All posts by Kathryn Ambroze

It depends, and it’s complicated… What the Health?!

The health and wellness sector has demonstrated tremendous growth over the past few years, which has encouraged brands to explore the space more in depth to meet consumer expectations. Although the market is expanding rapidly to meet demand, entering the health and wellness space is not as simple as it may appear at first glance. The innovation in this market category requires not only a well-thought-out approach but also consumer trust. The healthcare and overall health of the consumer should be at the forefront of decisions while developing the products, packaging and communications.  Consumers interested in integrating mindful products into their everyday lives entrust companies to conduct quality research in order to make informed decisions about the items or ingredients representing the brand. Breaking down the target consumer, ethical and legal concerns, and ways to execute a strong research plan are just an overview of the many components involved in the health and wellness space. To gain more insights, advice and examples about this topic, check out HCD’s webinar “What the Health?! Consumer Research in the Wellness Market” presented by Michelle Niedziela, PhD and Martha Bajec, PhD. 

The Conscious Consumer

The health and wellness category is an umbrella term for a lot of items: vitamins, supplements, stationaries, creams, smoothies, blankets, etc., and this market continues to expand as more and more products pivot to somehow address mental and physical wellbeing. Looking to find ways to curb the stress and anxiety, a specific group in the market is emerging—the conscious consumer. Some characteristics include being interested in holistic approaches to healthcare and actively engaged in preventative opposed to reactive strategies. Additionally, the conscious consumer has an awareness of environmental impacts sown into this narrative, since the objective to optimize health and wellbeing extends to the notion of a clean, natural, and sustainable lifestyle. (You can hear Michelle touch more on the profile of the conscious consumer here). Through those purchase behaviors, the conscious consumer is taking control of personal health by focusing on long-term benefits via small, consistent decisions. 

The attention put towards product decisions to help consumers best achieve health and wellbeing goals involves marketers listening to those new needs. Consumers are taking an interest in understanding the ingredients within a product and knowing the benefits or limitations of a service. The behavioral shift in priorities to focus on self-care requires marketers and developers to adjust the products to better serve their audience. Through careful planning and consideration, highlighting specific values of products can shift expectations. Recognizing the fast pace of most consumers’ lives should be reflected on products, packages or communications. Consumers want information shared in a concise manner, while still being informative. Learning how to communicate with the target demographic through strategies such as simple language or clear infographics can keep consumers engaged; however, misleading messaging can lead to negative consequences.

A Note on Ethics

Consumer research in the health and wellness market depends on clear definitions of terms and uses. Unfortunately, the wide spectrum of goods and services within this category results in a vague definition of what is dictated as market or clinical research. Wellness items can be categorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a food, food additive, cosmetic, dietary supplement or drug (Dronkers, Krist, Van Overveld & Rijkers, 2018). The regulations and requirements that must be upheld legally are based on how the product is labeled. If the product is intended to treat a disease or disorder, clinical trials are required by the FDA, while items considered a dietary supplement may not need the same level of consent.

Other government organizations, like the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), are predicted to follow the FDA’s lead by placing regulations on some health and wellness products such as probiotics (Aleixandre-Tudó, Castelló-Cogollos, Aleixandre, & Aleixandre-Benavent, 2019). However, since requirements currently vary depending on how the product is categorized, companies themselves must reflect on the specific intentions of the product. The safety of the consumer is imperative when considering if it could be perceived as a potential treatment. The fundamental questions about the type, the intention and the claims of the product truly impact the making and marketing of it. By reflecting on the specific product details, the research question can cater to major concerns and result in stronger, more valuable findings.  

Companies must uphold a level of accountability when a claim is made to meet the standards of government agencies and consumers. Legal ramifications may result from an improper claim while trying to fit into the niche market of health and wellness. From R&D, to branding, to packaging, the product should uphold a level of efficacy as a viable option for consumers. Scientific evidence can create strong proof to guide the exploration. As noted by Michelle here, “This allusiveness creates both opportunity for people to create new products, but also confusion for companies looking to take advantage of the wellness movement.” While it may be challenging to distinguish prevention from treatment, it’s crucial to take concern over the type of claim being made and strategize how to best describe a product authentically.

How Would You Measure It?

Trying to introduce a new product or reposition the brand into the health and wellness space involves a lot of uncertainty. Yet, there are many potential avenues to explore as a means to test and adjust the product, package or communications prior to making a full launch. The best research options are subjective based on the type of product being tested as well as the question being asked. Luckily, a lot of tools and research methods are available, making it feasible to determine the best methods for your particular question.

Consumers perceive and process cues differently based on context and experience; therefore, reactions can vary from certain sample populations. Selecting the target demographic is a really important decision because external factors (i.e. health, age, sex, etc.) make it challenging to minimize confounds. While keeping a tight sample of participants is always the best, it is important to be realistic during recruitment.  Seeking out “unicorns” may be great for a directional exploration but may be unrealistic for claims research since the sample size may be too low. Considering time, objectives, and budget constraints can help determine the best recruitment route for health and wellness research.

Health and wellness research can include something as simple as a survey or an interview to the use of psychophysiological tools or eye tracking and be as involved as collecting blood or urine samples. The location of the research is dependent on the methodology utilized. Some research opportunities permit home use tests (HUT) to learn about the product performance and evaluation in a natural usage environment. More invasive research will need to involve a clinical research organization (CRO) to help manage the study, whereas a market research facility may be acceptable for higher-level, noninvasive experiments. Revisiting how the product is being used can help determine the level of granularity necessary within the research design. Furthermore, the potential need for an ethics committee such as an Independent Review Board (IRB), a Research Ethics Committee (REC) or a General Medical Council (GMC) should also be considered when making a research plan. By having the information about the protocol organized and structured early in the exploration phase, it will eventually help promote a better understanding of the measured effect.

Jiving with the Concept

The possibilities are endless when it comes to researching novel avenues within health and wellness. Part of the fun in researching new ideas within product, packaging and communications is recognizing the endless possibilities (for better or for worse). Particular goods or services may fit directly in the “wellness world,” while others try to blend in through small, meaningful pivots. Keeping a pulse on consumer preferences helps to determine if that particular innovation is actually worth pursuing. Martha summarizes this point beautifully here in stating, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Make sure the extra health benefit is enticing to consumers. Chasing a health halo, aka overestimating the healthfulness and wellbeing of an item based on its appearance or communications, may be displeasing to the consumer if the experience doesn’t meet the expectation. For example, if you are craving a greasy bag of chips after a long day, indulging in a package advertising a new recipe with 70% less saturated fat may be less satisfying. Learn what values of the product are important to the consumer and emulate those characteristics in the packaging and communications. To put it simply: grow with the consumer, rather than against them. 

The New Product 2.0+

It is safe to say consumers want more from products. From Goldfish Veggie Crackers containing a third serving of vegetables to Dr. Organic Extra Whitening Charcoal Toothpaste, consumers want the product to solve additional deficiencies. Pushing multipurpose items as a way to solve some problems allows for an easy opportunity to address consumer values. If cream can act as a moisturizer while also having SPF in it, then two pain points are being addressed in one product. However, it is important to consider consumer needs and ask if consumers will agree with merging two items. Researching consumer interest, likability, or believability may help prevent spending a lot of money on a product that flops in market. Throughout the research process, it is important to periodically take a moment to reflect on the goals and accomplishments needed to succeed.

Martha brings up an easy way to start your thought-process on wellness product innovation. She suggests considering the downstream effect by thinking about how these products may be used by your friends and family. The product itself, as well as the claims or packaging, is relied on by the consumer to uphold its promises. By conducting the best research feasible and creating a strong end product, consumers’ validation will prove itself through longevity and loyalty in buying behavior.

For great examples of the complexities within the health and wellness space and where this field is going next, please listen to Michelle and Martha chat more in depth in our “What the Health?!” webinar available on Youtube! Additionally, if you are interested in conducting research within the dynamic space of health and wellness, please contact Allison Gutkowski (   


Dronkers, T. M. G., Krist, L., Van Overveld, F. J., & Rijkers, G. T. (2018). The ascent of the blessed: Regulatory issues on health effects and health claims for probiotics in Europe and the rest of the world. Beneficial microbes9(5), 717-723.

Aleixandre-Tudó, J. L., Castelló-Cogollos, L., Aleixandre, J. L., & Aleixandre-Benavent, R. (2019). Tendencies and Challenges in Worldwide Scientific Research on Probiotics. Probiotics and antimicrobial proteins, 1-13.

The Neuroimaging Games: Who will come out on top?

Neuroimaging tools offer a lot of information by providing insight into the structure and function of the nervous system. The concept of functional neuroimaging involves creating several images of the brain to identify changes over time. Neuroimaging allows researchers to analyze the structure, function and pharmacology of the brain. The techniques and methods vary based on the research goals, but some neuroimaging tools are becoming more mainstream for commercial use. It’s important to have conversations about the drawbacks and limitations of neuroimaging, since the technology continues to advance as researchers seek out best practices for understanding the brain. Productive discussions about benefits and limitations promote good ideas to help make improvements and really find out if one champions the rest.   

Neuroimaging can be divided into two approaches of exploring neural firing: a direct measure recording electrical activity and an indirect measurement which subscribes to the assumption increased blood flow and metabolic responses are a result of neural activity (Bunge & Kahn, 2009). Electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) are techniques which directly measure electrical activity in the brain, while methods such as positron emission tomography (PET), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) detect increased blood flow and metabolic activity as a means of indirectly measuring brain activity. Reviewing the technology available for a comprehensive understanding of the various approaches to viewing brain activity gives insight into current capabilities, as well as conceptualizes how the field can progress. Diving into both direct and indirect measures of neuroimaging will help determine which (if any) of these tools are best applicable to certain research designs.  

