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Professor Kelly Goldsmith has found that consumers are more willing to switch their preference from a low-status brand — for example, Kmart camping gear — to an extension of a premium brand that isn’t a natural fit for the product category — for example, Speedo camping gear.

Professor Kelly Goldsmith

Why visual cues in store environments matter

Assistant Professor Kelly Goldsmith finds that cues within stores influence how consumers choose products

By Jonathan Muller

5/14/2012 - New research suggests that adding visual cues, such as pictures of different products on store displays, to shopping environments can persuade consumers to purchase low-fit products from high-quality brands.

For high-fit brand extensions like the Amazon Kindle or the Apple iPhone, the new product or service seems like a logical extension of the brand’s current offerings. However, many firms seek to leverage successful brands by introducing new products into more distal product categories. This approach opens the question of how brands can increase the likelihood that such extensions will be accepted by consumers.

“It has long been agreed upon that both the quality of the parent brand, and the fit between the brand and the extension category, are important factors in determining consumers’ acceptance of new brand extensions,” said Assistant Professor of Marketing Kelly Goldsmith, the study’s co-author. “But while we knew quality and fit were critical factors, we could not say if there were certain contexts in which fit (versus quality) would be more important for consumers.”

Goldsmith and her colleagues find that visual cues, such as simple pictures of the product, can change the factors that consumers rely on when evaluating brand extensions. Specifically, these cues shift consumers’ focus to the quality of the parent brand and away from the fit of the brand with the extension.

The article, “The Importance of the Context in Brand Extension: How Pictures and Comparisons Shift Consumers’ Focus from Fit to Quality,” will be published in a forthcoming issue of Journal of Marketing Research. The research is co-authored by Tom Meyvis of New York University and Ravi Dhar of the Yale School of Management.

In one experiment, Goldsmith, Meyvis and Dhar asked their participants to make a series of choices between two products in the same category (i.e., two deodorants) that differed only on brand. Each pairing had a high-quality, low-fit brand extension (i.e., Nike deodorant) and a high-fit, low-quality brand extension (i.e., CVS deodorant). In the control condition, the participants were shown the brand logo only (i.e., Nike and CVS), whereas in the picture condition, participants were shown the brand logos and a picture of the product (i.e., a stick of deodorant).

The researchers found that the people who saw the photographs of the products were more likely to prefer the higher-quality brand extension to the better-fitting alternative. For instance, participants chose Nike deodorant rather than CVS deodorant, and the Speedo camping gear rather than the Kmart gear.

The authors find similar shifts in preference when they allow participants to make comparisons between brands. In another experiment, Goldsmith and her co-authors manipulated the ease of comparing two brands in a product category (i.e., Häagen Dazs cottage cheese and ShopRite cottage cheese). To do so, the participants were presented two brands next to each other and were asked either to choose between the brands (choice condition) or to sequentially evaluate the brands (proximal evaluation condition). In the third condition (isolated evaluation), brand comparisons were made more difficult by separating the two brand evaluations with filler brands and a distraction task. In the end, all participants indicated their preference for two pairs of products between one higher in fit and lower in quality, the other higher in quality and lower in fit.

The researchers discovered that when the brand comparisons were made easier, either by having participants make a choice or perform sequential evaluations, the participants preferred the extensions of the higher-quality but worse-fitting brands. For instance, participants in the proximal evaluation condition and the choice condition were more likely to prefer Häagen-Dazs cottage cheese over ShopRite cottage cheese and Crest facial moisturizer over Wal-Mart facial moisturizer, as compared to those in the isolated evaluation condition.

“We demonstrate that merely presenting a product picture or presenting the extension in the context of other brands in the product category leads consumers to adopt a more concrete representation of the extension,” the authors wrote. “As a result, decision contexts that allow consumers to visualize the extension or compare it with other brands shift consumers’ preference from extensions of better-fitting brands to extensions of higher-quality brands.”

Goldsmith, Meyvis and Dhar also recommend tactics for store managers and retailers to promote high- or lower-quality brands in their shopping environments.

“For example, a high-quality brand that is introducing an extension to a distant category would benefit from a communication context that encourages brand comparisons (i.e., through comparative advertising) and presents the extension as vividly as possible,” the authors wrote. “Conversely, a lower-quality brand that is introducing an extension in an adjacent category should promote isolated evaluations of their product (i.e., by placing it in an end-of-aisle display) to reduce the emphasis on parent brand quality.”