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How our perception of similarity affects decision making

Zachary Estes

The way that consumers perceive the similarities between different subjects may be an important part of the way they decide to buy particular products according to research being conducted by Professor Zachary Estes at the University of Warwick.

Previously, it was believed people would view two subjects' similarity as being based on their features, so cats and dogs are viewed as being similar because they're both four-legged and furry. However, throw a bone into the mix and many people will now see the dog as having a stronger relationship to the bone than the cat, because of their relational similarities.

This could have implications for business in a variety of ways. In retail for example, stocking snacks like peanuts and crisps close to beer could spur consumers to purchase both products. This is already beginning to happen in some supermarkets by intuition, with such things as meal deals where a drink, snack and a sandwich can be purchased together at discount.

Featural and Relational decision making

Zachary adds: "People consistently go by either relations, or features. People don't switch back and forth very often. What businesses could use this for is to target their marketing to types of audiences or markets that are either featural or relational."

This can also apply to businesses which can look at possible relationships with other companies outside their sector.

Zachary explains: "What might be useful for a company is to look into other domains that are thematically related to their own domain of products or services. In that case, they're not direct competitors but they might find other companies that are complementary to their own products."

"If those two companies were to cooperate with one another, they could produce new products that are giving people emergent benefits and generating a lot of new customers that they wouldn’t get if they were stuck in their own domain."

Apple and Nike

One such example is a collaboration between Apple and Nike. People like to listen to music while jogging, so the two companies worked together to develop an accessory for the iPod that attaches to your Nike trainers to record data and supply instant feedback about your work out.

This can also extend beyond products to services such as those making use of GPS and camera technology in smart mobile phones to geographically tag a photograph's location.

In a world where these interactive digital technologies and media are increasingly more prevalent, these similarities are likely to become more important. According to Zachary, thematic relations are established through interactions and conversation.

“The more interactions we're getting between individuals, audiences, suppliers and consumers, the more those relations are going to be important for how we produce things and how we consume things.”

More information:

  • New Scientist "Beware words that prompt mental images" (24 February 2008)
  • Marketing Week "The power of brand association" (1 October 2008)
  • Business Week "Making marketing a piece of cake (17 October 2008)