Marketers know that consumers’ sensory experiences while making purchasing decisions affect which products they choose. For example, while Unilever sells both Axe and Dove deodorant, the sound made by Axe spray is engineered to sound different than Dove spray. Marketers also often use sampling to steer consumers toward a certain product — perfume companies, for instance, may offer fragrance samples on different colored test strips, ensure sampled fragrances are different colors, or that they are sampled in a particular order. Samples are attractive because they are cheaper than advertising and because they provide powerful, hands-on experience with the product.
Sampling presents consumers with a variety of products across a range of sensory cues. “In theory, the order of the sensory cues should not matter, since the information received is the same,” says Professor Don Lehmann. “However, what we see, taste, smell, and hear is often influenced by the presence of other sensory cues, and so when sampling, each product is not evaluated in isolation.” To find out exactly how sensory cues affect consumers’ choices when sampling, Lehmann worked with Dipayan Biswas of the University of South Florida, Lauren Labrecque of Loyola University Chicago, and Ereni Markos of Suffolk University to conduct five studies — a combination of lab experiments and field tests with restaurant patrons.
The researchers found that the sequence in which two products were sampled and the level of similarity among the sampled products influenced consumers’ choices. When the products offered similar sensory experiences, consumers tended to prefer the first item sampled. However, when the products offered different sensory cues, consumers preferred the last item sampled. Lehmann says these findings could have important implications for marketers. “If my product is similar to my competitors, I want consumers to try mine first,” he explains. “If my product is different, I want them to see the competitor's offering first, and then see mine.”
But the researchers also found that a sensory interruption — for instance, consumers sample two kinds of chocolate, but in between samples, smell French fries — weakened the effect. “Then consumers sort of forget about the first product, and its advantage goes away,” Lehmann says. “So if your product is similar to the competitor and it’s being sampled second, you want the consumer to experience something different in between.” This tactic is often employed in wine tasting, Lehmann points out, when tasters are encouraged to take a sip of water to cleanse the palate between glasses of similar wines. Similarly, a real estate agent could decide which order to show buyers prospective properties, and a restaurant manager can instruct servers to feature a certain special first or last.
In essence, this research shows how marketers can — and do — subtly influence consumers’ choices by managing the order in which products are sampled. And it reminds consumers to be a bit more thoughtful about why they can’t resist a certain perfume on their next shopping trip.
Donald Lehmann is the George E. Warren Professor of Business and Chair of the Marketing Division at Columbia Business School.
Read the Research
"Making Choices While Smelling, Tasting, and Listening: The Role of Sensory Similarity/Dissimilarity When Sequentially Sampling Products"