Coined by psychologist Edward Thorndike, the Halo Effect describes people’s tendency to let one positive trait guide their total opinion of a person, product, or experience.
Thorndike discovered the effect after noticing that commanding officers in the military judged their soldiers to be either all good or all bad. Almost no one was described as good at one thing but bad at another. One positive or negative trait disproportionately influenced the officers’ opinions.
Another application of the Halo Effect relates to attractiveness. People consider good-looking individuals more intelligent, more successful, and more popular. Attractive people even receive lighter prison sentences when judged for the same crime as an unattractive person.
The Halo Effect has implications for customer experience, marketing, and advertising as well.
Why is the Halo Effect important?
Being aware of how the Halo Effect influences users can help you craft a better experience. For example, studies have found that the attractiveness of a website affects users’ opinions on usability. A beautiful site with an unacceptable task failure rate will still get a high user satisfaction rating. Why? Because the aesthetics created a halo that overrode the functionality of the site.
Beautiful site aesthetics have a Halo Effect on functionality via @choicehacking
In retail experiences, the halo of one product’s promotion on a related product’s sales can be powerful. Research firm Analytic Partners has shown that halos can return averages of 150–300% on marketing investment, in the form of related product sales. Some campaigns showed as much as a 10x return.
Examples of the Halo Effect in action
1. Beautiful design effects perceptions of an entire experience
When people like the design of a site, they rate the entire experience more highly. Researchers at The Decision Lab ran a study in which they showed users two login pages. Each page had identical functionality, but different levels of design. The researchers then asked users to rate the pages’ attractiveness.
When users liked the design of a page, they were more likely to rate it as intuitive, reliable, and secure. The difference between the perceived performance of each page was staggering. The attractive page was rated:
- 104% more reliable
- 37% more intuitive
- 152% more resilient to hacking
Why? It’s down to the powerful Halo Effect that design has on digital experiences. The more beautifully designed, the more functional an experience is perceived to be.
2. Putting one product on promotion can drive sales of an entire category.
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Some products, when promoted, can drive sales of an entire category. Their promotion works as a mental trigger that reminds people to buy related items.
Consulting firm McKinsey found that dental care items are powerful mental triggers. For example, putting a toothbrush on sale drives people to buy more products in the overall oral care category — such as toothpaste, mouthwash, and floss.
3. Showing certain products can drive sales of complementary products.
Specific products can “punch above their weight” when placed in multiple locations. For example, McKinsey’s analysis found that limes drive sales of chicken, vegetables, rice, pasta, and alcohol in U.S. grocery stores.
According to McKinsey, this is because limes are a key ingredient in many Mexican dishes — a popular cuisine in the United States. Limes cause shoppers to make extra unplanned purchases. They don’t even have to be on sale. Simply placing baskets of limes in different locations in the store drove sales of complementary products.
How to apply the Halo Effect to your marketing and customer experience
1. Associate authorities and celebrities people with your product
The Halo Effect of celebrities and authorities who recommend your product can be massive. Your brand can borrow a bit of their shine and share the trust that people have in these figures. Make sure to vet potential partners, as associating your product with a celebrity does come with some risk.
2. Create aesthetically-pleasing experiences
As we saw in our example, the attractiveness of digital design will influence users’ perceptions of its functionality. But pleasant smells, tastes, touches, lighting, and temperatures can also have a Halo Effect on other parts of an experience.
Managing the sensory presentation of your digital and physical experiences can have a significant impact on sales.
3. Use proximity and bundling to your advantage
In our lime example earlier, we saw that some items drive the purchase of related products. If you can identify these key products, try putting them close to associated products (such as chicken, in the case of limes). Consider bundling these items together with a more expensive but related product (such as alcohol).
The bottom line
The Halo Effect can have powerful, and sometimes unpredictable, effects on your customers. Be sure to run small experiments with this principle, before applying it to your entire experience. To leverage the Halo Effect, ask yourself:
- How do users perceive the aesthetics of our brand or digital experience? Could it be time for a refresh?
- Are there any products that seem to “punch above their weight” that we can show at different parts of our experience, or bundled with other products?
- Could we better leverage quality, sustainability, or fair trade symbols in our experience, so we’re getting the full customer benefit?
Note: This article is adapted from concepts in my book “Choice Hacking: How to use psychology and behavioral science to create an experience that sings”.