[Last Updated January 21st 2024]
Representativeness is a mental shortcut (cognitive heuristic) described by Kahneman and Tversky (1972) where we use an existing prototype (like a stereotype, or the category of “luxury watches”) to make a judgment about an event (an individual/object/brand/situation) that we believe to be related to said prototype. For example, if you read a watch advertisement that says, “Expertly crafted with an acute attention to detail, our perpetual movements define class and nobility,” you might automatically assume that said watch is from a designer label, and quite expensive. But that sentence could have easily described a $75 Timex. Similarly, if you were to see a woman dressed in gaudy clothing, you might be more likely to believe she works in the fashion industry than as an engineer. These prototypes are often based off existing schemas or scripts that we have derived from life experience. One interesting study by Nemeroff and Rozin (1989) described to students an imaginary culture that hunted two animals. Some students were told boars were hunted for meat and turtles for shells, while the other students were told turtles were hunted for meat and boars for tusks. Those told the boars were hunted for meat thought members of the culture were more aggressive, while those told the turtles were hunted for meat thought members of the culture were slower, but better swimmers. In this situation, the food individuals consumed was seen as representative of their personal attributes. The arbitrariness of this might sound unrealistic, but consider that many people stereotype vegans as small and weak because they don’t eat meat.

From an evolutionary standpoint, the representativeness heuristic makes sense. Most of our decisions are based on imperfect or limited information. If a large and fast animal started running towards us, standing around and waiting to see if it could be dangerous might get us killed. Assuming it’s dangerous because it has features of other dangerous animals can protect us. In addition, if we had to stop and contemplate every new object we came across in nature or in society we would waste time and energy. Imagine shopping, and having to analyze every specific item you see. Instead, it's much more efficient to just assume that if it looks like X it’s probably X. The obvious shortcoming of this is that we over-rely on similarity when making judgements, especially when considering new or novel things. This is especially pertinent to user experience design, as your customers generally won’t spend a lot of time reading everything on your website and checking out all your social media. That means that most of your customers will be operating off imperfect information. And if your brand is new to someone, they will likely use the limited information they have and consider how it is similar to other brands or brand experiences. For example, if your website is text-heavy and has few images, people may assume you are selling a highly technical or niche product for a professional audience. Similarly, if you have a picture of someone meditating, people might assume that your brand is reflective of the wellness industry (e.g. meditation, vitamins, healthy foods). As a result, the first impressions you create (regardless of how someone discovers your brand) may have a huge impact on whether or not someone even considers your products/services.

Applying Representativeness to Marketing

The first thing that you always want to consider is what your customers think your brand represents. Directly asking them is the fastest way to figure this out. For example, is your brand considered luxury? Does it remind people of quality? Do people associate it with a specific emotion or feeling? Sometimes these relationships can be completely arbitrary and unexpected. For example, if individuals see a car used in a movie for high speed chases or races, they may assume it’s a fast car, even if it isn’t. Or maybe seeing racing stripes on a car indicates speed to individuals unfamiliar with cars. Once you determine this (and it may be different for different target markets) you need to decide if you want to change these beliefs. If so, consider using copy, ads, and design to communicate the stereotypes you want associated with your business. For example, if you want to communicate that your product is a high-end luxury product, consider using the colour gold on a black background as it tends to communicate wealth. Further, advertise your product alongside other expensive products. For example, if selling expensive clothing, have pictures of the model taken in a mansion or on a yacht. We use cues from all the media we consume to formulate assumptions about brands. Thus, make sure that no matter how your customers interact with you, the general theme they experience is communicating the same desired stereotypes/beliefs that will potentially leverage the representativeness heuristic to help define your brand. And always remember that your customers are using imperfect information. Thus, their experience with your brand will be different than you and your employees’ experience. Many startups mistakenly assume that their customers will be aware of all the content on a website, or a history of posts on social media. But the reality is, most customers (especially new ones) have very limited knowledge in respect to the brands they consume. And different customers will have different limitations on their knowledge.

