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November 21, 2011

Research says nature drives buyer's tastes

Diana Derval

Q&A talks about nature vs. nurture in marketing with Diana Derval, president of Chicago-based global research firm DervalResearch. She is author of “The Right Sensory Mix: Targeting Consumer Product Development Scientifically” (Springer, 2010), finalist of the Berry-AMA Book Award for the best marketing book 2011.

Q: You have an interesting perspective, based on your research, that claims to solve the dispute over the influence of nature versus nurture, specifically when it comes to marketing. Sum up your perspective.

A: The thousands of measurements we performed in over 25 countries since 2007 brought to light that prenatal exposure to estrogen and testosterone not only has a direct impact on physical traits and behavior, but on sensory perception and product preferences as well. Product preferences are literally determined in the womb. Thus, firms can use this knowledge to develop products that perfectly fit our needs.


Q: How does prenatal exposure to estrogen and testosterone have a direct impact on sensory perception and product preferences? Do we really determine we like Chevrolets vs. Toyotas when we’re in the womb?

A: We have discovered that people’s product preferences are directly linked to the millions of sensors monitoring their body and brain. The number and distribution of these sensors is greatly influenced by prenatal hormones so that it is possible to predict favorite colors, tastes, scents, shapes, textures, and sounds, almost from the womb. So back to our Chevrolet vs. Toyota case. Some people hear high-pitch sounds four times louder than others. These super-amplifiers are more likely to enjoy a Chevrolet Volt than a Toyota Prius just because the engine sounds are more in low frequencies. In the same category of cars, noise diagrams reveal that the Nissan Leaf generates high frequency noises very annoying to super-amplifiers. As our sensory perception is pretty much set in the womb, yes we can predict from that moment what benefits people are looking for when using a product. So if you know the product’s attributes you can match both.


Q: Is there a way for people to determine what kind of shopper they are? There was something in your research about women with a testosterone-driven Hormonal Quotient. Is there an HQ test a person could take like an IQ test?

A: Sure. Let me tell you more about the Hormonal Quotient. I was always puzzled by segmentation models based on gender as you have different types of men and different types of women. What we identified is that similarly to what exists in many animal species, there are eight gender polymorphisms among humans based on the prenatal influence of hormones — four in male and four in female. We can evaluate the gender polymorphism, or what we call the Hormonal Quotient (HQ), of an individual based on the gender, ethnicity, and different biomarkers. Women with a testosterone-driven HQ, to come back to the example you share, are mainly super-inhalers, more sensitive to synthetic fragrances and very likely to prefer fruity scents whereas women with an estrogen-driven HQ are more of medium-inhalers and tend to enjoy floral scents. You are welcome to check out your HQ on our website:


Q: As you observe, experts in many fields believe that environmental influences such as home life and education have a more profound effect on tastes, behavior, and decision making than biological factors. Why should people embrace your findings instead?

A: Good point. Let’s talk about vision. We discovered that near-sighted people are relaxed by short-wave length colors like blue because they hit their eyeball at the front, exactly where their focal point is. So looking at long-wave colors like red or yellow feels for them like receiving a slap in their face because they have to tense their ocular muscle to properly see those colors. All this is due to the influence of genes and hormones making that near-sighted eyeballs are a bit longer. Now if you are near-sighted, you can change family and even move country, your eyeballs will not shrink in your skull (or let’s hope not), and blue will still relax you.


Q: How does a marketer use this information? Are there people out there who may be buying against their nature because of the way they’ve been nurtured? How would a person recognize this?

A: Knowing people’s HQ is key for marketers. The finding on color preferences is by itself critical for global brands: 60 percent of the youth is near-sighted in China, whereas only 13 percent of Australians are near-sighted. The “one-size-fits-all” approach shows its limits. Coffee gives a great example of buying against nature. For centuries the coffee prepared in the Netherlands was based on bitter Robusta. Why? Because that’s what the adventurers who explored Africa brought back home. This coffee taste was obviously not optimal as over 70 percent of the people were adding milk and sugar to mitigate the bitter taste. The recent introduction of Arabica beans — yes the same you enjoy at the Starbucks — opened new perspectives to medium or super-tasters who do not have to put so much milk or sugar anymore. So yes sometimes the ideal product is still to be developed for a given market and understanding people on a physiological level is the only way to come up with relevant products and groundbreaking innovations.

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