The sincerest form of flattery?
We hear a lot these days about just how amazing the human brain is. Its capacity, complexity and plasticity are constantly paraded in the news and on TV shows. As a neuroscientist, I need little convincing about the 3lb wonder that lives inside our skull, but I’m also the first to point out its fallibility. The brain is not perfect, and in its desire to perform optimally, it often makes mistakes.
Over the past few decades the work of Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky and many others has highlighted just how susceptible the brain is to decision errors, and in fact a whole new field called behavioural economics has developed to understand this better and find ways to apply it, usually with philanthropic aim, such as increasing membership of organ donor programmes or saving for retirement.
Of course, these errors can also be taken advantage of. In nature we see plants and animals mimicking others to obtain food or defy detection and in the retail jungle we see private labels mimicking the products and packaging of leading brands to increase sales and, it turns out, also to defy detection.
Traditionally it has been assumed that copycat packs inherit the positive associations shoppers have with the brand and it is this that encourages the shopper to put the product in their basket. The first sign that some of these shopper decisions might be less intentional that originally thought appeared in a Which? (2013) report which suggested that around a fifth of copycat purchases might be genuine mistakes. In other words, the shoppers didn’t think they were trying something different, they thought they were buying the leading brand!
From research into visual perception and attention, we know that it is actually quite easy to fool the brain into thinking it is seeing something it is not. Visual illusions are the icebreaker of any vision scientist’s lectures and this is because it is so easy to trick the brain in reliable ways.
It occurred to us at Acuity Intelligence that maybe something similar was going on with copycat packaging and so we teamed up with GlaxoSmithKline and the British Brands Group to run an innovative research project which would determine the susceptibility of shoppers to erroneous decisions but also the degree to which shoppers are even aware of the copycats they are deciding to buy.
The research we conducted is described in detail in a white paper you can download here. It involved presenting shoppers with images of supermarket shelves which sometimes contained a copycat and sometimes did not. We asked the shopper to search the shelves for certain branded products, never the copycats, and to push a big button to indicate that they had found the target brand.
There were two drops of secret sauce in our study. The first was that we removed colour from of the images and we blurred some too. The systematic way in which we did this enabled us to explore the extent to which colour and detailed elements of the pack design affected the decision making.
The second was that we eye-tracked the shoppers whilst they were searching the shelves. This enabled us to determine the order in which they saw the products, and most importantly which product they were actually looking at when they made their decision.
The results were clear:
- Whenever the copycat was present on the shelf it was looked at before the brand.
- When both the copycat and brand were present on the shelf, shoppers mistook the copycat for the brand 20% of the time. This increased to 64% when the brand was not present, as is the case in many discount stores.
- Recall for the copycats was a mere 14%, compared with 93% for the brands our shoppers thought they had been selecting. In fact, they were more likely to report having seen other brands we never showed them than they were the copycats they had been looking directly at.
- Colour is the primary driver of the search, but other pack elements also contribute to tricking the brain.
Taken as a whole, the results suggest that the figures reported by Which? were no accident, in fact they might even be inevitable. By designing copycat packaging, the private labels are engineering shopper decision errors which can only result in the feelings of frustration and “being cheated” reported in the 2013 study.
Whilst the copycat packaging is the trigger for these errors, the reason is the way the brain works. For the vast majority of people, vision is the dominant sense and as such it can drive many of the heuristics the brain relies on the automate decision making, and this presents another problem.
In the UK we have an aging population. As we age our vision typically deteriorates, with conditions like cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration combining with a systematic increase in hypermetropia (long-sightedness) to result in an increasingly degraded visual signal. This study clearly showed that error rates increased with the blurred versions of our images, and so it is reasonable to assume that older shoppers are particularly at risk.
Similarly, of the two thirds of the UK population who will at some point in their life need a corrective prescription to achieve 20:20 vision, the vast majority of those whose vision is not corrected is made up of the least educated and poverty stricken. The aged and the poor are therefore most vulnerable to these effects, is it any wonder that the discounters rely on them so much?
As for the brands, is there anything they can do? Legal challenges like that currently being mounted against Poundland for their “Twin Peaks” Toblerone copycat are possible, but actually quite rare. Acuity Intelligence’s study suggests a range of measures which brands can take to improve their package design and testing methodologies by applying some of the techniques used in this research and you can find out more about these on a blog post here. These steps will not stop the copycatting, but they will enable the brands to stay one step-ahead.
The retail environment, like any system in nature, is home to conflict and competition, but with copycat packaging there is now clear evidence of collateral damage. Shopper errors are not merely lapses in attention, they are the certain consequence of cognitive processes we all share, but we are not equally at risk, with the old and less well-off being particularly susceptible. With such clear imbalance the parasitic approach of some discounters seems less cavalier and more cruel and so maybe it’s time to rewrite the laws of nature that govern survival in this particular jungle.
Dr Tim Holmes is Director of Research at Acuity Intelligence Ltd and an Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Follow this link to the Group’s press release on this research.
Follow this link to some current examples of products in packaging similar to brands.