The Influence of Shape on Product Preferences

Marvin Berkowitz, Fairfield University
ABSTRACT - This paper explores the mechanism by which an easy-to-spot attribute such as shape can be used to infer more important but less easy-to-spot attributes, such as comfort or freshness, and lead to a product preference. Evidence over the past 30 years (Cox 1962; Monroe and Krishnan 1984, etc.) shows that consumers employ readily identifiable cues such as price, brand, country of origin, sound, color, packaging, touch, smell, to infer quality. Although design is usually fundamental to the aesthetic, functional and structural characteristics of products, there is limited research on how shape triggers preference decisions.
[ to cite ]:
Marvin Berkowitz (1987) ,"The Influence of Shape on Product Preferences", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 559.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Page 559

THE INFLUENCE OF SHAPE ON PRODUCT PREFERENCES

Marvin Berkowitz, Fairfield University

ABSTRACT -

This paper explores the mechanism by which an easy-to-spot attribute such as shape can be used to infer more important but less easy-to-spot attributes, such as comfort or freshness, and lead to a product preference. Evidence over the past 30 years (Cox 1962; Monroe and Krishnan 1984, etc.) shows that consumers employ readily identifiable cues such as price, brand, country of origin, sound, color, packaging, touch, smell, to infer quality. Although design is usually fundamental to the aesthetic, functional and structural characteristics of products, there is limited research on how shape triggers preference decisions.

The specific issue examined was consumer reaction to a foot product - frozen corn on the cob of two shapes: full ears with squared-off ends as are now sold in supermarkets, and full ears with untried ends as corn more or less comes naturally from the husks. Two hypotheses were posited: (I) The more natural shape would be preferred; (2) Preference levels would vary with involvement and experience with the product category. In effect, the hypotheses represented presumptions by an innovating foot processor about the opportunity for capturing increased concerns toward nutrition and physical fitness. One third of U.S. households use the frozen product so there is substantial potential for market expansion.

The experimental design involved paired comparison tests at laboratory kitchens in enclosed malls and sequential monadic tests in subsequent home placements. Telephone call back interviews were employed. Test panelists included 288 female homemakers, aged 25-59 from two east coast cities: 184 currently purchased the frozen variety and 102 women bought only the fresh.

The findings shoved a marked preference for the untrimmed shape as had been hypothesized. Preference ratios (PRs) comparing preference scores for the rounded untrimmed shape to those for the squared off shape were:

-Laboratory test -- 1.1:1 frozen users; 2.0:1 fresh only

-Home placement -- 1.8:1 frozen users; 2.2:1 fresh only

The results were statistically significant at the 1% level. Nearly four out of five consumers said the reason for their choice in the home test was better taste, about half said the untrimmed was a more natural product, and half reported better texture. Visual appeal or a more pleasing shape, per se, were very minor motivations. Ratings on ten attributes shoved the basis of consumer preference in a more systematic way. Overall preference ratios were: more like fresh - 3.2; more natural 3.1; taste/flavor - 2.3; quality -- 2.3; size -- 1.7; texture -- 1.5; shape - 1.5; appearance - 1.1. Panelists did not misperceive criteria like ease of preparation (PR - 1.0), and ease of holding (PR - 0.8) for which shape had objectively little impact. In each case the no preference group was below 102. In general, fresh only users were more inclined to the untrimmed shape than frozen users with PRs of 3.9 compared to 3.0 on the criteria of being "more like fresh" and "more natural."

Correlation coefficients between attribute preference ratings shoved the most consistent and strongest interactions (r's of 0.5 to 0.8) are those between taste, quality, in home preference, texture, more natural, and more like fresh. These were variables identified in prior research co be discriminating product features.

The most likely explanation for the results is perceptual categorization (see Bettman 1979; Wilkie 1986) in which shape served as a cue to identify and place the test items in familiar categories. When panelists compared the feature cue of product shape against categories in their long term memories, they perceived that corn should have untrimmed ends. The test item that did not have this feature was just not "real" corn and hence was categorized as more processed. From their cognitive structure of natural and processed products, panelists then brought forth expectations that the more natural looking product was fresher, hence tastes better and has a better texture, and perhaps is more associated with fun experiences such as summer family barbecues when fresh corn was served or with certain hedonic or "treat" aspects of nibbling corn off a crunchy cob. The data seem to indicate a chain of interrelated inferences rather than a single direct linkage. This explanation seems especially appropriate for the observed differences between frozen users and panelists having little or no involvement with the frozen variety. A variety of studies (e.g., reported on by Matlin 1983) document that consumers weigh impressions from many sense modalities in making food preferences and that human perceptions of taste are not very discriminating between stimuli.

As a theoretical contribution, the findings indicate that attribute(s) communicated, and presumably noticed, may not be considered by consumers to be discriminating in themselves, but rather the attribute(s) this triggers may be considered to be discriminating. The data show that it is not necessary for there co be a high statistical correlation between linked attributes as Huber and McCann (1982) had proposed as a condition for attribute inference. The correlations between shape and taste, quality and preference are all below 0.4. The strength of the link simply appears to correspond to how directly allied the triggered attribute is to the meaning of the accessed attribute, as suggested by Hansen and Zinkham (1984).

The study's implications are for product design and marketing communication. Indications are that new packaged products incorporating more natural shapes or motifs are likely to achieve some success. However, media scripts focusing on shape may not score highly since this cue is not perceived as having much value in itself, but rather in the attributes it triggers.

REFERENCES

Bettman, James R. (1979), An Information Processing Theory of Consumer Choice, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.

Cox, Donald F. (1962), "The Measurement of Informational Value: A Study in Consumer Decision Making," in W. S. Decker (Ed.) Emerging Concepts in Marketing, Chicago: American Marketing Association, 413-421.

Hansen, Chris J. and George M. Zinkham (1984) "When Do Consumers Infer Product Attribute Values" in Thomas Kinnear (Ed.), Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 11, Association for Consumer Research, 187-192.

Huber, Joel and McCann, John (1982), "The Impact of Inferential Beliefs on Product Evaluations," Journal of Marketing Research, 19 (August), 324-333.

Matlin, Margaret (1983), Perception, Newton, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Monroe, Rent B. and R. Krishnan (1984), "The Effect of Price on Subjective Price Evaluations," in J. Jacoby and J. Olson (Eds.), Consumer Merchandise and Store Quality, Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath.

Wilkie, William L. (1986), Consumer Behavior, New York: John Wiley.

----------------------------------------