Manipulating consumers’ perception through music

Have you ever seen reality? It might feel as if you are merely registering reality right now, but in truth you are looking at the ‘real’ world through thick glasses of predisposition, personal associations and state of mind. This is why your perception of an event might differ greatly from mine. For retail, this offers a very interesting opportunity to boost the performance of shops. Here’s how it all works:

Reality is too big for us. There is so much happening around us all the time that our brain cannot possibly begin to analyze all of it. So it filters out the important stuff. Our sight, for instance, is limited to a rather specific bandwidth of speed, scale and spectrum. You cannot see the individual flaps of a bee’s wings. You cannot see infrared light. You cannot see molecules without special tools. On the other end of the spectrum things are much the same: You cannot see a flower growing. Too slow. You cannot see our galaxy. Too big.

Our brain is tuned to accurately perceive only the things that are most relevant to our species’ success. The rest is discarded. Think about how much information you would have to process if you could see every single atom your partner is made up of.

Although our bandwidth of perception feels totally natural to us, it differs greatly from that of other species. Many species cannot perceive color. Others only perceive moving objects, not static ones. And the humble fly, for instance, has such a radically different perception of time that it has no trouble navigating objects at a speed that is far beyond what we could possibly manage.

So our perception of reality is basically a shortcut our brain takes to keep things manageable. This works out fine most of the time. But there are ways to trick the mind into taking a shortcut when it actually shouldn’t. Think about optical illusions. Two lines of the exact same length seem different due to some surrounding lines. Our brain draws an incorrect conclusion.

So the holy grail of retail is to trigger a shortcut that leads to a positive attitude towards a purchase. There are many ways to accomplish this goal. A particularly interesting one, and my specialty, is found in music. Music has a strong associative impact. This, in turn, alters our perception strongly. Let me illustrate with an example:

The first company I ever consulted was a luxurious wine shop. A shop with a great selection of quality wines and capable personnel that could advise customers on how to match a good wine to their food. Prices were above average as well. Pop radio was piped into the shop.

I started by organizing a query among customers to find out how they perceived the shop. To the shopkeepers amazement customers judged the shop as being of average quality. They compared the shop to lower-end bottle shops both in quality and pricing.

I decided to change the musical backdrop from pop radio to a custom made profile with complex and distinguished lounge music, which was quite hip at the time. This would theoretically reflect both the high quality and the modern feel of the shop.

Upon having another query we found that both the quality perception and price perception had gone up. Customers now indicated they felt the shop was obviously up-market and the quality of the service and products was above average. And all we did was change the background music! The effect is that strong.

Although it is always tough to couple an atmospheric enhancement to sales, we found that revenues were up 15,7% during the test period.

Triggering a desired shortcut in the brain can be done in many ways. A famous study showed that piping French music in a supermarket lead to a rise in sales of French wines in comparison to German wines. After switching to German music, they instantly outsold French wines.

Our brain just loves to be guided in making its choices. So it is up to you to provide the right help to benefit your enterprise.

For more on perception manipulation, check out this previous article on time perception.

Thomas van Straaten
Instore Media Consultant

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