It's Got the Look: The Effect of Friendly and Aggressive “Facial” Expressions on Product Liking and Sales

Jan R. Landwehr, Ann L. McGill, & Andreas Herrmann
Journal of Marketing
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Consumers appear to see faces in the design of some products. The present research is intended to explore consumers’ interpretation of the emotional expressions on these designed faces and their effect on liking and sales. The human face poses an evolutionary, highly relevant stimulus configuration that is processed faster and with more attention than most other stimuli in the environment and that has the potential to elicit strong emotions in an observer. Therefore, designers may configure the functional components of products such as buttons, knobs, clasps, lights, or openings to correspond to the most important elements of a human face, thereby encouraging consumers to anthropomorphize these products—that is, to see them as partially human. A common example is the front end of a car where the headlights look like eyes and the grille like a mouth.

However, marketers are provided limited guidance from the scientific literature about how to design these products to convey specific emotions and to maximize liking. The present research is intended to fill this gap by establishing a link between concrete emotional product shapes and relevant consumers' responses such as liking judgments or buying decisions based on four studies. The first study focuses on cars and examines to what extent the shape of the headlights and the grille influence consumers' perceptions of friendliness and aggressiveness. This study tests the hypothesis that people will interpret features of objects as they do human facial features in assessing the emotional expression and confirms findings from research on human faces: Friendliness is exclusively perceived in a car's grille (~ mouth), while aggressiveness is perceived in both headlights (~ eyes) and grille (~ mouth). Building on this finding, the second study shows that people prefer designs that elicit an experience of high pleasure accompanied by high arousal. This kind of affective experience results when people perceive both aggressiveness and friendliness simultaneously, which, as shown in the first study, can only be achieved when a friendly looking grille is combined with aggressive looking headlights. Thus, the authors conclude that this combination of emotional shapes should be preferred in car designs. The third study attests to the external validity of their findings by examining real sales data of cars in the German market and replicating the preference pattern observed in the second study. The fourth study further replicates the results with another product category (cell phones) to ensure the results are not peculiar to automobiles. The present research thus offers concrete advice to designers about how to convey two specific emotional expressions and how such designs affect liking and sales.

Jan R. Landwehr is Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. He holds a diploma degree in psychology from the University of Wuerzburg, Germany, and a PhD in marketing from the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. His research focuses on product design, aesthetics, and consumer decision making.

Ann L. McGill is Sears Roebuck Professor of General Management, Marketing and Behavioral Science, Booth School of Business, University of Chicago, joining the school as a faculty member in 1997. She served as the Deputy Dean for the Full-Time MBA Programs at Chicago Booth from 2001 to 2003. She received her doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1997, subsequently holding positions at New York University and Northwestern University. She has also been a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University; Sasin Graduate Institute of Business Administration (Thailand); and INSEAD. She is the 2005 recipient of the McKinsey Award for Excellence in Teaching and the 2006 recipient of the Provost’s Teaching Award. Her research focuses on consumer and manager decision making with special emphasis on product and brand anthropomorphism, causal reasoning, shared consumption, imagery, and freedom of choice. She presently serves as editor of the Journal of Consumer Research.

Andreas Herrmann is professor of marketing at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland and Director of the Center for Customer Insight, joining the school as a faculty member in 2002. He was a professor of marketing at University of Mainz, Germany, from 1997 to 2002. He received his doctorate from the Koblenz School of Corporate Management. His research focuses on product design, consumer decision making, and pricing policy.

Journal of Marketing, Volume 75, Number 3, May 2011
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Jan R. Landwehr, Ann L. McGill, & Andreas Herrmann
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