Matters of Preference
Dipayan Biswas wants to know what you like. More to the point, he wants to know why you like it. The associate professor of marketing has studied people’s responses in sampling “experiential” products -- beverages, music, fragrances, and the like – which appeal directly to the senses.
His research into the factors that influence consumer preferences has turned up a surprise: A product’s impression on the taste buds or ear drums matters less than you would expect. More influential, perhaps, is the order in which products are sampled.
“It’s called the ‘recency effect,’” Biswas says of the concept, which hails from the field of psychology. “When you sample multiple products that are only slightly different from one another – and control for everything else – people usually like best whatever they sampled last.”
Secrets of Sequence
Biswas began investigating experiential and sensory issues soon after joining the Bentley faculty in 2004. The topic’s test run took place in the classroom, as he engaged marketing students to sample different types of beverages. The results were intriguing enough to inspire a set of formalized studies, which presented beverage samples to participants under a variety of manipulated conditions.
“We tried to determine the effects of order,” explains Biswas, who holds a PhD from the University of California at Irvine. “When sampling multiple beverages, do you like the one you sampled earlier in the sequence, or the one you sampled later?”
Biswas was among the first in marketing to explore sensory issues in this way. His findings were quite different from those of traditional studies, which examined how order affects non-sensory issues; this work points predominantly to a “primacy effect.”
“That means, when you have multiple pieces of information – prices of different products, for example – people remember the first piece most vividly,” says Biswas. “My study found the complete opposite: When you sample multiple experiential products or products high on sensory aspects, the effects reverse.”
The paper he went on to write – “How the Order of Sampled Experiential Products Affects Choice” – earned an award from the American Marketing Association and publication in the Journal of Marketing Research.
Biswas balances research with his other roles at Bentley, notably, teaching courses such as Strategic Brand Management and International Marketing. In September 2010, he was named associate director of the university’s PhD program. His off-campus commitments include serving as associate editor of the European Journal of Marketing.
Additional scholarly papers are in the works, too, as Biswas takes his study of experiential and sensory issues into other areas.
“One project looks at how perfumes and colognes are evaluated,” he explains. “I’m also re-examining beverage and food sampling scenarios, but evaluating the influence of additional factors, like hunger.”
Among those to take note: telecommunications firm Nokia, which invited Biswas to Finland to talk about experiential sensory issues related to the product usage experience.
“Companies are competing a lot for consumer attention, so issues related to sensory aspects can make big difference,” explains Biswas, citing the annual $1 billion-plus that U.S. companies spend on product samples. “The order in which products are sampled needs to be considered, since the sequence will strongly influence the consumer’s final evaluation of a product.”