In Marketing, Big Smiles Are Always Best, Right? Research Says: Not So

In Marketing, Big Smiles Are Always Best, Right? Research Says: Not So

“Bigger smiles are not always better,” says Fan Liu, Ph.D., regarding her recent research paper, “Smile Big or Not? Effects of Smile Intensity on Perceptions of Warmth and Competence.” Knowing this fact could prove useful to marketers in improving their techniques, as well as to entrepreneurs trying to raise funds online via crowdsourcing sites.

Dr. Liu and her co-authors examined the effect of smile intensity in photographs on viewers’ perceptions of warmth and competence within a variety of marketing contexts, and found that, depending on certain factors, a person shown with a big smile can be perceived as having greater warmth but less competence as compared to a person having only a slight smile.

Specifically, when consumers are focused on achieving gains or the risks of purchase are low, warmth perceptions are greater toward broad-smiling marketers, and thus purchase intent is increased. However, when consumers are focused on avoiding negative consequences or the risks of purchase are high, a marketer’s broad grin can lead to perceptions of lower competence and reduced intent to purchase.

“Consumption risk is mostly the chance of experiencing negative consequences after buying a product or service,” explains Dr. Liu, assistant professor of marketing in the Department of Decision Sciences and Marketing in the Robert B. Willumstad School of Business. She specializes in nonverbal cues, social perception, consumer psychology and consumer behavior.

In addition to Dr. Liu, the paper was written by Ze Wang, Ph.D., at the University of Central Florida; Huifang Mao, Ph.D., at Iowa State University; and Yexin Jessica Li, Ph.D., at the University of Kansas. It was published in the Journal of Consumer Research, one of the top four journals in marketing.

The dual focuses on gains/losses and low/high risk were studied as separate factors. Mock marketing situations were manipulated toward either gains or losses, or toward low or high levels of perceived consumption risk. Participants viewed still photos of the supposed marketers pictured with either an intense or slight smile in each test condition. Effects on potential purchase intentions were also scrutinized.

The researchers then examined hundreds of crowdfunding campaigns on Kickstarter, a major crowdsourcing website, and confirmed that consumer perceptions regarding smiles in photographs have real consequences. Results revealed that, while the individuals grinning broadly in their profile photos received greater numbers of small contributions and double the social media shares, they received total pledge amounts about 50 percent lower than those raised by persons with slight smiles, and amounts per contributor averaged about 30 percent lower.

“The reduction of total amount pledged as well as average contribution is driven by competence perception, thus negatively affected by a broad smile, while the increase of Facebook shares and smaller contributions is driven by warmth perceptions through a broad smile,” Dr. Liu explains.

The takeaway for marketers is that smile intensity in photographs can be dialed up or down as a conscious strategy toward achieving desired goals, depending on whether they want potential customers to focus more on their warmth or on their competence. Similarly, individuals seeking crowdfunding, or just trying to build a brand on social media, may benefit from keeping their smiles at a modest level to boost perceptions of their competence, while people who just want to be perceived as friendly on social media might find a broad smile to be the right choice.

“For consumers on social media every day, they should make sure to smile in their profile pictures,” says Dr. Liu. “But remember, smiling too big can make you look less competent and professional. You’ll get likes but lose investments.”

Dr. Liu is currently investigating facial structures, particularly facial resemblance within groups and how this can affect group perception.

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