In our second exclusive interview with Gordy Pleyers, Professor of Neuromarketing at the University of Louvain in Belgium, scientific expert in consumer influence and coordinator of Mind Insights*, he addresses the impact of congruent design on luxury consumers — an issue that is also the focus of one of his recent studies.
Should product design be seen in its entirety, in other words as a combination of its different constitutive elements?
Absolutely. Beyond the direct impact that various design elements can have (which could very well be the focus of future interviews), our studies increasingly point to the importance of also considering these elements in relation to each other. This is based on scientific evidence that consumer reactions can also be the result of how different elements react to each other. In other words, the impact of each design component may depend on the surrounding components. These interactions bring up the crucial issue of congruence between the constitutive elements of a product’s packaging. In this regard, over the past few years, several studies have emphasized that different elements may be congruent or incongruent in relation to each other, and that any form of incongruence can have a detrimental effects on consumer perceptions.
What types of incongruence in packaging design are you referring to?
Incongruence can relate to all combinations of different packaging elements. One of my latest projects focused on the impact of congruence between a bottle’s shape and the shape of its label. This study was conducted in a laboratory setting and examined consumers’ non-conscious reactions to products — including wines, spirits and fragrance — whose design combined a clearly angular or rounded bottle and label. These products were part of a series of four design options that varied exclusively according to the bottle shape and the label shape with everything else on ‘equal ground’ in order to avoid the influence of other variables that could affect consumers’ reactions and undermine the study’s validity. For example, within each series, the products had an identical color, bottle closure, aspect ratio (the proportional relationship between width and height), perceived volume, etc. The products were also given equivalent fictitious names that were in line with the various criteria.
The results show that shape-congruent variants, for example, where bottle and label are both either angular or rounded, are associated with a more positive affective reaction and a greater activation of trust-related perceptions for the consumer.
What are the implications of this research?
As a researcher, I am mostly interested in the “theoretical level”, in developing our understanding of the underlying processes between the influencing factor (in this case, shape congruence) and the resulting impacts. In this regard, the findings are in line with what we call a “processing fluency” theory. Simply put, this means that the consumers’ positive reactions are explained by the fact that congruent designs are “more fluent”; they are easier for the brain to process. Scientific research shows that the higher fluency of a stimulus is subjectively experienced as something positive.
What lessons should brands take away from this?
In this case, the study reveals that shape congruence can positively affect two key determinants of marketing and sales success, namely the non-conscious emotional reaction and feeling of trust towards the product. It strongly suggests that visual congruence between design elements such as the shape of the primary pack and the label shape will best impact consumers’ genuine responses to their products.
In a recently published article you wrote of the risks of incongruent design.
Indeed, just browsing retailers' physical stores and online boutiques highlight that incongruent product designs are far from uncommon. This is in part because designers can deliberately use incongruent design in a bid to stand out from the numerous products on shelf competing for the consumer’s attention. Yet this strategy finds little support in scientific studies, which provide no evidence of the positive impact of incongruence between design elements when it comes to attention capture. Brands need to be warned that using incongruence in product design might well be linked to less positive impacts when it comes to consumers’ non-conscious reactions.
*Mind Insights is a scientific organization driven by university professors that conducts exclusive studies for both scientific purposes and for corporate clients.