In the 1940s, Louis Cheskin’s tests on unconscious thinking in consumer psychology formed many of the marketing principles around colour and packaging. Although his findings are still widely accepted today, his lessons continue to evade many businesses, large and small. There’s more to your product than just your product.

One of Cheskin’s key theories was ‘sensation transference’. Few of us make a distinction on an unconscious level between the product and it’s packaging. The packaging forms part of the product and in fact becomes the product, meaning the customer judges the qualities of that product based on their preference and opinion of the packaging, and make their purchase decision accordingly.

What specifically happens in sensation transference is that the customer transfers the sensation from the package (or price, brand, etc.) to the product on a subconscious level. They’re not aware that they are doing it. If you ask a respondent to explain why they favour one product over the other, they’ll attempt to give you a rational explanation behind their decision, unbeknown to them that the packaging is having a significant impact on their judgment. One sensation (i.e. sight) informs our judgment on other senses (in the case of food, taste). Whilst more of us are aware of the impact of advertising and branding than we were 60 years ago, the majority of us still don’t appreciate how much of an impact packaging has on our judgment. A bit like wine and the placebo effect, the more expensive the wine is, the better it tastes.

Cheskin conducted many tests to prove this theory. My favourite example is the margarine test. He was commissioned by Imperial margarine to find out why housewives were shunning the product. In the 1940s margarine was unpopular with the US public who didn’t view it as an equivalent or a substitute for butter, but rather an altogether different and inferior category of product. At the time, margarine was white, and Cheskin hypothesised that this was the key feature holding back margarine sales. In a series of ‘luncheon tests’ with groups of women, Cheskin gave respondents a pat of butter and a pat of margarine, but switched the colours (butter white, margarine yellow). Participants were not told that they were testing margarine, they were simply invited to an event with speakers. At the end of the event, the women were asked to rate the speakers and the food. 97% of participants claimed that a pat of white butter tasted ‘oily like margarine’ and a pat of yellow margarine ‘tasted like butter’.1

Another great example of sensation transference is a more recent one, conducted by the Cheskin Company.2 One brandy producer, Christian Brothers, commissioned research to understand why they were losing market share to a competitor, E&J. There was little price difference and the levels of exposure in advertising and shelf space was similar, so there was no clear marketing differentiating factor for why they were losing the share to their rival.

Cheskin set-up blind taste tests and the two brandies came out the same. They then ran the same test with a different group of people, this time informing the participants which brandy was Christian Brothers and which was E&J. This time, Christian Brothers comes out on top, meaning that their branding and name has a positive effect (from their perspective) in sensation transference. Next they ran the same test with a different group of people, but this time the product bottles are in the background. Now E&J comes out on top. So the product is not the problem and neither is the brand, which tested positively. The problem is the bottle. Sensation transference worked in Christian Brothers’ favour when the brand was the subject of transfer, but when the bottle is introduced, participants favoured E&J.

Though many marketers accept this principle, even companies with giant marketing departments and budgets make huge errors by ignoring it. The New Coke disaster in the 80s is a prime example. Most of us know the story. The mess that Coke got themselves into was through their obsession with the Pepsi Challenge and blind taste tests. If Coke had taken a more measured approach similar to the one taken by Christian Brothers, they may have come to a conclusion that didn’t lead to New Coke. If Coke had (a) taste tested with the whole can rather than one sip and (b) compared the blind tests with those that included the brand and packaging, they’d have found that the perception of the product quality would differ to the one recorded in the Pepsi Challenge, and that maybe they weren’t in such a bad position as the taste test suggested. We don’t blind taste test products in the real world, we live with several other senses that effect our judgment and perception of quality.

Sensation Transference in the digital environment

Sensation transference doesn’t play a greater role today in a digital environment than it did in the past, but because there are fewer sensations in play when browsing takes place online rather than in the flesh, those sensation elements which remain are even more critical in customer response and attitude towards the brand and product.

I regularly find myself, if not swayed, certainly drawn to books on Amazon with a beautiful looking cover and a clean ‘look inside’. It affects my judgment on the content of the book and whether to buy it. It shouldn’t; I shouldn’t use the visual as a judgment, logically, there’s unlikely to be any correlation between a fancy looking cover and the value of the content inside, but nevertheless it has an impact on my purchase decision.