Straight Shot: Direct Measures of Neuroimaging

EEG is valued for its ability to record neural activity in real time. While it is sometimes debated if EEG qualifies as neuroimaging since it does not take a snapshot of the brain, the technology can provide a graphical representation of brain activity allowing it to qualify as a neuroimaging modality. Furthermore, advanced quantitative EEG (qEEG) provides a visual representation of neurofeedback (Figure 1). How does it work? The net flow of electrical current is determined using electrical dipoles which helps to give a global context of different brain states (Bunge & Kahn, 2009). Similarly, the electrical activity occurring in the brain is used to determine the magnetic field during an MEG (Figure 2). The scan both detects and amplifies the magnetic signals and develops a magnetic source image which shows any abnormal activity in the brain. MEG and EEG can have high temporal sampling rates, with MEG reaching as fast as 1200 samples per second (hertz) and EEG being anywhere from 250-2000 hertz, depending on the type of headset used (Boto et al., 2019). Commercial-grade EEG headsets are available to the public with prices ranging from as little as $200 to well over $25,000. The prices vary based on how many electrodes are included in the cap. MEG scanners cost upwards of 2 million dollars each, and renting the equipment is an hourly rate of a few hundred dollars. While cheaper EEG sets may be tempting to utilize, it is important to consider the quality of the output if limited sensors are used.    

Figure 1: A pictorial representation of brain activity being mapped via qEEG  from Penrod (2018).

Source localization, or knowing where the signal is coming from, is a big drawback when using direct neuroimaging measures. EEG and MEG struggle to isolate the precise origin of the signal. Using an academic-grade EEG cap permits more sampling from neurons than MEG; however, it struggles to get a clear signal due to the interaction with the skull and scalp. Additionally, the mesh cap required for an EEG cannot have the muscles move around the head because it increases inaccurate data referred to as artifact. Magnetic fields are unaffected by the skull and scalp; thus, making MEG a better option for localization between the two direct measures, but not by much. The sensitivity to poor spatial resolution is hard to resolve; however, if the research aims to achieve a global understanding of the brain with a strong temporal reading, either EEG or MEG may be the preferred neuroimaging option.

Figure 2: MEG set up for recording magnetic fields to explore brain activity. 

Winding Around for a Winning Way: Indirect Measures of Neuroimaging

Indirect brain imaging involves a few different approaches. The BOLD response (blood oxygen level dependent) is the standard technique used in fNIRS and MRI technology. When neurons need oxygen to be replenished, as messages are being communicated throughout the body, a protein in our blood called hemoglobin delivers the oxygen to neural activation sites. This type of response is referred to as a hemodynamic response (Bunge & Kahn, 2009). Measuring levels of oxygenated hemoglobin is collected by both MRI and fNIRS; however, it is in different ways. The MRI records the magnetic field difference when blood changes from oxygenated to deoxygenated, while NIRS reports on cerebral oxygenation, blood flow and metabolic activity of regions in the brain by reviewing the absorption of light.

The fNIRS methodology came along in 1977 by Frans Jöbsis at Duke University. Professor Jöbsis measured oxygen levels to analyze neural activity and hemodynamic responses (Quaresima & Ferrari, 2019). Light is used in fNIRS to gain information about blood volume, flow and oxygenation by either being absorbed into, transmitted through, reflected off, or scattered into a medium (such as skin, bones, etc.). Optical technology sends infrared light into the tissue and reports on the light that is scattered back. The difference between the original intensity of the light emitted compared to the amount returned gives insight into concentration of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood and brain activity levels (Quaresima & Ferrari, 2019). This methodology detects concentration changes in light absorption (aka the amount of oxygenated or deoxygenated blood at that moment). By obtaining concentrations over time, the images project neural activation responding to stimuli which results in an increased blood flow to the activated area. A compelling reason to use fNIRS is also due to its ability to differentiate between deoxygenated and oxygenated blood; however, it is accomplished through differences in optical properties.

Figure 3: An example of an fNIRS set-up with the cap.

Other indirect imaging includes PET scans which work by detecting gamma rays via a radioactive tracer. PET scans provide visual information about biochemical changes in    neurotransmitters through the metabolic activity of cells in body tissue. However, PET scans are extremely expensive, have poor temporal resolution and require a radioactive injection (Bunge & Kahn, 2009). Due to the need to remain completely still during this test,  certain populations may not be the best candidates, such as children or patients with uncontrollable movement (i.e. Parkinson’s disease). The motion tolerance obstacles hold true for fMRI as well, since it requires participants to remain completely stationary in a narrow tube, sometimes leading to the onset of anxiety, dizziness or claustrophobia. The fMRI scan creates images by using magnetic fields and pulses of radio wave energy. Since the fMRI acts as a giant magnet, it is also unsafe for individuals with implants. The fNIRS method is an up-and-coming technology to make neuroimaging a more naturalistic and comfortable experience (Figure 3). Optode sensors on fNIRS technology are intentionally tight on the scalp, to minimize movement, yet it still allows participants to fidget or walk without major interruptions to the recording (Quaresima & Ferrari, 2019). The freedom to stand during an fNIRS procedure opens doors for the exploratory neurofeedback of more realistic and interactive research.

Let’s Get Deep: The Truth about Neuroimaging

While the expansions in neuroimaging technology are very exciting, the limitations of what can actually be accomplished must be at the forefront of any research conversation. Neuroscientists are often excited by the concept of mapping the brain as a means to link neural activity to subjective experiences (i.e. emotions). It does sound enticing to use a neuroimaging scan to suggest certain mechanisms are associated with XYZ, but it can undermine the complexity of the brain. Overemphasizing one mechanism’s function can make the idea of mindreading seem not too far off, but to be clear: no measure discussed in this blog has the ability to read anyone’s mind. It is important to recall how areas of the brain have multiple uses which may result in contradictory functions. Activation and inhibition are constantly occurring in the brain for a multitude of reasons that may or may not include the emotional stimuli being researched. Additionally, variability among individuals makes it even more challenging to promote such claims. These tools have a space to truly give unique insights into the brain’s interconnectedness, but researchers must be cautioned to not rely on any one tool to give the full picture… (pun intended).  

Additionally, collecting data may be hindered based on the neuroimaging tool used. Specific brain areas, depending on the equipment being used, are much harder to read than others due to penetration depth. For example, fNIRS can only read roughly 1.5 cm into the cortex. Places such as the forehead and top of the head are easiest to get signals from with fNIRS, but it cannot reach deeper brain areas such as the cingulate cortex or the olfactory cortex (Quaresima & Ferrari, 2019). The MRI scan can measure deep brain structures that fNIRS is unable to achieve without major artifact. EEG is also capable of having signal depth of the whole brain; however, it can easily be clouded by noise and electrical crosstalk. EEG has more flexibility than MEG in terms of recording capabilities, since MEG requires the recording activity to be parallel to the surface of the brain, limiting where information is picked up (Boto, 2019). PET scans can also retrieve information encompassing the whole brain; however, images can be misinterpreted based on how the tracer reacts to inflammatory conditions, high blood sugar and small tumors.     

Among the Neuroimaging Nominees—Who’s the Winner? 

While comparing the different potential methodologies, each technology has a lot of limitations and benefits. The PET scan is the most expensive and invasive protocol discussed, requiring additional compensation for its nuclear component. The MEG data easily merges with anatomical fMRI or EEG scans to give a comprehensive analysis of brain activity; however, MEG lacks versatility to measure different head shapes and explore naturalistic paradigms (Boto et al., 2019). Although fMRI has similar restraints, it can indicate complex patterns of neuroclassification, activation trends across populations and determine engrossing stimuli. It also has greater signal depth and special resolution compared to fNIRS. Due to the optical technology, fNIRS can only evaluate the surface, therefore having a fast temporal reaction to fMRI. Yet, the BOLD response is slower than EEG, which analyzes electrical impulses in muscle activity, but has much higher sensitivity to noise. fMRI is also prone to statistical biases and noise from the machine, or brain activity can corrupt the data.

For multimodality studies, fNIRS may be the best option due to its portability and cost-efficient characteristics. The fNIRS machine has relatively few accessories and is easily transported. Additionally, fNRIS is an excellent option to test challenging populations such as infants, people with implants, or those with special needs. The ability to move around also affords a naturalistic experimental paradigm where participants can be embedded in real scenarios rather than conformed to a tube. Improvements to fNIRS are still being engineered to make the headgear lighter and more comfortable. Some obstacles when trying to record with fNIRS include running participants with thicker and darker hair, like dreads, because it interferes with the sensor reading. The back of participants’ heads, where hair is most dense, can also be a challenging area to get a strong sensor reading. fNIRS is also easily integrated with fMRI, EEG, PET or event-related potential to compensate for the lack of anatomical information and spatial resolution (Quaresima & Ferrari, 2019).  

Deciding among the various neuroimaging scans truly does depend on the type of research being conducted. Many oncology patients must undergo a PET scan as a means of learning the status of potential tumors, while other populations may be hesitant to undergo imaging involving radiation. Furthermore, if the research is seeking a similar tool to fMRI, but has a smaller budget, fNRIS may be a better fit. The cost of neuroimaging can be a major deterrent, making equipment such as fMRI, PET and MEG less feasible in consumer research. By asking questions not only about the neuroimaging applications, but also context of the research question, determining the correct approach will emerge. Neuroimaging technology is progressing and becoming more prevalent by expanding from universities and hospitals to industries such as marketing, entertainment, public health and communications. The expansion into new disciplines encourages refining existing methods while also increasing opportunities to critically think about the value of the data compared to the expense of the research. Making sure the new technological advancements bring additional value to the project is imperative to ensure sophisticated analysis of the data that is validated and interpreted with confidence.       


Boto, E., Seedat, Z. A., Holmes, N., Leggett, J., Hill, R. M., Roberts, G., … & Barnes, G. R. (2019). Wearable neuroimaging: combining and contrasting magnetoencephalography and electroencephalography. NeuroImage201, 116099.

Bunge, S. A., & Kahn, I. (2009). Cognition: An overview of neuroimaging techniques.

Penrod, J. M. (2018). Innovating the Mind: Three Essays on Technology, Society, and Consumer Neuroscience (Doctoral dissertation, Virginia Tech).

Quaresima, V., & Ferrari, M. (2019, September). A mini-review on functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS): where do we stand, and where should we go?. In Photonics (Vol. 6, No. 3, p. 87). Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute.

