Does Distance Make the Consumer’s Heart Grow Fonder?
Skip to content
Marketing Jan 4, 2022

Does Distance Make the Consumer’s Heart Grow Fonder?

New research finds that how far we’re standing from a product changes what we think of it.

person looking through binoculars at luxury products

Michael Meier

Based on the research of

Xing-Yu (Marcos) Chu

Chun-Tuan Chang

Angela Y. Lee

Wander through a department store and you’ll likely see a rich array of product displays: fancy purses on high shelves, watches inside deep glass cabinets, khakis neatly folded on tables, hoodies hanging on easily browsable racks.

Add Insight
to your inbox.

These placements are not an accident. Retailers give a lot of thought to where they display products in their stores—and for good reason. Previous research has shown, for instance, that customers respond more favorably to premium brands when their logos are positioned high up above the customer.

But is it distance or height that has this effect on customers? That is, will those premium watches kept deep inside the glass cabinet still benefit from perceptions of prestige even when they are at eye level?

A new paper by Angela Lee, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School, and coauthors Xing-Yu (Marcos) Chu of Nanjing University and Chun-Tuan Chang of National Sun Yat-sen University, takes a close look at the question.

The authors find that premium brands—those associated with luxury, high price, and prestige—do indeed benefit from distance from the consumer, while popular brands—those associated with accessibility, value, and warmth—are perceived most favorably from up close.

“Effective use of spatial distance is not a one-size-fits-all strategy.”

— Angela Lee

More broadly, the findings reveal that there’s no single, ideal distance between consumers and products: the right distance depends on the image the brand conveys. Designers of window displays, product placements, and ads should take note.

“Effective use of spatial distance is not a one-size-fits-all strategy,” Lee says.

How Brand Image Affects Perceptions of Distance

To investigate how consumers evaluate products at different distances, the researchers devised an experiment involving a print ad for a fictitious brand of chocolate. Study participants (128 students from an executive education program in Taiwan) were told the brand was either premium or popular. Then, they were asked to place an image of a box of chocolates anywhere within a mock ad for the brand, which featured a model near the edge of its frame.

The two brand images yielded different ad designs, the researchers discovered. Participants who believed the chocolate was from a popular brand placed the box nearer to the model than those who believed the chocolate was from a premium brand.

However, the researchers didn’t have a baseline to which they could compare their results, so they weren’t sure whether participants were swayed by the premium brand image, the popular brand image, or both. In their next experiment, they studied the two brand types separately.

In the premium-brand experiment, 179 participants were asked to look at a photo of a handbag and a mannequin and estimate the distance between them. Half of the participants learned the handbag was from a premium brand; for the remaining participants, the handbag brand was described as high quality but not premium.

The researchers used an identical setup for the popular brand experiment, asking 174 participants to estimate the distance between a mannequin and either a popular or unpopular brand of handbag.

Participants believed the premium handbag was farther from the mannequin than the non-premium handbag, and the popular handbag was closer to the mannequin than the unpopular handbag. (In actuality, all four distances were identical.)

To Lee and her coauthors, these results suggested that each brand image had its own distinct relationship to horizontal distance. “Whereas a premium brand image elongated the perceived distance between the product and the model,” they write, “a popular brand image shrank the perceived distance.”

Close and Popular, Far and Luxurious

In another experiment, the researchers looked at the question the other way around, asking participants to infer a product’s brand image while standing at different distances from it.

In the first part of the experiment, 120 participants were randomly assigned to stand either three or five feet from a premium leather backpack. Then, they were asked to rate its prestige, as well as how much they liked it.

Participants who stood five feet from the premium backpack viewed it as more prestigious and liked it more than those who stood three feet from it, the researchers discovered, further reinforcing the association between distance and luxury.

The opposite pattern emerged in the second part of the experiment, which used an identical setup but a slightly different product (a trendy canvas backpack). This time, 80 participants viewed the backpack more favorably overall—and saw it as more popular—when viewing it from a distance of three feet as compared with five feet.

Taken together, these experiments reveal that “the association between image and distance that people have is not just one-way,” says Lee. “When we see something far away, we see it as luxurious. And by the same association, when see something luxurious, we also think it’s farther away. That really shows how ingrained this association is.”

A Real-world Test of Distance and Brand Image

For their final experiment, the researchers wanted to see how the relationship between distance and brand image would play out in a real-world setting. So they partnered with an e-commerce site in China for a field experiment.

They hired a professional web designer to create four versions of an email ad touting a new brand of home fragrance diffuser. “We tried to make it as real as possible,” Lee says.

Half of the ads promoted the diffuser as a premium product with the tagline “Luxurious lifestyle, prestigious choice,” while the other half portrayed it as the popular choice with the tagline “cozy lifestyle, popular choice.” Half of the ads showed the diffuser close to the model, and the other half showed it far from the model. This created four ad types: (1) premium/close; (2) premium/far; (3) popular/close; (4) popular/far.

