University of Pittsburgh
December 5, 2011

Pitt Professor Is Part of Study That Finds Highly Crafted Packaging May Sell Products but Also Leads to Lower Long-Term Sales

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PITTSBURGH—While ornate packaging and product names may help sell merchandise, a new research study finds that packaging also can lead consumers to use less of a product, ultimately reducing long-term sales.

The study—from a team comprising J. Jeffrey Inman, associate dean for research and faculty and Albert Wesley Frey Professor of Marketing in the University of Pittsburgh’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration, and researchers at Johns Hopkins and Brigham Young universities—found that prominent cues in advertising and packaging can create a “double-edged sword,” where an increase in the product’s perceived efficiency drives consumers to use the product less after their initial purchase.J. Jeffrey Inman

The paper, titled “The ‘Double-edged Sword’ of Signaling Effectiveness: When Salient Cues Curb Post-Purchase Consumption,” was published online in November and is scheduled for the February 2012 print edition of the Journal of Marketing Research.

“People look for cues and make inferences about the effectiveness of a product by things like brand names and product pictures,” Inman said. “We’re finding time and time again that people tend to laser in on the conspicuous information, but this study shows that that might not necessarily mean increased revenue.” 

The research involved six experiments conducted with students from three U.S. universities. The aim was to determine how various packaging cues influenced perceptions of the effectiveness and subsequent use of three products—a teeth-whitening rinse, an insect repellant, and a toilet-bowl cleaner.

In the experiment with the teeth whitener, participants were shown two packages—one depicting a smiling face with a glittering smile and the other with no picture. While a significantly high number of the respondents said they perceived the product with the smiling face as more effective, they indicated that they would use it at a rate 42 percent below that of the product with no picture. Similarly, a bug repellant packaged with a picture of a dead bug was judged more effective than one with a live bug on the box; yet the participants predicted they would use less of the dead-bug product, compared with the live-bug product they had deemed less powerful.

The study also found the same thought processes emerged when brand names were involved. Participants were asked to consider two fictitious toilet-bowl cleaners: BalanceClean and BalanceGreen. The product with “Clean” in its name was viewed as more effective, but its predicted use was 20 percent below that of the cleaner carrying the “Green” brand.

Just how susceptible consumers are to marketing cues depends on their desire for a cognitive understanding of a product before making a purchase, Inman said. Shoppers with a low cognitive need generally don’t seek out detailed information about a product and are more easily swayed by cues of its effectiveness. In contrast, individuals with a high need for cognitive understanding are less likely influenced by such signals.

In the article, the researchers offer possible business solutions to their findings, such as employing packaging cues that stimulate purchase without strongly implying effectiveness or using effectiveness cues in advertisements and outer packaging but removing them from the bottle or tube that contains the product.

Inman said to fully understand consumer choice, businesses need to examine the consumption process. 

“People don’t want to read directions on products,” Inman said. “When they are shopping, consumers look for salient cues and information that is easy to find and process. How that information is presented impacts consumer behavior and product sales.”

 For a link to a pdf of the article, visit www.journals.marketingpower.com/doi/pdf/10.1509/jmr.09.0531.

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