Augmented Reality

The term augmented reality (AR) originally may have been overshadowed in the public eye by virtual reality (VR); however, its technology is more frequently being intertwined in everyday life. Apps like Pokémon GO and IKEA Place are filling our phones with content equipped with AR technology to help elevate its use. AR adds new components into a space of pre-existing objects in the real world. Blending physical and virtual worlds in real-time further simulates an immersive environment, making applications of AR valuable to marketers, educators, entertainers, and engineers. Funding for research is a promising inkling into the growth of AR technology, with the industry expected to reach $7.9 billion by 2023 globally (Caboni & Hagberg, 2019). Implementing AR into research has a lot of potential, thus having a foundational understanding of what it is and how it impacts research designs is vital for fresh innovation.   

How does augmented reality work?

AR can be defined as a form of mixed reality which aligns both real and virtual objects within the same dimensions of space and time (Van Krevelen & Poelman, 2010). Most people associate AR with changing the visual environment; however, when reality is being augmented, it is not confined to one sensory experience. Visuals, sounds, vibrational movements and smells can all contribute to an augmented reality. The original intention of AR use was for fields such as the military, medicine and industry, but it has now expanded to gaming, retail and commerce (Caboni & Hagberg, 2019).

VR covers every pixel within a visual environment (creating an entirely new environment separate from reality), while AR enhances the natural current environment with the superposition of additional context, such as music or text (and can include any number of sensory environmental additions from audible to visual, smell, taste, and haptics). AR may overlay a video-feed of reality, share the real-world perception with transparent filters and/or project AR onto real displays (Van Krevelen & Poelman, 2010). The displays are projected via headpieces, cellphones, tablets, laptops, or projectors (such as flashlights, holographs, etc.). The versatility of AR inspires a lot of potential opportunities to deliver a valuable experience within multiple disciplines.

Possibilities Are Endless

Developing simple and easy integration of AR into daily life helps make the technology more ubiquitous. Currently the three main applications of augmented reality are online, in-store and mobile:

  • Online: The use of a webcam allows consumers to scan both their bodies and movements to have a virtual fitting-room. Consumers can immediately see the look of the outfits on the screen and have the agency to change sizes, colors, and styles quickly. Zenni Optical has a “Virtual Try-On” which integrates pupil distance information to display how frame styles look on consumers’ faces. By taking a 3D picture, consumers can view the different frames scaled to fit. 
  • In-store: To engage consumers while in the store, videos and projectors are used to personalize the experience via AR. Cosmetic brands, such as Sephora, superimpose different make-up products on consumers via an “augmented mirror.” Similarly, dressing rooms with AR technology have been adopted by retail stores. The “augmented mirror” allows consumers to visualize how potential new clothes look on their bodies without changing their initial outfits. With the augmented mirror, the consumer can mix and match outfits from the store’s inventory, compare pictures of different clothes and share potential choices quickly with friends (Caboni & Hagberg, 2019). Having an AR in-store experience is interactive, informative and versatile, giving consumers ease in exploring a multitude of options in an efficient manner.   
  • Mobile Augmented Reality (MAR): Most consumers utilize a smartphone, camera, or tablet within their daily lives. Many companies turned to mobile apps as a way to connect with consumers more intimately. With the AR technology embedded in the app, consumers can try products in the places where they will be utilized, whether that be trying on an outfit at home or buying new décor for an office space. Self-augmentation increases the interaction the brand has with the consumer (Caboni & Hagberg, 2019). Snapchat has monetized on MAR by offering sponsored filters from companies ranging from Applebee’s Bar and Grill to Disney’s Frozen II. These initiatives break down the barrier between the brand and a consumer’s personal space, thus making it easier to integrate an item from a store to home.  

The three main approaches of augmented reality are applicable to many industries. Doctors use AR for training and operating purposes, while it provides patients with medicine reminders (Chen et al., 2019). AR navigation or warning displays guide individuals through a visitor experience in places like historic sites to large malls (Van Krevelen & Poelman, 2010). Retail also uses AR to share a plethora of information about any product without even opening the package. Additionally, the technology allows consumers to explore multiple products in various styles quickly while giving companies an idea of which features are preferred.

What does AR look like in Marketing Research?

The goal when exploring any new technology for market research focuses on whether its application can help better understand consumers. Integrating AR with qualitative research, such as a shop-along, allows for a full, uninterrupted experience of consumer decisions. Insight into consumer preference is also easily done with AR research since different prototypes can be redesigned quickly. Likewise, getting data on predominant categories selected from augmented facts or values about a product can give an indication of consumers points of concern. As a new form of research, AR will only continue to become more prevalent as technology advances and consumers are normalized to it. Furthermore, the balance of entertainment, education, esthetic and escapism promotes consistent engagement during AR experiences, thus encouraging market researchers to dive into its applications in research design.

Market research can easily utilize AR for exposure to various stimuli without changing the physical environment. An empty space is a blank canvas for anything to be programmed into an AR device for researchers to build upon. Using the AR system ensures each condition is presented uniformly from the same perspective. Product development and concept testing can be effectively created and brought to life via AR, providing a feel of the product in relationship to the environment. Furthermore, AR sets the stage for exploring multiple conditions easily. Rather than create several physical prototypes of a package, AR can program different stimuli for the participant to experience quickly. Imagine- shelf testing may not need to include shelves! The changes can range from small adjustments to entirely new designs. These conveniences streamline translating research findings into plans for improvement, while also saving time and energy dedicated to the framework set-up.

Some forms of AR research can also be done remotely, affording participants the opportunity to experience certain stimuli in intimate environments, such as their homes. The boundaries between the participant and location of use dissolves in this application. Being in a more natural space may encourage participants to provide feedback more comfortably. Furthermore, by overlapping real and virtual worlds, consumers can easily manipulate where the virtual product is placed. Having the environmental context fit the participant’s real lifestyle helps determine if a product or concept fits or disrupts established preferences. Pairing AR with other additional qualitative or quantitative research methods allows researchers to further evaluate behavior and reactions of various stimuli from a new perspective.   

Hearing out some Hesitations

Misuse of any technology can result in negative consequences. Reality is compromised to a degree when using AR, which can result in causing individuals to be less vigilant in acknowledging their surroundings. Additionally, augmented components may distract from reality. Alarms or car horns can easily be confused with augmented features, which could be detrimental for research and take away from the intended experience. Having a third party to supervise may be a helpful precaution; however, that is not always feasible. Informative concept forms and disclaimers should be utilized prior to the AR experience to remind users of the potential dangers. Like with anything, the overuse of AR in extreme cases can lead to disassociation of reality. Finding a healthy balance in understanding personal habits will make introducing AR into certain components of life a safe and easy transition. Considerations for usage should be considered when developing a screener for a research project including AR.

Since the implementation of AR on popular platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram, AR has become generally socially acceptable; however, it may have some critics concerned about privacy and data breaches. These concerns must also be addressed when recruiting participants.

Unfortunate technical drawbacks of AR also include requiring higher accuracy, wider input variety and longer ranges when compared to other virtual environments (Van Krevelen & Poelman, 2010). Depth perception is a challenge within the interface while developing the graphics. Consideration for programming and developing the correct type of immersion does not come cheap. The technical expertise of programing AR designs can be cost prohibitive, especially if it involves an intricate design. Determining the value AR may bring to a company is subjective based on the objectives in integrating this novel technology.

The response to implementing AR into different industries or the use of AR in market research can be analyzed with various psychological tools, such as an implicit association test or a self-assessment manikin (SAM). Advancements in AR research also suggests integrations of applied consumer science technology, such as eye tracking or heart rate. Using these tools can elevate research exploration as well as consumer responses to novel technology.

Concluding Thoughts

AR seeks to enhance the user experience by providing tools to make theoretical situations easier to comprehend. Whether used by researchers or consumers, AR gives stimulation testing a new medium. Learning consumer preference and behavior for companies to digest encourages future innovations. AR builds a personalized relationship with the user, ultimately increasing engagement.

The future of AR is budding, with new progressions making the technology more adoptable. For instance, hardware is evolving to make headsets more user-friendly. Other potential opportunity designs include merging AR and VR together to create a device capable of alternating between VR and AR. Product development, packaging testing, concept testing and other facets of the consumer experience can benefit from the integration of AR. Multiple iterations of a stimuli can be designed faster to improve existing prototypes, while combining AR with projective research gives consumers the opportunity to virtually create their ideal products for the R+D team to build upon. Interacting in the AR environment brings the user closer to the augmented object, whether it be a consumer product or experience. The growing trend of AR will continue to bring about creative content to interact with users and ultimately strengthen a relationship through convenient, exciting and valuable engagement.

To learn about innovative ways HCD can help you design strong research methodologies to connect with consumers, please contact Allison Gutkowski (


Caboni, F., & Hagberg, J. (2019). Augmented reality in retailing: a review of features, applications and value. International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management.

Chen, Y., Wang, Q., Chen, H., Song, X., Tang, H., & Tian, M. (2019, June). An overview of augmented reality technology. In Journal of Physics: Conference Series (Vol. 1237, No. 2, p. 022082). IOP Publishing.

Van Krevelen, D. W. F., & Poelman, R. (2010). A survey of augmented reality technologies, applications and limitations. International journal of virtual reality9(2), 1-20.

The Three R’s Pushing Consumers’ Eco-Friendly Carts

as seen in INsights mag

From plant-based burgers to paper straws, environmental initiatives are expanding to meet the demands of the conscious consumer. Indirect suggestions known as behavioral nudges emphasize positive characteristics, such as eco-friendliness, to impact the decision-making process. Yet, do consumers prioritize environmental incentives enough to break pre-existing routines? How can marketers encourage consumers to value eco-efficient products? Exploring the gap between what consumers say and do may provide some context into the intentionality behind the shopping experience and reveal if marketers are polluting or promoting a greener lifestyle.  

Behavioral economics utilizes theories from psychology and economics to focus on how consumers act when confronted with decisions under certain circumstances. In recognizing human idiosyncrasies, patterns in consumer behavior emerge as systematic, thus making it easier to understand what influences them. By applying nudging tactics, certain components of a product be can highlighted. Using the lens of positive environmental benefits to solidify a purchase, the value of nudging is explored.   

