Think of somebody you don’t know very well, but who you have already decided you like as a person. This could be somebody famous, or perhaps somebody you’ve met briefly.
Now ask yourself some questions about them. Do you think they are clever? Kind? Funny? Trustworthy?
You probably find that you answer yes to these questions. This is the halo effect.
The halo effect causes our overall impression of a person to influence how we evaluate that person’s specific character traits. If our overall impression is positive (often based on a small amount of information), we will tend to assume that all of their traits will be positive.
What does it mean to be critical and impulsive?
Around 70 years ago, a psychologist named Solomon Asch conducted a number of experiments to look at how people formed impressions of other people.
In one famous study, he presented a list of traits of a hypothetical person to a group of participants as follows:
To another group of participants, he presented the same list, but in reverse order:
Asch found that the first group of participants perceived the person much more favourably than the second group did.
When he questioned them in more detail, he found that the the words “critical” and “impulsive” took on a positive meaning for the first group, but a negative meaning for the second group.
Both groups had formed their overall impression of the person based on the first one or two words in the list. This went on to affect how they interpreted the remaining words in the list.
The halo effect (or the “devil effect” when it creates a negative impression) happens because our minds prefer consistent and coherent stories, based on our existing impressions. Anything that is ambiguous or contradictory to those stories will be suppressed or reinterpreted. This is why it can be very difficult to change somebody’s mind once they have formed an opinion.
The halo effect in business
The halo effect doesn’t just apply to people – it applies to brands too.
One of the most famous examples occurred with Apple.
The iPod was a revolutionary piece of technology. It was beautifully designed, both in the way it looked and the way it worked.
It was the MP3 player to own. For many people, it was their first experience of an Apple product.
What was the effect of the iPod’s success? A sudden and significant increase in sales for all other Apple products.
People formed an overall impression of Apple based on their experience with the iPod, and this created an assumption that all the other things they made would be just as good. People told themselves a story about all Apple products, based on their impression of the iPod.
Meaning for communications
There are two important lessons here for communications strategy.
First, go with your best horse. Build your communications around your best product or service, and your audience’s positive impressions will naturally extend to your other products or services.
Second, when you have decided on the key message that you want to be associated with your brand, make sure that that message is reflected in every contact point between you and your audience – your products, your marketing, your customer service, your spokespeople.
Because if just one contact point is getting it wrong, any potential customer who first encounters your brand at that point may forever tell themselves – and others – the wrong story about you.