The email ad included an invitation to claim a $5 coupon for the product. In their analysis, the researchers focused on the percentage of consumers who claimed the coupon, rather than actual sale numbers, which were too small to produce reliable data.

As the researchers expected based on their previous studies, the premium/far ad outperformed the premium/close ad, with three percent of recipients claiming the coupon, as opposed to 1.43 percent. The popular/close ad beat the popular/far ad by a similar margin.

This suggests that the relationship between distance and brand image can have a meaningful impact on consumers in the wild. “This is actual behavior,” says Lee.

Lessons for Ads and Displays

While the experiments don’t show exactly why consumers associate distance with luxury and popularity with proximity, Lee has a few theories.

“We use a lot of physical attributes to describe emotions and abstract concepts,” she notes—think of the phrases “warm relationship” or “distant relative.” Such connections can also flow in the other direction, with physical attributes unconsciously eliciting emotional associations—height, for example, often makes people or products seem more impressive. This close linkage between physical and emotional traits may explain why different products feel better from different distances.

Whatever its origins, the relationship between distance and brand image is one marketers can leverage in ads, window displays, or store designs. By putting more distance between customers and luxury brands, and less distance between customers and brands with mass appeal, marketers can maximize the value of those brands—and likely boost how much customers will pay for them.

The key is knowing what type of brand image you have and making the most of it. Lee adds: “It really has to match the strategy of the brand.”

Featured Faculty

Mechthild Esser Nemmers Professor of Marketing;

About the Writer

Susie Allen is a freelance writer in Chicago.

About the Research

Chu, Xing-Yu (Marcos), Chun-Tuan Chang, Angela Y. Lee. 2021. "Values Created from Far and Near: Influence of Spatial Distance on Brand Evaluation." Journal of Marketing. October 11.

Read the original

Most Popular This Week
  1. 3 Tips for Reinventing Your Career After a Layoff
    It’s crucial to reassess what you want to be doing instead of jumping at the first opportunity.
    woman standing confidently
  2. College Campuses Are Becoming More Diverse. But How Much Do Students from Different Backgrounds Actually Interact?
    Increasing diversity has been a key goal, “but far less attention is paid to what happens after we get people in the door.”
    College quad with students walking away from the center
  3. When Do Open Borders Make Economic Sense?
    A new study provides a window into the logic behind various immigration policies.
    How immigration affects the economy depends on taxation and worker skills.
  4. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  5. Podcast: Does Your Life Reflect What You Value?
    On this episode of The Insightful Leader, a former CEO explains how to organize your life around what really matters—instead of trying to do it all.
  6. 5 Ways to Improve Diversity Training, According to a New Study
    All too often, these programs are ineffective and short-lived. But they don’t have to be.
    diversity training session
  7. How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?
    Phil Kotler’s groundbreaking textbook came out 55 years ago. Sixteen editions later, he and coauthor Alexander Chernev discuss how big data, social media, and purpose-driven branding are moving the field forward.
    people in 1967 and 2022 react to advertising
  8. Your Team Doesn’t Need You to Be the Hero
    Too many leaders instinctively try to fix a crisis themselves. A U.S. Army colonel explains how to curb this tendency in yourself and allow your teams to flourish.
    person with red cape trying to put out fire while firefighters stand by.
  9. Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They Take
    A new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
    Immigrant CEO welcomes new hires
  10. Podcast: China’s Economy Is in Flux. Here’s What American Businesses Need to Know.
    On this episode of The Insightful Leader: the end of “Zero Covid,” escalating geopolitical tensions, and China’s potentially irreplaceable role in the global supply chain.
  11. What Went Wrong at AIG?
    Unpacking the insurance giant's collapse during the 2008 financial crisis.
    What went wrong during the AIG financial crisis?
  12. What Happens to Worker Productivity after a Minimum Wage Increase?
    A pay raise boosts productivity for some—but the impact on the bottom line is more complicated.
    employees unload pallets from a truck using hand carts
  13. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  14. Why Well-Meaning NGOs Sometimes Do More Harm than Good
    Studies of aid groups in Ghana and Uganda show why it’s so important to coordinate with local governments and institutions.
    To succeed, foreign aid and health programs need buy-in and coordination with local partners.
  15. How Much Do Campaign Ads Matter?
    Tone is key, according to new research, which found that a change in TV ad strategy could have altered the results of the 2000 presidential election.
    Political advertisements on television next to polling place
  16. How Experts Make Complex Decisions
    By studying 200 million chess moves, researchers shed light on what gives players an advantage—and what trips them up.
    two people playing chess
  17. Jeff Ubben Explains His “Anti-ESG ESG” Investment Strategy
    In a recent conversation with Kellogg’s Robert Korajczyk, the hedge-fund leader breaks down his unique approach to mission-driven investing.
    smokestacks, wind turbine, solar panel
  18. Why Do Some People Succeed after Failing, While Others Continue to Flounder?
    A new study dispels some of the mystery behind success after failure.
    Scientists build a staircase from paper
More in Marketing