How does perception shape reality?

Working with context to change behavior and unlock growth.


It shapes behaviors, choices, attitudes and actions. It toys with your emotions. It fundamentally changes experiences. As innovation becomes ever more challenging in mature categories, manipulating context to shape offers, propositions and the products themselves is becoming an increasingly powerful source of growth.

Approaching from the traditional constructs of day part, demographics and even segments are now simply sensible foundations in some categories, as consumers keep shifting and evolving faster than we can keep up. Brands that go on to subvert, alter or expand the ‘expected’ context in which consumers experience their products are starting to win big. They uncover insights, opportunities and use cases that drive growth.


Breakfast for dinner?  Why not?  

McDonald’s demonstrated this with their highly successful All Day Breakfast menu a few years ago, and now others are reaping the rewards. [2] It’s clear that as lifestyles have shifted, consumers have become much more flexible in their eating patterns, something that Tyson Foods has nailed with their Jimmy Dean brand. The brand team at Tyson are capitalizing on changed contexts and helping to grow the total dollar sales at six times the rate compared to total food and beverage, not a small feat! [3]

This got me thinking – how should brands use context with our consumers in gaining their feedback into product and packaging design, messaging and offer?  How important is perception in uncovering unexpected use cases?  


Testing in more natural contexts provides stronger sensory results and is a better predictor of future purchase

The academic Sensory community has long talked about the significant gap between results from in-lab evaluations or more ‘traditional’ central location testing (CLT) and results from tests conducted in more natural settings.  This manifests through a certain concept/fit paradigm that has plagued CPG companies for years.  We all know that there is never a perfect test design that removes all biases, but sometimes it may be beneficial to re-create natural environments in more controlled settings to try and get better predictors. [4,5]

For example, there are some logistical (and ethical) concerns on testing cough and cold relief treatments on those who are actually sick, but how can you realistically set the appropriate environment for respondents to transport themselves back into the mindset of what it is like when they were home sick on the couch? In this case, testing in lab bares little if any resemblance to the actual context in which medication is bought and consumed.  

Several years ago I ran an extremely successful project where we were testing heavily mentholated relief items in novel formats to understand how the brand could differentiate and expand its footprint in the cough and cold aisle.  We were grappling with how the brand could stretch across prevention and remedy, trying to understand the differences in emotional and physical soothing, comfort and relief cues across the sickness journey.  Not an easy ask!

We challenged ourselves to try and recreate the flu experience for consumers. We started off finding respondents who had the flu within the past 2 months, and had it bad enough they were home bound for 3+ days from work or school.  As a priming exercise we had them create collages to show how they went through three Phases of Sickness:

  • DENIAL: when you’re coming down with something but just want to blame allergies so you don’t have to think about it,
  • ENTRENCHED: when you’re in the throes of a major cold and become a germy mess who only wants to binge Netflix in your slippers and bathrobe,
  • RECOVERY: when you’re on the mend and making all the promises about how you will be more pro-active health wise and promise to take care of yourself so you won’t get sick like this again

As they went through and collected pictures, color swatches, patterns, songs, movie and cartoon character persona, and products they used during each of those stages, we also asked them to interview family or friends around them to ask “how did I act, what was I like?”.  With all this input in front of them, we created incredibly rich diary journal entries for what it was like across these Phases of Sickness. In short, we worked hard to help the respondents transport themselves back into the context in which the brand became relevant.

When they finally came into the focus group facility, they walked in to see a room that accurately mirrored their recent flu journeys, and we’d posted their collective collages signalling the different phases of their collective sickness experiences across three walls. 

As they tried different relief products, being able to easily look around the room and point to which phase different prototypes would be good for, it was easy for them to talk about benefits and jobs to be done for various products and formats and allowed for some of the most insightful work I’ve done.  It truly brought up emotions and experiences as respondents reacted to various products seamlessly and helped speed along our development as it was the next best thing to working with people suffering from the flu.  Even very unflattering and aggressive (e.g. bad tasting) products now stood a chance for proper evaluation as respondents could easily say things like, “yes I guess when I’m that sick I do want something like a nasal bulldozer to get through my blocked sinuses, so that product would be perfect”

Testing in context can bring a lot of different types of baggage through various types of bias of course, but it also brings a wealth of insight when structured correctly. 

