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San Diego State University

Fowler College of
Business Administration

Consumer Perceptions of Marketing Information Are Shaped by Unexpected Sources

When you see an image of a frog, what do you think of? "That generally depends on your existing knowledge structure and the level at which you associate that existing knowledge to the image," said San Diego State marketing professor, Dr. Claudiu Dimofte.

Dimofte and Dr. Richard Yalch, a marketing professor at the University of Washington, have conducted research on how consumers respond to product images and brand names when they were affiliated with familiar concepts that were not directly related to the product or brand. Some of their findings on what they termed "the mere association effect" were published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology in 2011.

The Frog and the Boy

Two wine bottles: one depicting a frog, the other a boy

Take the image of the frog, for example. Two wine bottles – alike in every way, except for the labels – were shown to a group of undergraduate students. One bottle had the image of a frog on its label and the other had a label with an image of a boy stomping grapes. Subsets of participants were then exposed, respectively, to a neutral word (airplane), a word affiliated with the label image (boy or frog), or a word associated with frogs – one positively (Kermit) and one negatively (warts). Participants were then asked to name their wine preference between the initial two bottles. Students exposed to the unrelated word airplane split in their choice (as random choice would suggest), while most of the students exposed to the word frog or boy expectedly chose the wines with labels representing those respective images. However, those exposed to the word warts perceived the wine with the frog label as "bad" and avoided it, while those exposed to the word Kermit made a positive association instead and favored it. Of course, the label on the bottle had objectively nothing to do with the quality of the wine itself, but participants' previous knowledge of frog-related words unconsciously impacted their attitudes toward the product.

Words that Sound Alike

Dimofte and Yalch also pursued research that found consumers to associate unrelated words with brand names that sounded similar to draw possibly unwarranted conclusions. For example, consumers "would build an undesirable association between mayonnaise and unhealthiness when primed with the Mayo Clinic name – a concept associated with illness and disease," said Dimofte.

Tricky Brand Names

In another experiment, the researchers exposed undergraduate students to words that were also brand names to determine how they felt about the brand after reading a seemingly unrelated article. In this case, half of the students read an article about the fast-moving waters of the Mississippi delta and the other half read an identical article referring to the fast-moving waters of the mouth of the Mississippi. They were all then asked to judge the seemingly unrelated speed of the beverage service on Delta Airlines flights, which "was judged to be quicker by participants exposed to the article on the fast water of the river delta compared to those who read the article about the river mouth," said Dimofte.

However, a similar question referring to the perceived speed of the water flow in Delta brand faucets found that speed perceptions did not differ regardless of which article was read. According to the researchers, for the mere association effect to emerge, the categories involved have to be explicitly unrelated. Since in the faucet case the water flow concept was relatively similar to that of the river, the effect was eliminated.

Our automatic recognition of brands and images suggests that mental associations are often spontaneous, uncontrolled, and prompted by unexpected sources

To understand this distinction, consider a more famous illustration of the mere association effect – the Armstrong illusion. Most people respond to the question of "What was the famous line uttered by Louis Armstrong when he first set foot on the moon?" with something along the lines of "one small step for man…" even when they know that Louis Armstrong was a jazz musician who never flew into space and it was in fact Neil Armstrong who uttered those words. The results of Dimofte and Yalch's experiment indicate that the mere association-induced illusion would not occur if Louis Armstrong had instead been another famous astronaut.

In conclusion, the researchers found that the use of brand names that are identical or sound similar can be impacted negatively or positively depending on consumers' available knowledge base and mental associations. The same is true of images used to brand products. "Our automatic recognition of brands and images suggests that mental associations are often spontaneous, uncontrolled, and prompted by unexpected sources," said Dimofte. "The findings support the increasing amount of consumer research that examines attitude formation based on consumers' own mental associations to specific brands or companies."