Practical Examples of Representativeness

Borrowing Brand Themes

Research from van Horen and Pieters (2012) suggests that brands that copy the general feel/theme of existing brands are often able to elicit positive feelings which in turn improve consumer evaluations. Keep in mind the theme is not the same thing as the features. For example, imagine a successful family owned consulting business. Creating a similar logo and using a similar website design would be less effective than copying the family owned theme and the general feel of the brand (e.g. the services offered, the copy used, the emotional feel, etc.). We don’t suggest copying other brands directly. However, it can be helpful to borrow inspiration for a general theme from a different industry/product and piggyback on the success of that brand through the representativeness heuristic. For example, if you want to sell healthy foods, it can be helpful to see what kind of copy and marketing other health foods use, and then match their tone. Or if you want to market budget pens, you might look for the themes used in selling budget clothing or budget electronics. For most marketers this is likely either common sense, or something performed subconsciously. However, it can help to do an analysis of similar industries prior to developing branding, to make sure that general themes align in a more than superficial way.

Representativeness and Influencers

One of the key ways to leverage the representativeness heuristic is to work with social media influencers and celebrities that represent a lifestyle you seek to associate with your brand. For example, consider how naming the headphone brand “Beats by Dre” communicates both quality (as Dr. Dre is a famous music producer and rapper) alongside a street aesthetic (as Dr. Dre is associated with the rap scene). Similarly, high-end fashion brands often produce unique clothing for celebrities to wear at key events (like award shows) to communicate the value and exclusivity of their brand. Healthy food brands on the other hand might want to associate themselves with yoga, pilates, and meditation influencers to position themselves as helping individuals achieve a healthy lifestyle. Even at a more basic level, brands can associate themselves with the positive qualities of celebrities. Mint Mobile was able to create a brand identity associated with sincereness and openness by using Ryan Reynolds as a brand ambassador, and benefitting from representativeness associated with his positive qualities. One great example of this in action was when he took out a newspaper ad for Mint Mobile right before the Super Bowl in 2020 offering 300,000 months of free service instead of spending $5 million on a Super Bowl ad (Graham, 2020). Even though this was a Mint Mobile ad, it was positioned as being written by Ryan Reynolds so that he could help others save money.

Research Example of Representativeness

Linda and the Conujunction Fallacy

One of the most famous examples of the representativeness heuristic is the conjunction fallacy, demonstrated in a study by Kahneman and Tversky (1982), commonly described as the Linda problem. Participants were provided with the following description: “Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.” They were then asked to rank a number of different statements on a scale from 1 to 8, with 1 being most probable and 8 being least probable. The two key statements of importance were “Linda is a bank teller” and “Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement”. 85% of participants believed it was more likely that Linda was a bank teller and active in the feminist movement, than just a bank teller. But this is statistically impossible, as a conjunction (2 events occurring together) is always equal or less than either of those events on its own. In this situation, Kahneman and Tversky (1982) argued that being a bank teller and a feminist was more representative of Linda’s description than just being a bank teller. This study has been replicated many times over the years in different formats, and is often performed in psychology classes with students to demonstrate the power of the effect. Thus, even well educated liberal-minded students seem to be swayed by the representativeness heuristic, and in turn rely on stereotypes when making judgements and decisions. Even though this isn’t directly related to marketing, it demonstrates just how ingrained representativeness is. And hopefully it justifies taking the representativeness heuristic seriously when developing marketing strategies and user experiences.

Works Cited

Graham, J. (2020, February 1). Super Bowl deal: Why actor Ryan Reynolds wants to give you 3 months of free wireless. USA Today.

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1972). Subjective probability: A judgment of representativeness. Cognitive Psychology, 3(3), 430–454.

Nemeroff, C., & Rozin, P. (1989). “You are what you eat”: Applying the demand-free “impressions” technique to an unacknowledged belief. Ethos, 17(1), 50-69.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1982). Judgments of and by representativeness. In D Kahneman, P. Slovic, & A. Tversky (Eds.), Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases (pp. 84-98). Cambridge University Press.

van Horen, F., & Pieters, R. (2012). Consumer evaluation of copycat brands: The effect of imitation type. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 29(3), 246-255.

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