Reduce (Options)

Simple labeling nudges are used on packaging to streamline a decision. Association influence is seen in the “halo effect” where consumers assume additional unrelated characteristics about a product based on its overall impression. As a form of confirmation bias, the consumer interprets marketing components to affect perceptions and guide inferences about unknown information (Amos, Allred & Zhang, 2017). Assumptions are a fast way to holistically evaluate an item, even if the perceived interpretations are wrong. Furthermore, environmental packaging or labels (such as organic, fair trade and natural) promote superior associations. For example, biodegradable material is associated as a nontoxic, sustainable option, yet it can increase landfill methane gas production (Amos et al., 2017). Consumer perception drives incentive, regardless of a product’s reality. Human perception adapts quickly to comprehend the incredible amount of information it is interpreting at any given time. Mental shortcuts, known as heuristics, are employed to conserve energy. While heuristics allow consumers to respond quickly and streamline efficiency, it also results in biased decisions. Asking “Do I like brown eggs?” versus “Does eating cage-free eggs make me feel more ethically sound?” is a form of attribute substitution where consumers relate to different, simpler questions. Acknowledging mental strategies of categorization, marketers can intervene and entice consumers through subtle suggestion. 

Reuse (Positive Connotations)

Shopping is a habitual experience. Habit loops consisting of cues, routines and rewards are reinforced every time the action is repeated. By perpetuating a cycle that meets an expectation, the strength of a connection increases. Psychological tools, such as the implicit timed reaction test, analyze the strength of associations towards a product or stimulus. Companies may track the visceral perception of a brand, concept or product over time to evaluate strategic opportunities. Consumers are less likely to deviate from the norm to avoid switching costs but will evolve with the product if the perception of innovations is consumer-focused.

Green products are a specialty since alleged efforts are implemented to meet eco-efficient desires. Companies must pay to review the negative impact of energy and raw material consumption. While the expense of meeting label requirements ensures quality, some marketers take advantage of the eco-friendly associations by deceiving consumers into believing a product has environmental benefits through meaningless claims. The tactic known as “greenwashing” developed from marketers intentionally pushing suggestive eco-friendly labels as a means of tricking the consumer to attribute sustainable characteristics to a brand or product (Amos et al., 2017). Regardless of the label authenticity, green products have a high purchasing power by linking them to a subscribed concept of sustainability (Lopes & Veiga, 2019). Furthermore, personal benefits, such as saving money long-term as seen with solar panels, drive consumer engagement with prosocial action (Usrey, Palihawadana, Saridakis, & Theotokis, 2020). Social norms within messaging impact consumers behavior through context. Van Bavel et al. (2020) suggests phrases such as “the overwhelming majority of people in your community…” to persuade public response. Social proof can compel consumers to follow the majority, whether to work from home, shop online or use leftover fabric for facemasks.

Consumers justify high costs through the emotional association attached to the sustainability characteristics emphasized in the product’s presentation through the orientation of communication via packaging, ads and usage. However, the justification of a price may not equate to buying behaviors. Consumer attitudes may desire to live a greener lifestyle while still choosing the cheaper, conventional alternative. Green products compared to the conventional alternatives are associated with poorer performance. Usrey, Palihawadana, Saridakis and Theotokis (2020) suggest understated green credentials, while features such as performance are highlighted simultaneously, receive better evaluations and increase purchase intent. Determining what influences deter or attract consumers to a purchase allow the marketers to cater the product information to consistently better fit the demands of the consumer.

Recycle (Ways to Share Information)

Converting information about a product into digestible, memorable marketing is crucial to connect with consumers. Nudging accentuates features that portray certain options as superior to others. The decoy effect is one method that involves marketers intentionally displaying similar, less attractive product to increase satisfaction for a midground option. Slapø and Karevold (2019) used traffic-light symbols to explain the climate impact of each dish, which improved consumer eco-friendliness. Consumers chose the yellow option, suggesting the middle choice appears more attractive when compared to two extremes. When using three options, the decoy phenomenon is reinforced by the compromise effect, where restructuring the choice motivates consumers to commit to the perceived less risky selection, typically a middle option. The decoy effect is frequently applied to pricing structure and a certain characteristic, such as design or function. If a consumer is choosing among a generic, a hypoallergenic and a patterned band-aid, the most expensive option (with a cool design) steers the consumer to the second most expensive choice, the hypoallergenic one. Consumers are satisfied with the purchase since the asymmetry of the third patterned band aid reframed the decision, making the hypoallergenic band-aid more appealing.       

Framing is another technique which modifies information to adjust the product depiction. This technique changes consumer interpretation by highlighting a statement either positively (gained framing) or negatively (loss framing) (Tu, Kao, & Tu, 2013). For example, “Using LED lights reduces carbon emissions” provides a benefit or a gain, while “Unlike LED lights, noxious chemicals are found in florescent lights” stresses the negative of florescent lights. Choosing how to best frame energy conservation can motivate action. Perception of the value changes when differences between green and non-green products are noted since social influence, personal responsibility and environmental attitude impact consumers when evaluating items (Tu et al., 2013). Explaining how a behavior (such as buying LED) equates to certain outcomes is a persuasive messaging tactic since it mitigates risk. The decoy effect and framing nudge at elements of messaging to change perception, thus subtly effecting the consumer evaluation.

Consumer motives are influenced by knowledge and appeal. Marketing communications informs via messaging, packaging and actual product experience to strengthen consumer impressions. Adopting the eco-friendly narrative within products helps promote the acceptance of a brand and purchasing intent of a consumer with matching values. When consumers feel moral responsibility for product sustainability, it is easier to subscribe to the promotional strategies that encourage safe environmental behaviors. Through simple nudges, consumers are encouraged to expand beyond their habitual tendencies and explore new options of perceived benefits to live more environmentally conscious. As alternative means of production shift towards sustainability, it is the consumers’ buying patterns that ultimately motivate the companies to uphold greener standards. Shifting the standard of sustainability to an expectation rather than a luxury, the norm and nudges are reinforced with each point of purchase.


Amos, C., Allred, A., & Zhang, L. (2017). Do biodegradable labels lead to an eco-safety halo effect? Journal of Consumer Policy40(3), 279-298.

Lopes, E. L., & Veiga, R. T. (2019). Increasing purchasing intention of eco-efficient products: the role of the advertising communication strategy and the branding strategy. Journal of Brand Management26(5), 550-566.

Slapø, H. B., & Karevold, K. I. (2019). Simple Eco-Labels to Nudge Customers Toward the Most Environmentally Friendly Warm Dishes: An Empirical Study in a Cafeteria Setting. Front. Sustain. Food Syst. 3: 40. doi: 10.3389/fsufs.

Tu, J. C., Kao, T. F., & Tu, Y. C. (2013). Influences of framing effect and green message on advertising effect. Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal41(7), 1083-1098.

Usrey, B., Palihawadana, D., Saridakis, C., & Theotokis, A. (2020). How Downplaying Product Greenness Affects Performance Evaluations: Examining the Effects of Implicit and Explicit Green Signals in Advertising. Journal of Advertising, 1-16.

Van Bavel, J. J., Baicker, K., Boggio, P. S., Capraro, V., Cichocka, A., Cikara, M., … & Drury, J. (2020). Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response. Nature Human Behaviour, 1-12.

Let’s Reflect: How to Explore Personal Bias

Perception is a fundamental factor in decision making. The lens in which we live our lives influences every choice, including the choice of inaction. Decisions are grounded in the concept known as implicit bias which are attitudes or stereotypes that impact a person’s perspective and actions (FitzGerald, Martin, Berner, & Hurst, 2019). Life experiences shape these implicit associations. Therefore, as a white young woman writing this blog, it is crucial to acknowledge my innate privilege in society which factors into how I conduct research, interact with others and view the world. The goal is not to become impartial, since mental constructs are not innately bad. However, by defining implicit bias, learning about its effects as well as ways to analyze it, there is an opportunity to be proactive in mindfulness and growth.

Seeing Life Through Rose-Colored Glasses

When directly asked a question about a certain topic, it is common for people to choose the perceived “best version” of themselves. It happens all the time with New Year’s resolutions. Drinking less, exercising every day, and getting eight hours of sleep are all really great in theory, but come February, old patterns sneak back into daily life. The same limitations of introspection occur when answering a questionnaire. It is easy for a survey respondent to reject a controversial topic like race, gender or religion by assuming biases align with expectations. The misconception is caused by assuming bias and bigotry are one in the same. Implicit biases do not equate to prejudice, since the participant’s internal bias may contradict conscious preferences.

Due to the unintentionality and unawareness of implicit biases, asking someone to articulate them is extremely challenging. Without realizing it, the brain categorizes groups known as schemas constantly. Bracketing objects, concepts or people allows our brain to infer and react to future situations more efficiently (Berkman, 2018). While that is a very normal human experience, misjudgment (both positive and negative) is common due to schemas. Unfortunately, the consequences of implicit bias slipups can be grave. Therefore, the way a person reacts and behaves as a result of the implicit bias is what raises concern. 

Assessing the Damage

So how can we address implicit bias? The first step involved in discussion of implicit associations is acknowledging that everyone has them, and therefore, each person’s bias has the potential to be explored. One common psychological measure used to assess implicit bias is the concept of implicit testing. The general theory behind implicit testing is if a concept and a word match a person’s perception, there is a high association which causes a faster response compared to a word that clashes with the concept (Morley, 2019). If a concept is about broccoli, a participant may have a high association for the word “healthy” compared to the word “sweet.” Implicit testing has multiple variations which approach uncovering biases in different ways. The type of implicit testing best to utilize is dependent on the research question being investigated.

Project Implicit is a great resource for explanations on implicit bias through services such as lectures, workshops and IAT tests specific to certain social topics including gender, disability, sexuality and others. When taking this test, participants sort pictures of European or African faces with positive or negative words into groups as quickly as possible (Project Implicit, 2011). (Take Project Implicit’s IAT here!) The IAT is paired with survey and demographic questions before results are provided. The results are clearly expressed and explained, describing how the IAT determines the results based on speed of response to certain stimuli. The description of the preference includes one of four options (slight, moderate, strong or no preference) which indicates the strength of the response (see Figure 1). For a person with no association or bias, the response should remain consistent regardless of the different variables presented (Morley, 2019).   

