Psychology-Driven Brand Design. Creating and Refining Remarkable Brand Identities.

The Secret Life of Sensations: How Design Affects Perception

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The Psychology of Sensation

Picture this. You walk into a room, empty except for a table with two bowls on it. One bowl is blue, the other red. Both are filled with peanuts. A man walks in and asks you to sample peanuts from each bowl for a taste test. You quickly agree (you did skip lunch, after all) and proceed to sample from each bowl. Afterward, the man asks you which bowl of peanuts was saltier. You’ll probably say the blue one. Which bowl was sweeter? Most likely you will answer red. He then tells you the peanuts were actually identical. And then he morphs into Laurence Fishburne right before your eyes. Just kidding about Mr. Fishburne, but thanks to psychological testing the rest has been found true.

A British man by the name of Charles Spence has dedicated his life to such studies. Spence is a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, and among his other sensory experiments (like showing how the same chips can taste different based only on the sound of their crunch), Spence has found that the color blue can make food seem to taste saltier. The color red, on the other hand, makes food seem to taste sweeter.

Charles Spence has proven our perception of taste can be heavily influenced by our other senses, but before Spence there was Louis Cheskin. Cheskin, a psychologist in the mid 1900s, observed that people’s perceptions of products were directly influenced by the aesthetic design. He coined a new phrase for this occurrence — sensation transference — and used his findings to help huge brands like Ford, General Mills, Walt Disney, and McDonalds become more profitable.

Sensation Transference Defined

Sensation transference is a fancy term for the unconscious assessment people make about a product based on how the item looks, not on the actual item itself.

We do this all the time with people, even if we won’t admit it out loud. An attractive person wearing an expensive suit is often perceived as more intelligent, whether true or not. A nearby unkempt person dressed in raggedy jeans and a hoodie? Less so. In other words, we often judge books by their covers. (Shame on us all!)

Sensation Transference at Work

Coca-Cola: When Coke sold their soda in a white can instead of red in support of saving the endangered polar bears, the company faced an unexpected backlash. Many loyal customers swore Coke had changed the formula, when in fact only the color of the can was different. Just the small change in the color of the packaging made it taste different to some people.

Margarine: Louis Cheskin, Mr. Sensation Transference himself, is the reason why margarine is yellow and comes wrapped in foil. In the 1940s, margarine was not as popular with the dairy- buying public as butter was. By conducting experiments with regular folks instead of carefully selected focus groups, he found that if he colored the white margarine yellow (like butter), people could not discern a difference in taste. Packaging the product in foil enhanced the perceived quality of margarine and sales skyrocketed.

7Up: Here’s the amazing Cheskin hard at work again. He tested variations of the can color and found that by making the 7Up can more yellow people could suddenly taste more lemon in the drink.

Nombre Noir: Known as one of the five great perfumes of the world, Nombre Noir also became famous for its breakthrough packaging. “… the most unremittingly, sleekly, maniacally luxurious packaging you could imagine…” For a mere $5,000 (no, I’m not kidding) you can purchase two ounces of the sensational scent on eBay. No doubt, just the sight of the black octagonal glass bottle would make anyone feel more sophisticated. Now just imagine if it were in a nondescript clear plastic container on a shelf at Walmart with a $19 price tag. Would the average Joe even bat an eye? Probably not. Sometimes packaging really can make all the difference.

The Art of Sensation Transference

Sensation transference is the reason you should spend money on design, especially if you sell a high-end product or service.

Why? Because it’s a largely unconscious process we can’t help but do, even when we are aware we are doing it.

Cheskin addresses this issue directly in his book, Color for Profit. One of the three premises he discusses revolves around the idea that asking customers what they think about packaging is useless. Instead, you should always look at their behavior, which is where unconscious reactions are truly revealed. In other words, nobody is immune to advertising, even those who think they are.

Think about it. Why do name brand products outsell generic, even if the difference in the product itself is negligible? Part of the reason is that we are familiar with the bigger brands and therefore have more trust in them, but sensation transference is a big reason why, as well. Our minds perceive fancier packaging contains a more quality product, regardless of whether the formulas or ingredients are the same.

Make the Senses Work for You

If you sell a product, put considerable effort into determining what its packaging should be. If you have the resources to conduct market research or user studies, do it. It may be more important to your bottom line than you ever thought.

This should also make apparent the clear value of design in every visual related to your business, not just the physical packaging. Your logo and marketing collateral are practically begging for a taste of sensation transference.

Like it or not, always remember that 1) people are going to be judging your product first based on how it looks, and 2) they’re paying for the experience of buying and using your product, not just the product itself.

Psychology Today

Understanding the “why” behind the buy is one of the most critical things you can do for your business and sensation transference is another tool you can use to build a successful brand and marketing strategy.

Picture of Nyla Smith

Nyla Smith

Nyla is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, Front-End Web Developer and Consultant with over 15 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton Roads, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support and brand consulting to small- and medium-sized businesses needing creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.

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