Summer is coming: How temperature affects consumer habits

By Shilpa Madan

This article investigates the impact of temperature on consumer purchase behaviours, and the link between warmer weather and an increased reliance on ‘social proof’.
– Research published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology shows that warm temperatures increase the reliance on social proof: being exposed to warm temperatures predisposes consumers to choose products that are preferred by a vast majority.
– Summer is a good time to highlight strong numbers, be it market share or endorsement, and summer special variants or new launches from established brands would benefit from a recommendation by the ‘parent’.
– Research shows that warm temperatures (even in a reasonably comfortable range), deplete our cognitive processing ability resulting in less thought through, potentially sub-optimal purchase decisions.
– Participants in a warm room were more likely to reject an innovative product in favor of a safer, more established product as heat makes it more difficult to evaluate pros and cons.

With temperatures soaring across Asia, the stage is set for a bumper summer for consumer products. Hardly surprising, as 60% of the world’s population rushes to embrace drinks, desserts, lotions, and potions that promise respite from the oppressive heat. That ambient temperature plays a huge role in our daily lives is evident in the fact that our homes and cars come with sophisticated temperature control systems to suit specific requirements. As such, the link between rising temperatures and demand for cooling products is a no brainer. However, the story is more nuanced than that.

We have all experienced our body language change depending on how we think / feel. For e.g., students who scored low in an exam were more likely to slouch, compared to the high scorers who stood “taller”.  Counterintuitively, extant research in social psychology also demonstrates the opposite effect. In other words, how we feel (physically), can affect what we think (cognitively) and feel (emotionally). Specifically, our outward (bodily) sensations can influence the way we perceive people and things, and shape preferences and choices, without conscious thought. In a fascinating experiment, participants holding a cup of warm coffee (vs. iced coffee) were more likely to perceive a stranger as warm, helpful, and trustworthy. Being exposed to a warm cup for a minuscule amount of time was enough to influence the notion of interpersonal warmth.

Termed Embodied Cognition, Harvard Business Review defines it as “the idea that without our conscious awareness, our bodily sensations help determine the decisions we make.” In other words, what we feel affects what we think and do.

Good time for big brands

Social proof is marketers’ favored persuasion tactic since time immemorial. Consider Whiskas’ slogan “Preferred by 8 out of 10 cats”, a recent skin care campaign saying “95% women prefer Brand X over Brand Y” or telecom companies celebrating subscriber milestones with great fan fair. Brands celebrate big numbers because there is safety in numbers. Popularity is a good proxy, a relevant heuristic for quality and worth.

Fascinating research published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology shows that warm temperatures increase the reliance on social proof. In other words, warm temperatures make conformity more compelling. Being exposed to warm temperatures predisposes consumers to choose products that are preferred by a vast majority.  Across a series of studies, consumers in a warm room chose varied objects such as remote controls, sofas, bicycles, and GPS devices with dominant market shares and those preferred by a large number of others. More interestingly, the effect was confirmed in the real world in a high stakes race track betting scenario over a three year period. On warm days, the bets were more likely to converge on the “favorite” horse. In other words, the option favored by a majority of betters (despite the low returns it offered!).

In summary, summer is a good time to highlight strong numbers, be it market share or endorsement. Further, summer special variants or new launches from established brands would benefit from a recommendation by the ‘parent’.

Why take a risk?

In stark contrast to the Western hemisphere, summer in Asia is hardly a happy, playful time. The reality is less romantic, accompanied by sweat, grime, and tempers running short. Not surprisingly, research shows that warm temperatures (even in a reasonably comfortable range), deplete our cognitive processing ability. In simple words, less thought through, potentially sub optimal decisions.

In a series of studies in Journal of Marketing Research, the researchers show that warm temperatures deteriorate performance in complex choice tasks and increase reliance on “safe choices”. Simply put, thermal load reduces the ability to weigh in risks versus benefits. When asked to evaluate two different cell phone plans, participants in the warm room ended up choosing a sub-optimal, more expensive plan. Further, participants in a warm room were more likely to reject an innovative product in favor of a safer, more established product (difficult to evaluate pros and cons). While we couldn’t find country specific data for Asia, research shows that rapid adoption of new, innovative products takes twice as long in Mediterranean countries (7.4 years), compared to Scandinavian countries (4 years).

In summary, consumers avoid making complex decisions under thermal load and if forced to do so, use rules of thumb or heuristics to guide their decisions. Further, and very interestingly, adoption of new and innovative products may be slower in warmer temperatures.

Christmas comes early

Think gifting is limited to Christmas time? You are not alone. What else can explain the absence of super pretty and oh-so-tempting gift packs from the shelves during summer time? Turns out that summer may not be such a dry season for gifting as such. Research shows that participants experiencing warm temperatures were more likely to get a gift for their friends (rather than themselves) versus participants experiencing cold temperatures. In the warm condition, 54% people chose a gift for a friend, compared to only 25% in the cold condition.  Dear Sephora, its time showcase those drool worthy gift packs all through the year!

In summary, the experience of warmer temperatures affects us in myriad ways that alter what we buy (low risk, established products and brands), how we buy (on gut), and who we buy for (more for friends and family). Marketers across industries, and not just those who drink and ice creams, can leverage the nuances of embodied cognition to make sultry summer their stellar season!

References:
1. Cheema, A., & Patrick, V. M. (2012). Influence of warm versus cool temperatures on consumer choice: A resource depletion account. Journal of Marketing Research, 49(6), 984-995.

2. Huang, X. I., Zhang, M., Hui, M. K., & Wyer Jr, R. S. (2014). Warmth and conformity: The effects of ambient temperature on product preferences and financial decisions. Journal of consumer psychology, 24(2), 241-250.

3. Tellis, G. J., Stremersch, S., & Eden, Y. (2003). The International Takeoff of New Products: The Role of Economics, Culture, and Country Innovativeness. Marketing Science, (2). 188.

4. Williams, L. E., & Bargh, J. A. (2008). Experiencing physical warmth promotes interpersonal warmth. Science, 322(5901), 606-607.

 

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Author: Shilpa Madan
Date: 4 May 2017

About the Author

Shilpa Madan is an Associate of the Institute on Asian Consumer Insight (ACI) and a final year PhD candidate at the Nanyang Business School, Singapore.  Her research explores the myriad facets of the pursuit of happiness and well-being. Prior to her PhD, she was a Global Marketing Manager at Unilever, having worked in Singapore and India, across home and personal care.

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