Figure 1: An example of an output from taking Project Implicit’s Race IAT (ProjectImplicit, 2011).

IAT is linked to neural and affective processes (Devine, Forscher, Austin, & Cox, 2012). Since brains are malleable and adjust to situations constantly, the results of an implicit test will also adjust accordingly. This means that the implicit race bias of the IAT is representative of a single moment; therefore, it does not have high test-retest reliability. However, the tool has been cited for giving insights when comparing levels of implicit prejudice or stereotyping with certain populations to analyze correlations in behavior differences (FitzGerald, Martin, Berner, & Hurst, 2019).

Being immersed in a society can either reinforce or change implicit associations over time. The recent tragic event concerning George Floyd reminds us black people continue to experience discrimination and adverse outcomes compared to their white counterparts (Devine, Forscher, Austin, & Cox, 2012). Strategies and interventions are widely researched to expose implicit biases and prevent them from impacting an individual’s interactions with others (FitzGerald, Martin, Berner, & Hurst, 2019). Research suggests counter-stereotype exposure and education interventions can decrease implicit bias, thus depleting negative stereotypes (Kang, 2012). Self-understanding also allows for cognitive improvement on the topic, with research suggesting equal decision making upheld when the influence of bias is brought to the forefront of attention (Casey, Warren, & Elek, 2012). Increasing awareness and concern is a crucial component in altering the implicit bias. Through such efforts, a conversation about the principles of equality will encourage all to work towards resolving the issues of discrimination.  

The Rundown of Implicit Applications

While implicit testing has helped shed light on implicit bias of stigmatized groups, the implicit testing can also evaluate attitudes of any type of concept- person, place, thing or idea. Biases are an innate factor in how humans’ function and can help build habits, advance our ability to learn and improve the way we live. HCD commissions implicit testing to measure consumer perceptions and bias to improve concepts, packaging and products. The validated research supporting implicit testing has proved to tackle a range of questions within market research, as well as in multiple sectors of social psychology, medicine and education. Using this tool helps us gain a deeper understanding of individuals’ personal biases, giving a window into subliminal values and beliefs. Implicit testing is one of the many ways we can work to better understand ourselves, as consumers and as people, to promote positive change.    

If you are interested in starting a conversation about implicit testing or the topics covered in this blog, please feel free to contact HCD Research via email at or call 908.788.9393.

HCD’s Commitment to Diversity

HCD celebrates diversity, equity and inclusion for its employees, customers, partners and participants of every race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, physical or mental disability, sexual orientation, marital status, military or veteran status, gender identity and expression, genetic information, or any other factor protected by law. Our commitment to equality allows us to build strong connections, develop innovative research and provide better service to all.

Marketplace Alienation: Avoiding Consumer Discontent

Heraclitus said it best when mentioning “change is the only constant in life.” To keep up with the ever-changing consumer, companies work hard to remain relevant by repositioning and reformulating products. Whether the change is due to advancements in technology or shifts in regulation, companies must evolve while consistently meeting consumer needs. However, these changes within a product or company include the risk of current consumers feeling left behind by the advances. With careful consideration and keeping consumers at the forefront of development strategies, companies can still make positive innovation while minimizing disappointment.

Consumer Opinions

Imagine returning to one of your favorite restaurants to learn your go-to meal was taken off the menu or replaced with a new version of the dish. While some customers may shrug it off, others may find it heartbreaking because that dish motivated them to make the reservation. The experience of feeling isolated or abandoned when a product (in this case the meal) changes is referred to as alienation. Alienation occurs when the expectation is underwhelmingly unmet and can lead to changes in buying behavior. Consumers often become promiscuous when dissatisfied, looking towards other options to better suit their needs, such as making a reservation at a competitor’s restaurant.

Products are not the only components of an experience that are able to alienate a consumer. Rebranding through communications or aesthetics can also lead a consumer to feeling disconnected. To avoid consumers reaching a place of marketplace alienation, it is important to find a balance of advancing without neglecting loyal consumers. How? By listening to the consumer through the idea of brand harmony. Brands consist of products, emotional, sensory and positioning experiences, as well as the visual identity. Creating a synergistic relationship promotes consumer relationships, understanding limitations, learning areas of potential growth and developing a unified company message (Petromilli & Morrison, 2002). The product or concept change still must meet expectations of the consumer experience to ensure satisfaction. By understanding the emotional reaction that target demographics have towards an item or a service will help companies build products to fit and flourish within consumer lifestyles.

Creatures of Habit

Daily activities are embedded with products, services and messaging. These components of life effect how consumers interact with products, including buying behavior. Habits have a major role in decision-making due to the formation of a habit loop of behavior consisting of cues, routines, and rewards (Eder & Dignath, 2019). Identifying the habit loop provides an opportunity to modify different parts of it, allowing product development to focus on consumer lifestyles. Using information gathered about consumers’ routines and acknowledging the existing footprint of the brand within the habit loop helps to create products that meets the needs of the consumer. The consumer-focus during the entire product cycle builds up the consumers reason to believe in a product. By ensuring the item or service fits the perception, the product experience as a whole can set the overall expectation.     

Risky Business

An estimated 80% of new products fail or underperform every year (Prahalad & Sawhney, 2011). A contributing factor to the huge turnover comes from not correctly identifying or contributing to an occasion. Considering the nature of the experience is crucial, since the context determines much of how a consumer will respond to it. For example, reformulating a cookie to have less sugar can seem like a great adjustment! It may even taste delicious, but is it what the consumer wants? If the value of the cookie is being a sweet treat, the new formula will be disappointing. Even if the cookie is an improvement by being better for the consumer’s health, the experience that the consumer anticipated is different. Furthermore, the innovation does not represent consumer expectation. To avoid alienating consumers, companies question if the change is noticeable and then explore how it is interpreted. Ultimately, the success of the change is decided by the positive or negative response of the consumer.

Changes within a company for any reason entails risk that current consumers will feel alienated and reject the new product. Some innovations may be an easy switch, while others are hard to adopt. The reformulation must consider the risk involved in making changes. Low risk changes are small pivots that are viewed as an extension of the overall product experience. Examples of low risk changes include Microsoft investing in gaming and Disney rolling out Disney+. When using implicit testing, the low risk prototypes are determined to have some harmony with the brand and concept but have a high certainty of response. With careful planning in messaging and communications, the change can be eased into the consumer routine and promote acceptance. 

Contrastingly, more extreme jumps have a higher risk of rejection because it’s a bigger stretch and may start a new narrative rather than stay consistent within the established brand identity. High risk products can be detected as prototypes with little to no harmony with the brand and/or concept and have low certainty during implicit testing. The disconnect between brand and product may confuse the consumer, potentially leaving them upset. Kendall Jenner’s infamous 2016 Pepsi commercial was not well-received by audiences due to its ignorant connotations of fixing systematic social issues with a can of soda. The backlash caused the commercial to get pulled, and Jenner had to make a public apology for her part in the ad. Brands work hard to build relationships with the consumer to enable loyalty. Altering perceptions of a product or person through bad messaging can feel like abandonment to consumers who identify with Pepsi or Jenner. Even if the product itself is wonderful on its own, the perceptions can overshadow the product experience. To mitigate risk, alienation market research can include learning the brand associations to help companies meet or surpass the accepted perceptions. 

Holistic Approach

No company goes out to change its product for the worse. The inevitable renovations and repositioning are built to improve, not challenge, consumers’ lives. Yet, the purpose of the product often misfires because of the disconnect between the product and the three types of consumers: potential, existing and lapsed. Reflecting on the consumer risks against benefits can help determine if the best strategy is being implemented to remain inclusive. Ignoring consumers only hurts the company by blindly attempting to rebrand or cut costs. The product, packaging, concept or communication is worthless unless someone validates it through use. By researching certain components of the overall product experience, companies can pinpoint places to cutback or lean into more to better position themselves in alignment with the consumer. Alienation testing engages with consumers to quantify the risk that may alter their purchase behaviors in response to the product changes.

Traditional research tools, focus groups or interviews, can provide the language consumers use. Starting with the consumers at the foundation keeps the innovations close to the users. The research design is dependent on what the company is trying to learn. By using the appropriate tool, the information can provide actionable results that can guide development. HCD employs a large amount of traditional and psycho-physiological tools to monitor interactions within the consumer experience. Using flexible and customizable research methods, companies can further explore how certain elements of the overall experience integrate into the consumers’ lifestyles. Evaluating the overlap of product experience with brand harmony bolsters success when introduced to the market by ensuring the product meets the promise. For more on HCD’s take on Marketplace Alienation, feel free to watch our latest webinar or episode of The HCD Vidcast at the links here.


Eder, A., & Dignath, D. (2019). Expected Value of Control and the Motivational Control of Habitual Action. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1812.

Petromilli, M., & Morrison, D. (2002). Creating brand harmony. Marketing Management, 11(4), 16-20.

Prahalad, D., & Sawhney, R. (2011). Predictable magic: unleash the power of design strategy to transform your business. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharton School Pub.

Lean into Friction: Qualities of Quarantine

The entire world has felt the jolt from the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19. Routines of daily life are disrupted, making even the most basic constructs change. Gathering is limited, children are home from school (and “pandemic-learning”), communication is distant, travel is scarce and even ways to get physical activity has become remote. While changes are difficult, people are quickly learning to acclimate. Rather than stopping during the initial shock, the world reassessed how to adjust to new limitations. Acknowledging new priorities and finding solutions on how to integrate them into life is crucial for enduring such a trying situation. Coping strategies acquired during this extraordinary time can promote growth that may extend far beyond the shelter-in-place timeline.

