the products are also reviewed more strongly (positively or negatively).
* People normally have two formative periods in their lives. During these formative years, our surroundings have a profound influence in the way we think. Our first formative period starts at our birth and continues until our 10th year. During this time, we learn to adapt ourselves to the dominant culture that is taught to us by our grandparents and parents. In this formative period, we construct our own value-systems. An example of the transfer of values is the way parents divide childcare and work, their choices will influence the employment patterns of their children later in life. During the second formative period, teenagers become more sensitive to the influences of their environment when it comes to (amongst others) values and culture. That second period starts around the age of 13 and will take until they reach the age of 23. Attitudes during this period are developed, adjusted or are set aside, thus creating a fairly stable outlook in life that will be sustained during their remaining lives.