The Halo Effect is a cognitive bias that effects our perception of quality in products, brands, businesses, or people. It describes our tendency to judge a wider concept on our experience of a single moment or interaction. Ie, your experience of using a product, may colour your impression of an entire brand.
This bias was identified in 1907 by an American psychologist (Frederick L. Wells). His original work was built on by others and through empirical research, it was shown that when judging characteristics across a series of traits, a particularly positive or negative trait, was often responsible for dragging the overall trait scores in either direction. A good experience will raise your overall impression positively and a bad experience will push it the other way.
Since then, The Halo Effect has become widely accepted and we see it over and over again in all parts of life. A slick-looking website will improve our perception of the company behind it, an attractive model will increase our interest in the product they’re selling, and a piece of good or bad news from one company can make us question an entire industry.
This is a very surface-level, quick-fire response that's ingrained into our subconscious. If we see a good/bad quality, we really can't help ourselves thinking this ‘thing’ must flow through to the rest of the person/business/brand… Marketers understand this and have been using it against you for years.
Examples of The Halo Effect in action
It's hard to identify specific examples of exactly where The Halo Effect has occurred, as it depends on the individual's personal opinion. There are some obvious cases that help us describe what's happening though:
- Models in advertising: Studies have shown that when you see an image of a good-looking person, you are likely to assume that person is overall a good person. Sex sells, and the most attractive people are generally thought to be credible, knowledgeable, and honest. So, if an attractive person tells you to buy a certain product, you should probably listen to them, right?
- Sporting endorsements: Advertisers want to back winners, especially those on big stages. The Olympics, The World Cup, The Superbowl, all attract huge amounts of advertising spend, why? Because when sports stars win big they create huge amounts of feel-good factor and a brand can use The Halo Effect to project some of that feel-good factor onto themselves.
- Flagship products: Often a brand will use a premium or eye-catching product to project positive feelings towards their other products. Mercedes have been the dominant team in Formula 1 for a number of years, winning back-to-back driver and constructor championships. This has undoubtedly sold many more Mercedes brand cars to the average driver than if they were a losing team. The Apple iPod is a great example of a specific product that grabbed the attention of consumers and created a new generation of Apple enthusiasts that went on to buy more of their other products.
- Online presence: A companies website or social community is its shop window onto the world and often a person's first impression of a business (and first impressions count). Having a great-looking, user-friendly website goes a long way to building trust that the business behind it works well and can be counted on to provide a good service.
- Organic/Fairtrade labelling: Studies have shown that when a product has a label that it is either fairtrade, sustainably sourced, or organic in nature, it will receive higher ratings in customer satisfaction and people will pay more for it. In a blind taste test though, that's not necessarily the case. The product could be deemed inferior by taste or quality, but the act of adding a certain label to the packaging increases people's perception of it.
The Negative Halo
The Halo Effect (typically concerned with positive feelings) also has an evil twin. The Negative Halo (sometimes referred to as ‘The Horn Effect’, ‘The Devil Effect’ or 'The Pitchfork Effect’) does pretty much the same thing but in a negative way. If you have a negative experience with a product, this can colour your impression of the brand/business etc behind it.
The Negative Halo can be quite powerful and lead to costly mistakes. The judicial system has to deal with it often with jurors whose impression of a person on trial may have been coloured by media or hearsay heard outside the courtroom. There have unfortunately been far too many wrongful convictions from people who made decisions on what they thought about a person's character, rather than the evidence presented.
The Nielson Norman Group have written about how The Halo Effect can effect your website visitors negatively, leading to a dropoff in users, and ultimately goods sold:
"The halo effect can impact organizations, locations, products, and delivery/communications channels, as well as our judgments of other people. If users like one aspect of a website, they're more likely to judge it favorably in the future. Conversely, if users have a particularly bad experience with a site, they'll predict that the site will treat them poorly in the future as well and, thus, will be reluctant to return to the site. In this latter case, even if the site is later redesigned to be better, users will still carry over their negative expectations from their earlier experience." - Nielson Norman Group
Poor design, spelling mistakes, and amateur photography can all undermine confidence in first impressions. Worse than that, a single remark, slight facial expression, or something as simple as wearing the wrong clothes can create strong negative impressions of a person. There is a reason why we should look to present our best selves at all times.
Use a website halo to increase new business leads
Now you understand what The Halo Effect is, it should be easy to see how you can use it to create more business opportunities online. Whether you sell products directly via an eCommerce store or use your website purely as an information point for your customers, making sure it is professional in appearance and provides a good quality experience will increase a customer's perception of your overall business (even if they don't realise it themselves).
Your website is your shop window and when people look through it, they gauge what they see and make a judgment call. If you want that to be a positive experience, make sure you:
- Use a modern design appropriate for your industry
- Ensure the experience works well across all device types and sizes
- Use professional photography
- Use well-crafted copy that's clear and concise
- Offer features your target audience are expecting
- Make it easy for users to complete tasks
- Avoid clutter
The Halo Effect is a bias we cannot escape. Some are aware of its influence and will do their best to mitigate the effect, most are oblivious. We humans simply cannot help our judgment being impaired by the experiences we have (be they good or bad). In the worst cases, we mistakenly judge others unfairly and make poor decisions because of that.
Make no mistake though, The Halo Effect is in action everywhere you step in the modern world. Every advert you see is designed to influence your behaviour in a positive way. Every premium product you experience leaves a lasting impression and every endorsement that catches your eye is looking to divert your attention towards something your may not have otherwise been interested in.
As a marketeer, use this knowledge wisely. By all means, paint your business in a positive light but if you go too far, users will see through your manipulation and rightly call you out on it.
As a consumer, be careful. There are businesses that will go to any extent to influence your behaviour. The next time you find yourself really wanting something, stop and ask yourself why?