One of the many hurdles to overcome is giving up customs that often guide our lives, such as morning gym workouts, weekly date nights (or parent night out), or weekly happy hours at the local bar. Habits are formed through the repetition of behavior, eventually becoming something so ingrained it feels automatic and often emotionally comforting. A trigger is what sparks a behavioral-emotional habit loop of cues, routines and rewards which guides our lifestyles. People follow behavioral patterns in hopes of receiving the same desired outcome of a previous experience. Context is a key component to initiating a habit, which explains why people don’t call the dentist to schedule a haircut. The clients know from experience that dentists don’t cut hair. Memories, including the scissors on the hairdresser’s logo or a goodie-bag including floss at the dentist’s office, enforce expectations. Small changes to environmental cues, such as a long wait-time at the salon, are processed by our brain’s neural pathways to respond appropriately and store the new information if the same circumstance should happen in the future (Berkman, 2018). But what happens when the routine is completely flipped upside-down and inside-out? It can be an opportunity to hit the reset button and make real personal changes to our lifestyles.  

Just wipe the slate clean?

To explore human behavior effectively, concepts from behavioral economics help break down the process of choice. Analyzing the instinctive and unconscious (System 1) or rational and deliberate (System 2) modes of thinking will help to explain the way individuals respond to hardship (Kahneman, 2011). The extreme results of the COVID-19 outbreak resulted in a complete environmental change from the norm. The immediate response of fear is represented by the newfound value in toilet paper or hand sanitizer. Emotionally buying is a System 1 response to the uncertainty of a difficult situation. Yet, before worrying about the chaos caused by a lack of structure, it helps to remember two things: control and freedom. This is an opportunity to reflect on the habits embedded in our routine and decide if a particular routine helps or hurts. Instead of grabbing Starbucks while heading to the office, we now can decide if the morning caffeine intake from Starbucks is necessary or if brewing a cup at home will do the trick. Furthermore, the freedom of choice allows the individual to decide what routines should continue and which ones to leave behind.

@costcobuys on instagram

The disruption of behavior brings an explicit awareness of the effort needed for tasks often done automatically. With the need to stay home, virtual classes and online meetings have quickly been adopted by institutions and companies. Is traveling for meeting really optimal? Using a virtual format while capturing the essence of a physical event helps save time, money and travel while still maintaining the objective for connecting. Additionally, dismantling geographical barriers can promote brainstorming and innovation. Some families are having virtual parties with grandparents or chatting with classmates via FaceTime on cell phones. Platforms such as Zoom allow for face-to-face communications, while larger-scale events, such as social media concerts, are now available on Instagram Live where millions of users can listen to an artist in real-time. These adjustments to family dynamics, entertainment, business and educational discussions may have lasting effects and change the fundamental way people interact.     

While every challenging situation is unique, parallels can be drawn from past scenarios to show how periods of disruption can make lasting impacts. For example, Larcom, Rauch and Willems (2017) review how the London underground network strike forced commuters to change their morning routine to work. Since the underground rail network was not an option, commuters were forced to use other forms of public transportation- call a taxi, walk, bike or work remotely- until the strike ended. Exploring alternative methods motivated 5% of the commuters to permanently switch to more optimal travel options even when the strike ended (Larcom, Rauch, & Willems, 2017). Disruption, even if it seems inconvenient in the short term, may ultimately increase efficiency.

Let’s Reframe the Game Plan—More Social, More Distance

The World Health Organization (WHO), the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and local government officials are stressing the importance of staying home and minimizing contact. The message of distancing is important to emphasize how separation can save lives. However, individuals are being creative in finding socialization and avoiding isolation. Numerous community pages have started to share tips, ideas and strategies to overcome challenges. Colleges are offering virtual career fairs to students entering the workforce in May, while parents are swapping tips on ways to keep children entertained. Additionally, a new wave of “virtual volunteerism” is growing, where digital ‘Adopt a Grandparent’ programs for residents in nursing homes allow them to engage with other members of the community. Viral dances and memes about #quarantinelife and Netflix’s Tiger King are motivated by people seeking connection. Coalitions are developing from the need to network and improve, from business partnerships to various government agencies. Focusing on ways to realistically moderate challenges like COVID-19 will give insight into ways to adapt for future obstacles. Harnessing the motivation to collaborate, network and brainstorm ideas during times of hardship will promote growth and lay the groundwork for progression.  

“Viral dances and memes about #quarantinelife and Netflix’s Tiger King are motivated by people seeking connection.”

Lead the Change

In times of uncertainty, individuals look to others (meaning experts, families and companies) as guides for behavior. The comfort from finding strength in numbers is known in psychology as social proof or informational social cue (Talib & Saat, 2017). Marketers use this theory frequently to help convince consumers to purchase a product or service. Netflix famously has an algorithm for the “match percentage,” but this has virtually no meaning to users other than to address the paradox of choice. The additional information of a “95% match,” even if it has no meaning, helps justify decisions because it provides an excuse. Furthermore, social community recommendations, celebrity suggestions and numbers of likes can also sway public opinion and influence action. Individuals will look to the power of the public opinion for guidance as this period is a time of reset. Understanding how disrupting our normal routine has a bigger purpose can be a source of motivation during this challenging time. The circumstances force people to think outside the box about ways to connect, challenge and better themselves (or at least squeeze in some time to laugh at memes).


Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan.

Larcom, S., Rauch, F., & Willems, T. (2017). The benefits of forced experimentation: striking evidence from the London underground network. The Quarterly Journal of Economics132(4), 2019-2055.

Talib, Y. Y. A., & Saat, R. M. (2017). Social proof in social media shopping: An experimental design research. In SHS Web of Conferences (Vol. 34, p. 02005). EDP Sciences.

Adjusting to New Norms: Consumers and Market Research Now

From family members to research houses to end clients, the entire world has been impacted by the pandemic and working to understand how to adjust and progress forward. The phrase “new normal” has latched onto numerous conversations since the start of COVID-19. Change has inevitably caused a shift in priorities and expectations, leaving companies questioning how to get to the next phase. Relative importance from the start of 2020 to now, it is easy to pick out aspects of life which are being prioritized. Haircuts are put on hold, while Wi-Fi connections are of the upmost importance. By reviewing trends in consumer perceptions regularly, assessing what ideals remain consistent, valued or abandoned is possible. During this unprecedented time with lots of uncertainty, research solutions can provide stable consumer information to help build strong strategies for finding a way forward to meet future needs and habits.  

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Amidst the overwhelming chaos of the COVID-19 news and the new situations we find ourselves in, it may be comforting to know that fundamental challenges can be met with creative solutions. Social distancing inspired virtual cocktail hours, online classes and videogame hangouts. Individuals change their behaviors because it is the only option and can make an impact on a large scale. Items of critical needs, like protective face shields for medical personnel, are being crafted by 3D printers. Scarcity in equipment, products or services encourages consumers to think outside the box and explore alternative options.

Food is one of the most basic necessities. To address the concerns regarding public places and widespread shortages, consumers are turning to grocery delivery, curbside pickups and online shopping. Each of these methods for food shopping is unique, from the amount of interaction with the store itself to the amount of information. The experience of shopping in a physical store compared to online is very different. Rather than browsing aisles and seeing attractive packages, consumers are scrolling through browsers or apps on their phone seeing vastly different information and imagery. The format of a website or app highlights different features of the product as opposed to being in-person and on a shelf. These differences in format (in-store vs online) will elicit different consumer perceptions and ultimately influence purchase behaviors. For example, in-store package design and shelf location may drive purchase behaviors, while online emphasis on pricing per ounce may be more influential.

Figure 1: An example of in-store (left) vs online shopping (right) via an app.

The process of online grocery shopping may involve a bit of a learning curve for people who typically shop in-store. However, companies are working hard to ensure apps are simple to entice consumers to continue shopping without having to leave their couch. And these new learned behaviors (and future habits) may even be able to translate into becoming a part of the consumers’ behavior when they return to stores, such as incorporating apps in planning their shopping lists.

The Norm is Dead; Long Live the Norm

When one king passes away, the order of succession is enacted, and the next king is crowned to replace him. Similarly, if a past norm is no longer relevant, another norm (or a stronger metric) will follow in its place. Yet, norms may not provide the most accurate factors for assessing current environments, especially if drastic changes are occurring.

HCD has used norms in the past, as this is the client expectation in media and communications research. However, we have often seen and pointed out problems we have seen in using norms to make business decisions. For example, following the great recession experienced in 2008, HCD collected data via survey ranking Super Bowl ads based on performance against normative scores. Criteria for the normative scores was based on historical data defining what score an ad would need to meet to be successful. Due to our concerns around a set historical normative score, we relied on floating norms, reassessing the score needed to be successful for each year. What you can see in the graph below is that this score decreased each year following the recession. Meaning a successful ad in 2010 would not have been considered successful in 2008. This should be a red flag for anyone that relies on historical norms to make their business decisions. Further, you can see that the top 5 ads in the years following the recession would not have been successful. This clearly demonstrates the dangers of relying on historical norms for making business decisions.

Figure 2: (Top) Demonstrates the normative scores for the 2008, 2009 and 2010 Super Bowl advertisements. (Bottom) Breaks down and ranks the scores for the top 5 performing Super Bowl ads for the years 2008, 2009 and 2010.  

Extraordinary times reveal the importance of being flexible to new perspectives. The pandemic is an opportunity to try a new approach that may yield better solutions. Keep a fresh perspective and an open mind. Long live the king, but maybe it’s time to put the queen in charge.

Correctly Capturing the Current (and Continuing) Changes

Adjusting to COVID-19 social distancing and stay-at-home mandates requires our behavior to change and for people to learn new ways to shop. Brand loyalty is also disrupted due to scarcity of products allowing for alternative brands and products to be showcased. If toilet paper availability is low, consumers have the option to use wipes or tissues. Additionally, the way companies react to the pandemic may also influence a consumer’s allegiance to a brand. Consumers may be more enticed to support a company donating supplies compared to a company laying off numerous employees. Seeing how a company responds during a crisis may attract or deter a consumer, especially because the circumstances are very emotional. Understanding the consumer mentality helps companies develop messaging, concepts or products that satisfy essential concerns and make better predictions of market success. Habits are a cycle of cues, routines and rewards shaping our behaviors and lifestyles. When the habit cycle is disrupted by a crisis, it presents an opportunity for brands and products to make new impressions that supersede the previous expectation. The massive routine changes occurring right now are forcing consumers to explore new options. To meet the consumers’ ideal need, habit, and lifestyle, it is crucial to understand how the current environment is shifting feelings, values and priorities.  

