If you have an iPhone, look at it, then pick it up. Depending on the model, you might notice something unusual: The phone has a white, plasticky appearance, but the heft and cool touch of metal. This is something that researchers call “sensory disconfirmation”—when your senses interpret an object in conflicting ways. In this case, your eyes expect plastic but your hands get sturdy metal. According to a new study, this weird sensory mismatch is something that certain companies should exploit.
Like people, companies have personalities, and one of their major traits is being seen as either innovative or sincere. For example, consumers think of brands such as Apple, Virgin, and MTV as exciting and innovative. Others, such as Ford and Hallmark, are seen as sincere and down-to-earth. Researchers Theodore Noseworthy and Aparna Sundar wanted to know how a brand’s personality interacts with sensory disconfirmation, because companies sometimes use sensory mismatch as a marketing tool to make people more interested in their products. In a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, the researchers looked at whether it’s always a good idea to make products mess with people’s senses, or if it only works for certain companies.
In a series of four experiments, Noseworthy and Sundar tested how people react to sensory mismatches between sight and touch for exciting vs. sincere brands. (Sensory mismatches can apply to all human senses, but the researchers chose sight and touch because they’re the most common way that people perceive new products). They invented several fake brands and had more than 1,000 participants interact with the companies’ products—bags of coffee, board games, gourmet popcorn, and smartphone cases and accessories. Sometimes the look and feel of the products matched up, while other times the products felt higher or lower quality than they appeared. The researchers also gave the brands personalities by asking participants to read a website or pamphlet that portrayed the companies as either innovative or sincere (although they did use two real companies, Apple and Nokia, as brands for the fake smartphone products).
For instance, in one experiment, Noseworthy and Sundar manipulated participants to think that a company was either innovative or sincere, then gave them a tube of gourmet popcorn. For both the sincere and innovative company, participants got either a tube that felt and looked like plastic; a tube that seemed plastic but had a cool, heavy aluminum finish; or a tube that looked plastic but was made of thin, cheap paper. Afterward, the researchers asked people whether they would buy the product.
Through these experiments, the researchers observed that people reacted in different ways to a sensory mismatch, depending on a brand’s personality. Sensory mismatches worked poorly for sincere brands—people were less willing to buy those products, even if they were higher quality than they appeared (like the popcorn tube made of aluminum). For innovative brands, the researchers found just the opposite: People always preferred products with sensory mismatches, even if it meant that the product was poorer quality (like the tube of popcorn made of flimsy paper, or a plastic-looking smartphone case made of rough cardboard).
Noseworthy and Sundar wanted to know why they were seeing this seemingly irrational behavior, so they tested for that, too. They asked people to fill out a questionnaire, rating how authentic the sincere and innovative brands were behaving with their products. They discovered that people’s preferences were directly linked to perceived authenticity. For example, they found that with a sincere brand, people thought products with a sensory match (like a plastic iPhone case that looks plastic) were more authentic for that brand. The opposite was true for innovative brands.
The takeaway: People expect companies with certain personalities to behave in specific ways, and they don’t like it when companies act differently. “When consumers see a product as part of a brand’s behavior, you get these weird interactions where they care more about what they expect these brands to do than the product itself,” explains Noseworthy, an associate professor of marketing at York University. We prefer an innovative brand like Apple or Virgin to do wild, exciting things, and we want sincere companies like Nokia and Hallmark to stay predictable, even if it means we get an inferior product. It’s just more authentic—it fits with how we expect the world to work. (One caveat though: The study found that these strange preferences disappear when consumers judge the core qualities of a product. They prefer higher-quality materials, regardless of brand personality, if they think it will affect how well a product works, such as an iPhone made of aluminum vs. cardboard fiber.)
This study has a valuable—albeit counterintuitive—lesson for companies, especially today. “When the marketplace is so full, organizations are looking for anything that can inspire consumers,” says Darren Dahl, a professor marketing at the University of British Columbia (who wasn’t involved in this study). And ironically, that may mean companies with a sincere personality should stay true to their brand and avoid using sensory mismatches. “Even if they try to be incredibly innovative, they might not win,” Noseworthy says. And innovative companies could potentially exploit people’s senses to their benefit. “As long as they’re doing something exciting,” he says, “They don’t actually have to make their product better.” Strangely enough, the rest of us won’t mind a bit.