For small businesses, there’s a chance that the user is visiting your website for the first time and has little or no knowledge of you and your product. When they land on the site, bang! Sensation transference happens. The quality of what you do is judged in a second. This applies whether they land on the homepage or a product page. The website essentially represents your packaging in this scenario. How does a small business test whether the packaging is working for them (and the brand for that matter)?

This isn’t about conversion rate optimisation. Conversion rate optimisation is about the psychological cues involved in a user’s behaviour on a website and how we can encourage them to take certain actions. Yes, we have goals and calls to action that we’d like users to hit when they visit a certain page or section of our site, but this doesn’t give us an indication of how they judge our product and what we could change to improve that judgment.

How small businesses test sensation transference

Ongoing a/b testing is a fantastic way to improve conversions and sales, but if you’re a small business, you don’t tend to have the traffic levels required to test live user behaviour. That doesn’t mean small businesses with low website traffic can’t test, but you need to be a little more creative in your approach.

Small businesses can’t run expensive, externally managed market research. What they can do is use crowdsourced platforms like CrowdFlower or MechanicalTurk, in conjunction with tools like SurveyMonkey and UsabilityHub to conduct market research at a fraction of the price required for traditional market research. For a $500 budget, you could get approximately 300 decent quality respondents, broadly matching a required demographic, to feedback on your website. Form hypotheses about what would improve the user perception of your product/business and test different variations with different groups when compared against your competitor websites. If you have some basic photoshop skills, you don’t need any designer or developer involvement in this project.

Now that the tools are available for anyone to test sensation transference on their website, what hypothesis can you start with? Remember, testing doesn’t mean asking questions, it means testing attitudes and behaviours, identifying how changes to your website affect a consumer’s association with the product and their buying behaviour. Each website is different, but here are a selection of areas that you can test based on the assumption that you are working with three groups of 100 participants, each matching the same demographic profile:

1) Testing Price

Price is a traditional area of testing, but it’s often not tested effectively. We either assume that we need to be priced below the competition, or, we want to be priced at a premium, but we don’t know how much of a premium. Will price affect customer perception of your product? Present your product page to participants, along with two of your competitors. In the first example drop your price to the lowest. Next go 5% to 10% above the highest price. You could also leave the price blank, then give the participant a multiple choice, how much should this product be? You can change the variables here, but you get the idea.

Alternatively, don’t show the user your competitor’s price point. Just ask them how much they’d pay for it. E.g. first group, would you pay $5 for this. Second group, would you pay $10 for this? Third group, would you pay $15 for this. You may find that more people would buy the product if it was priced at $10 than $5, because it creates a more positive perception of the product.

2) Brand colours

You can test your brand colours, or any other colours on your website for that matter. Simply change the colours for each of the tests, and see if participant perception of your brand differs significantly between colours.

3) Banner and display advertising

If you run display ads on your website, do they have an impact on the participants’ perception of your business? Maybe the difference in perception is negligible, in which case the increased revenue through advertising is worth the minor impact on customer perception. Or perhaps the difference in perception between your page with and without display ads is stark, in which case you need to rethink whether the advertising revenue merits the negative impact.

4) Pop-up boxes

I personally hate pop-up boxes, but, if they improve conversions and don’t have a negative impact on the customer’s perception of you and your product, as a marketer you’d be a fool not to use them. Measure your web page with and without them.

5) Volume of content on the site

How much is too much content on a product page? Does the volume have an impact on sensation transference. Test it.

6) Additional product ranges

Does the appearance and availability of different product ranges impact the perception your customer has of your core product range? If you sell women’s skincare products, would the availability of a mens range have an impact on customer perception of your brand and products?

7) Videos and images

Do images of people using your product have an impact? If you work in B2B, does video have an impact, do certain faces create a different impression than others?

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Hat tip to Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. A fantastic book on the power of the unconscious where many of these ideas originated.

1Cheskin, L. (1957). How to predict what people will buy. New York: Liveright

2You can read more on this story in Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, or in the Total Package by Thomas Hine which also contains several other sensation transference tests conducted by Cheskin