Figure 3: An example of a Brand Tracking wave to understand the process of HCD’s MaxImplicit when applied to Brand Tracking.   

Reviewing how disruptions change perceptions or habits over time is useful for companies to understand when trying to connect with consumers. One way for companies to monitor behavioral trends involves the concept of brand tracking. It calls for systematic evaluations of the performance of particular stimuli. The item or concept tracked can range from studying the company, an existing product, an ad campaign or the launch of an entirely new product. Anthropologically gathering information around the language surrounding certain brands or products can give a strong foundation for being closer to consumers to understand unmet or satisfied needs. HCD’s MaxImplicit analyzes the associations of consumer needs to evaluate the health of a company against competitors and determine areas of potential innovation. Learning the way consumers react to hardship can help companies position themselves to better align with the consumers’ interests. Remaining malleable during a time of change enables a company to better accommodate consumers by discovering and satisfying new ideals. Revisiting the stimuli frequently can give insight into whether product expectation waivers temporarily or permanently, helping to determine how to structure campaigns, products and communications.

Brand tracking is also useful in evaluating the recovery period. As life settles back into a routine, some habits developed during the period of disruption will remain while some original behaviors will return. Physical environments may trigger habits connected to certain places, such as hitting the gym after work. Yet, life will not be the same because everyone has been impacted by the extreme influence of COVID-19. The skills gained during the pandemic may overpower original habits because it allows for a more optimal experience. Virtual movie nights with extended family or grocery shopping with an app may integrate into the lifestyle developed by past experiences, including COVID-19.

Many companies are leveraging COVID-19 behavior into a use case to move with consumers into the new normal. Messaging changes how companies connect with consumers. State Farm’s New Normal commercial is an ode to consumers for adjusting to an ever-changing world with State Farm remaining reliable. Other companies are reframing messaging to address new values, like cleaning. WeatherTech, an automotive protection product company, released a campaign to addresses the importance of disinfecting products. The ad highlights how surfaces are easy to wipe and machine washable. Acknowledging the priorities of the current and future environment, research houses and end-clients promote growth via communications, design and concepts to extend far beyond the shelter-in-place timeline.

Video: WeatherTech COVID-19: Disinfectants Ad Commercial aired in 2020.

Companies and consumers are products of past experiences; however, as situations unfold, we are dependent on our growth from the past to improve. While individuals are given the opportunity to shift their habit loop during disruptive moments, it also empowers them to either dissociate or integrate brands or companies into the new patterns. Listening to consumer concerns and catering the product experience to the new priorities promotes a stronger and valued connection. Remaining prevalent through outreach and market tracking acknowledges the flux in interest during unprecedented times. By delivering on the identified needs, brands match consumer ideals. Using this time to connect, reflect and strategize will ultimately promote stronger products and messaging that acknowledge the experiences of consumers.

The Show Must Go On: Consumer Research During Difficult Times

Navigating the COVID-19 situation has proved to dramatically shift the daily lives of entire countries. The COVID-19 pandemic evolves at a rapid pace with the uncertainty of when the outbreak will abate, resulting in a lot of unrest. Job security, travel restrictions and mandatory lockdowns are just some of the variables impacting daily life. For the latest updates regarding COVID-19, please consult the CDC, World Health Organization (WHO) and local government websites as recommendations will vary by location. While the safety of employees, recruiters, researchers and participants is at the utmost importance, the health of many companies is also suffering. Market research must reposition and adapt to the current status of restrictions and limitations set forth by government officials. To help alleviate the outbreak spread, new efforts can be put forth to keep the health and safety of all individuals who contribute to research at the forefront of planning. Conducting research does not have to cease, but it absolutely must evolve to appropriately respond to the current environment.

The New York Times

We must take steps to flatten the curve.   

At the same time, it is also important to us, as an innovative research supplier, to look for ways to continue to meet client and industry needs. Below we will discuss the steps HCD is taking to accommodate our research during this difficult time as discussed on our webinar on March 19, 2020.

A Solutions-Based Approach

With almost thirty years of experience in the market research industry, HCD has been around the block and has learned that accommodating during hard times is necessary. During times of crisis or economic turmoil, such as 9/11, company and consumer moods change drastically. Companies look inward to advance, while the focus on target markets diminishes. Precipitous change forces a shift in product positioning to meet the needs of the environment.

In 2001, examples of adaptability were shown in the increase of tele-web and telephone interviews. Any hesitation to incorporating internet usage in the job market faded as it was a useful way to modify services while still performing. Similar responses occurred during the market crash of 2008, where companies reflected on consumer attitudes and adapted to the new perspectives. Consumer confidence declined causing companies to reposition and rebuild trust. To continue to innovate, challenging times promote partnerships, collaboration and discussion. Our research works to select optimal methodologies appropriate for each unique research question. By diversifying in client base and services, HCD can match the demands of the environment while producing quality research. We flourish in hard times by working together towards new and exciting opportunities to advance. 

Start from the Ground Up

The safety of our employees, partners, clients and research participants is of the first and foremost importance. Doing a wellness check on research partners, employees, clients and research participants is crucial in times of distress to act as a gentle reminder that their health will always remain a main concern. We encourage efforts which help minimize the spread of the virus, such as practicing social distancing, self-isolating after travel for at least 14 days, limiting nonessential travel, avoiding large crowds, keeping up with hand hygiene and disinfecting common surfaces. Hashtags like #JustStayHome and #FlattenTheCurve are circulating on news and social media platforms to encourage behavioral change, spread awareness about ways to stop the virus from propagating and ultimately diminish the demands on the healthcare system. Converting in-person meetings to virtual meetings is an easy alternative that reflects how the wellbeing of teammates, clients and their families is a top priority. 

In-Person Fielding

As news of COVID-19 increased and the threat became more real, HCD responded by remaining flexible in the ever-changing climate. Questions about travel, illness or illness exposure were incorporated into the participant screening criteria, while also including day-of calls to ensure that no additional symptoms developed since being screened. As seen in many industries, HCD eased cancellation policies over concerns regarding the virus to contribute to minimizing the contact and spread. Additionally, sanitization stations and providing PPE (personal protective equipment) were very important for research that continued.

HCD employs physiological tools, such as fEMG, GSR and HR, which require in-person contact. Projects involving this type of research needed to change. While the equipment and surfaces are disinfected regularly as part of the protocol, it was important to reinforce these habits during this time to provide comfort to participants by showingthem how we were protecting them. Additionally, protective gear, such as gloves or masks, was available to individuals attending on-site research during the original discussions around COVID-19.

Technicians were also briefed on other physiological considerations that the toll of COVID-19 may have on participants. Part of technician training involves knowing how to navigate the conversations with a participant to help the participant reach a stable baseline. Emotional contagions, like a calm voice, stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to help it adjust to the dynamic of the environment. However, anxieties during trying times may elevate stress levels which could result in a moving baseline. While it is healthy (and actually a great immune booster) to have inflections throughout the day, reporting on a participant in a prolonged agitated state will not provide strong findings. If a participant arrived in a prolonged agitated state, the technician may have decided to not include that individual in the study.

HCD and our clients were consistently reevaluating the situation to make changes as necessary. Rightfully postponing or reassessing methodologies for online capabilities guaranteed the safety of all members involved in the research. Even in the current landscape surrounding COVID-19, as lockdowns emerge, HCD seeks out ways to evolve and elevate research designs while complying with the recommendations of our public health organizations.

Very Virtual

Remaining flexible is a key component to adjusting to the climate while still providing great research alternatives. Postponing in-person research or using online forums are ways to discourage unnecessary contact. The growth in discussions and innovations will allow market research to accommodate client services while still providing high quality research. 

Understanding and analyzing how a consumer responds, perceives and evaluates a stimulus is imperative in gaining actionable findings. HCD integrates traditional, psychological and psychophysiological tools to give value to the research by matching the right tools with the right question. Remote traditional research can be designed with the following:    

  • IDI (In-depth Interviews): Digital work, such as video streaming, is an effective method to convert to a no-contact research approach while still gaining in-depth responses. Moderators can connect with participants in remote places to conduct in-depth interviews or focus groups. Furthermore, videos of the interviews (with the proper consent forms) may be recorded for later review. Streaming services frequently provide features, such as chatrooms, for clients to communicate directly with the moderator or members of the market research team while the interviews are being conducted. Also, the client can curate potential questions for the moderator to utilize in the interview in real-time by taking advantage of the chatroom.
  • MaxDiff: MaxDiff is a forced choice method allowing the researchers to determine ranked priorities. Consumer buying behaviors shift during times of crisis, giving companies an opportunity to reevaluate and learn about the new preferences. Catering to these changes quickly is both comforting and beneficial to the consumer, while helping products or communications improve.

Comprehensive research may include gaining more insight into research questions through employing behaviorally driven exploration such as:  

  • Behavioral Coding: Usability projects, such as website design, can also use screen sharing or screen recording methodologies to learn about consumer computer behaviors. Observing the user experience without interrupting it promotes a more naturalistic experience, thus showing how consumers interact with specific exposures. Furthermore, HCD can provide diagnostic suggestions backed by behavioral economics to help guide the consumer to better interact with the stimulus design.
  • Eye Tracking:  Learning about the visual attention of a consumer gives insight into where the person is looking, ultimately detecting areas of interest or places or components lacking fixations. Print ads, messaging, websites and video advertisements benefit by analyzing the outputs of eye tracking, such as heatmaps.

Furthermore, psychological tools can measure emotion virtually through a large sample size of a target demographic.  

  • Implicit Testing: Consumers are learning to adapt to the current environment, which ultimately affects future purchases. By following consumer associations, companies can gauge how to innovate for the normative needs. Detecting the strength of automatic associations between words and stimuli via this timed reaction test can help reveal perceptions of brands, concepts and product experiences. Unlike the traditional check-all-that-apply (CATA) and scale questions, IAT differentiates the strength of each attribute.
    • Merging MaxDiff with implicit testing is a powerful combination that can be conducted completely remotely. Comparing the highest priority concepts to the association strengths of the product reveals the congruency of the product meeting the expectations of the consumer and possible improvement innovation opportunities.
  • Self-Assessment Manikin (SAM): The intensity of the different underlying dimensions of pleasure, arousal and dominance are measured in this non-verbal pictorial assessment. The three dimensions map out a participant’s response to a product without concerns regarding language barriers, making widespread research very accessible with this measure.
    • Furthermore, HCD offers a virtual version of the patented Mood Map (U.S. Pat. No. 10,430,810). Mood Map LITE uses the numerical dimensions of SAM to concisely summarize the tested experience. Mood Map LITE is a remote and cost-effective way to determine levels of emotional and perceptual congruency. 