Think of reality as an absolute scale, and perception as being relative.  Sometimes we forget the simple fact that individuals perceive their own realities in the moment – and that this shapes their responses.


So is reality singular and perceptions plural? 

In research, one of our big questions we always long to answer is how can we obtain multiple perceptions on the singular reality?  We often work across ‘the one individual’ to help understand ‘the many’.  This thinking is core to how we approach our Sensory Experience Labs, bringing our respondents into as much of a context driven environment as possible.  Sometimes however, we want to bring them outside the focus group facility and understand how to move between their natural setting and a more inspirational testing grounds.

Another of our CPG clients needed to understand what the future of household cleaning would be like, and understand what tensions consumers face and start to unpack the basic human truths behind cleaning that can help drive their innovation.

To help unearth the consumer tensions with kitchen cleaning in-home, we conducted multiple ethnographies watching how various tribes of consumers clean.  As you can imagine, this is a highly emotional ask of them, as we wanted to see their kitchens at their worst which normally would be a cause of embarrassment.  We gathered incredibly rich insights and we were able to experience how the cleaning experience evolved into a strong sense of pride and accomplishment, especially when they showcased their hard work and effort at the end to us. 

After digesting all this rich insight, we had a fun task ahead of us to understand and try out new opportunity spaces. Again, we manipulated context to alter perception and ultimately behavior.

We rented a large test kitchen and went to town and created messes that a whole pack of mischievous toddlers could only aspire to.  With this context created, we then brought in groups of consumers for a hands on living laboratory, watching them use their favorite products and us providing some new ones, letting them mix, match, explore and share. 

They watched how others tackled cleaning and had a chance to show off themselves in a highly interactive way.  This process helped us define the opportunities we had and allowed everyone to collaborate and provide sparks for new ideas on how they would love to tackle cleaning in a very safe and controlled environment, without fear that they would do something wrong.  Think of it as a trial and error approach without consequences for the respondents as it wasn’t their own kitchen on the line.

This approach brought fresh and inspiring innovation ideas by pushing people beyond their comfort zones.  It helped us to unlock the benefits around existing cleaning habits and learn how to ultimately change behavior through breakthrough innovation… and luckily we kept our cleaning deposit! 


Four things to consider when working with context: 

1. Walk in your consumer’s shoes.

Think through all the touchpoint experiences your consumer will face, thinking through how many can you capture in a more natural context versus needing to create more creative environments, laying out where will they be interacting with your product, how will use it, and most importantly, what mindset will they be in.  Understand how that context will effect their behavior.

2. Don’t be afraid to mix different approaches.

Conduct a mixture of in-depth interviews or ethnography in and around group conversations to create different realities.  Use them as different opportunities to go deep on topics and then going wide in conversations.  Alternating these tools is powerful. It allows depth and breadth, especially if you allow conversations to evolve and find those nuggets that you can then investigate further.

3. Change the environment to shape the context.

Consider the whole journey your consumers experience when working with you. As in the flu example, use every interaction to ladder up to an experience that mirrors the consumption journey you’re trying to unlock.

4. Be brave by listening differently.

Consumers have so much to tell us, explicitly and implicitly.  Make sure you and your team provide consumers new ways to communicate, and for you to listen to them.  Verbal discussions aren’t always the most effective, so continue to go deeper and learn to gauge different emotions through strong projective techniques and storytelling. [6]


As our lives become increasingly unstructured and traditional buying and experience journeys become ever more disrupted and incoherent, it’s crucial that brand owners work hard to consider context as they shape new products, services and experiences. Subvert, alter or expand the ‘expected’ context – and in doing so find new ways to win with today’s consumer.






[4] S. Sinesio et al. (2019) Do immersive techniques help to capture consumer reality.  Food Quality and Preference, vol. 77, p. 123-134.

[5] R.A. De Wijk et al. (2019) Food perception and emotion measured over time in-lab and in-home.  Food Quality and Preference, vol. 75, p. 170-178.