Times are Changing

During this period of disruption, companies can reconnect with target demographics to better understand consumers. Use this time to explore the market space- try to investigate target consumers with fresh methodologies to learn the language, trends and associations tied to products. Identifying the unmet needs of the market by reconnoitering routines via qualitative research will allow for productive product developments, updated communications, and ultimately, workplace success.

Companies can revisit and review the habits of consumers by learning about the new necessities as the world continues to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances. HCD assisted in creating consumer technical models with the tools measured throughout this blog to understand behavior and gain information about inconveniences that can be improved upon through innovation. Innovation and adaptability occur out of necessity for growth. Challenging times are wonderful opportunities to build partnerships, overcome obstacles and learn through experiences together. While the COVID-19 pandemic is uncharted territory, HCD is committed to supporting our employees, clients and partnerships. The company’s diligence in producing quality research to serve a global market has historically aided in streamlining powerful market research tools. The inevitable changes and limitations which result from COVID-19 may provide the foundation for collaborations or ideas to aid the market research field in continuous progress. If you are interested in starting a conversation with our team about overcoming challenges of the current marketing place, please contact Allison Gutkowski at

How to Keep People in the Mood: The Art of an Efficient Ad Campaign

Over the past decade alone, the mediums in which advertisements are viewed have grown rapidly. From television ads and billboards to social media and app advertisements, the various options of exposure have exploded. Yet, with all this potential, ad runs must beg the question of campaign fatigue or wearout. The concept of wearout, or the decline of a response to an ad, is challenging to study since ad exposure cannot exist in a vacuum. Technology provides numerous instantaneous luxuries and distractions making it more challenging to capture the attention of the consumer. As the window of attention shrinks, innovative methods of exposure to products are becoming more important. Gaining consumer insight into the values, disadvantages and priorities of an ad campaign offers a strong foundation in discovering the formula to an effective ad.

Time to Make a Choice

Convenience is a huge factor as to why people are choosing to use on-demand services as opposed to traditional television. One appeal of streaming media is the limited number of ads, forcing ad agencies to seek out ways to create more engaging content. Personalizing ads is commonly seen on Hulu, where viewers can choose which ad to watch. This method is known as advertisement choice, where the consumer is given more agency via selective exposure (Nettelhorst, Jetter, Brannon & Entring, 2017). Having choice creates more favorable attitudes (Schlosser & Shavitt, 2009) and desirability (Ackerman & Gross, 2006).

Research has consistently shown women to be more interested, informed and impacted by ads compared to men. Why?  Centering an individual’s attention on an ad is a huge element in making an impact, and women are more likely to remain more focused on the ad. Similarly, the ability to choose ads has a stronger impact on women (Nettelhorst, Jeter & Brannon, 2014). More ad options create a cognitive reaction to the messaging, focusing attention. However, there can be a point of oversaturation too, known as choice overload (Nettelhorst et al, 2017). Too many options can lead an individual to feel overwhelmed (choice paralysis) and dissatisfied. Cognitive and behavioral outcomes are influenced by many variables, making it hard to predict the impact of personal choice. However, we do know for sure that the ad message is lost unless the consumer is attentive and engaged.

Campaign Wearouts

Campaign wearout occurs when the effectiveness of an ad starts to wane over time. Effectiveness can be measured in several different ways, including sales, purchase intent, consumer awareness and brand/product recall. Individual behavior, such as online browsing behaviors, website cookies or television channel changes, can help profile consumers and segments (Chae, Bruno & Feinberg, 2019) to provide a better understanding of target audiences. The ultimate goal of any campaign is to create and increase familiarity with a brand, leading to purchase or some sort of action. Market researchers for campaigns try to uncover what design and approach will best benefit a return on investment of ads and other components of a campaign for marketers. Many companies favor repeating campaigns because of the cost benefits and increasing consumer views. However, negative associations and inattention can be byproducts of overplaying an ad (Calder & Sternthal, 1980).

Campaign reach, or the number of views, can depend on the platforms (mobile, cable tv, streaming services, etc.) for the ads. Viewership can dramatically fluctuate between platforms— up to 50 times based on online advertising versus traditional channels (Chae, Bruno & Feinberg, 2019). For example, ads on TV are often connected to online searches to predict market performance. Joo, Wilbur and Zhu (2016) found that consumers tend to search brand related words (such as “Geico”) rather than a generic word (such as “car insurance”) when initial exposure is from a TV ad. Retargeting is when a consumer is nudged towards a product through online ads, such as banners, after the consumer already demonstrated interest in the product, but do not purchase it. Additionally, retargeting displaces or blocks competitor ads from consumers (Sahni, Narayanan, & Kalyanam, 2019). The use of online retargeting has become a more popular tactic to increase user engagement and lure consumers back to the product.

Crossovers, or when campaign ads are featured on multiple platforms, are becoming more frequently implemented as marketing networks become more interconnected. Online exposure and traditional channels utilize similar attempts to keep content engaging. Interchangeable variables of an ad, such as the format or phrasing, are paired with an underlining consistent component. Yet, extreme personalization of styles and plots can each separately influence how a consumer will respond (Chang, 2009), furthering the notion that fatigue for ad exposure is a truly individualized experience (Chae, Bruno & Feinberg, 2019). So, if repetition and customization tend to have varying effects, what’s the point of investing in ads at all?

Current research on campaign wearout is full of contradictions. Along with the need for clarification about what qualifies as campaign wearout, identifying wearout may depend on the format or field setting. Consumer research labs analyze the individual response, while empirical market-level studies consider a macro view. Furthermore, most of the research analyzing ad fatigue focuses on the behavioral components (such as market success), while empirical evidence (showing direct cause and effect) regarding campaign wearout is scarce. When reviewing a more macro level sample, insignificant changes were found in various studies testing themes, format models, and exposure levels (Chae, Bruno & Feinberg, 2019). While there are benefits and limitations to both styles of research, noting various perspectives on campaign wearout helps to develop a comprehensive, informed understanding of the concept’s complexity. More research is needed to better understand and predict campaign fatigue.  

A Quick Trip Down ~Memory~ Lane

Advertisements can be categorized into different subsets based on how a company executes a segment. For example, an ad is generally considered either an argumentative or narrative ad. Narrative ads include stories or experiences of a relatable character, while an argumentative ad focuses on justifying the reasons for a claim (Chang, 2009). A narrative ad typically includes a plot to entice viewers to remain engaged. Yet, more complicated ads can lead to consumer confusion and misunderstanding. Within the realm of narrative ads, the extensive plots lead to less favorable ad attitudes when compared to more consistent plot strategies (Chang, 2009). To easily capture the consumer’s attention and understanding, keep it simple.      

Most research that has been conducted on campaign fatigue centers on the immediate reactions to varying levels of exposure. Increasing exposure (viewers) allows for more opportunities for consumers to get the message (Schmidt & Eisend, 2015). However, more views do not directly cause a consumer to run out and purchase the product. Rather than focusing on the direct impact, the long-term effects must also be valued. Just look at how back-to-school ads often start only a few weeks into the summer and holiday items are quick to be pushed into the ad circuit. Expanding the duration of seasonal shopping, such as holiday items in August, can have surprising benefits for participating brands.    

Kronrod and Huber (2018) found long-term benefits of a high initial frequency ad that promotes a product lacking inherent need, such as makeup or headphones. The study concluded that although there are immediate negative effects to high frequency ads; ultimately, the fatigue itself wears off and positive familiarity of the brand persists when considering purchases. Furthermore, measuring the effects of ad repetition may not be appropriate during the campaign, since this study supports that opinions (and buying decisions) change over time. Familiarity and fluency are key features of durable ad messaging.  

So, where do we go from here?

Plan and reflect on the product, your goals and the demographic you want to target for your campaign. Prioritize among expenditure, exposure or engagement to help you shape the components you are willing to optimize or sacrifice. Determining your company’s position may differ depending on the type of brand or product involved, since budgets and objectives vary among companies. Knowing the key focus will also provide some leeway in experimentations. New concepts are constantly being tested to determine alternative ways to share content. Some weigh engagement based on desirability, while others focus on more data-driven responses to build interactions. Defining your company’s position on engagement will guide you to decide what type of research approach you wish to employ.  

Testing ads on Facebook is an easy and cheap way to connect consumers to content; however, exposure may not equate to engagement. Grabbing consumers attention on a site that is saturated with information can be challenging. Pre-testing exploratory research can cater to developing attractive content. Similarly, pre-testing can ensure that the correct platform is being used to target specific demographics. For example, companies are shifting their emphasis from traditional consumer markets to internet-based commercial activity to gain insight into effective marketing channels. Confirming that your target demographic interacts with those channels provides security that the content is viewed. Similarly, testing the ads to best fit the format of the varying mediums (ex. a Youtube ad vs a banner) can help determine where attention is being drawn. Merging the information understood about ad content with innovative platforms will help determine a campaign approach most beneficial for the company needs.   

Long-term familiarity is a consistent objective in order to draw consumers into a product. The target consumer, amount of exposure and cost must be deliberately chosen to minimize surprise during a campaign ad run. Chae, Bruno and Feinberg (2019) summarize the most crucial components of a harmonious ad campaign by sharing that “…it is vital to understand the relative effectiveness across users, within-user over repetition and spacing of exposures, and the channels to reach those users.” By hitting these key elements, and considering the emotional implications of an ad, there can be a stronger indicator of success not necessarily during the airing of an ad, but where it counts the most—during checkout.

For more information on how HCD can help you uncover valuable insights into your brand, product, messaging, please reach out to Allison Gutkowski (


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