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How print helps sell

The sense of touch helps sell products according to some recent research. This applies especially to using paper based communication rather than electronic.

The UK’s Royal Mail wanted to understand whether there are any differences in the communications effectiveness of printed and virtual media. They wanted to better understand their marketing communications mix.

Millward Brown, a global research agency specializing in advertising, marketing communications, media and brand equity research, decided to investigate how the brain processes printed marketing materials, such as direct mail, compared to virtual (or digital) materials presented on a screen.

Millward Brown had learned the importance of emotion in driving marketing success from other forms of advertising research and hence they wanted to test the relative emotional response between printed and electronic communications.

Working in collaboration with the Centre for Experimental Consumer Psychology at Bangor University, Millward Brown used MRI scanning to understand how the brain reacts to printed and virtual stimuli. MRI can look directly at brain activity and see the brain regions most involved in processing advertising. These include quite subtle reactions that respondents can find hard to articulate verbally or which may be unavailable to introspection and so could be missed by conventional research.

During the research, 20 participants were shown ads on-screen (to produce the online, virtual experience) and printed on cards. While participants interacted with the material, brain scans were used to assess how the processing of marketing materials was affected by the medium of presentation.

The same material was shown on-screen (to produce the online, virtual experience) and printed on cards. While participants interacted with the material, brain scans were used to assess how the processing of marketing messages was affected by the medium of presentation.

Key findings

Printed materials leave a deeper footprint in the brain

  • material shown on cards generated more activity within the left and right areas of the brain associated with the integration of visual and spatial information
  • this suggests that printed material is more “real” to the brain. It has a meaning, and a place. It is better connected to memory because it engages with its spatial memory networks.

Printed material involves more emotional processing, which is important for memory and brand associations

  • more processing is taking place in the right brain when physical material is presented. This is involved in the processing of emotionally powerful stimuli and memory, which would suggest that the physical presentation may be generating more emotionally vivid memories.
  • physical activity generates increased activity in the cerebellum, the 'little brain' which is associated with attention and language, and in regulating fear and pleasure responses (emotions).

Printed materials produced more brain responses connected with internal feelings, suggesting greater “internalization” of the ads

  • the printed material stimulated parts of the brain associated with emotional engagement
  • the brain’s “default network” appeared to remain more active when viewing direct mail. Activity in this brain network has been associated with a greater focus on a person’s internal emotional response to outside stimuli. This suggests that the individuals were relating information to their own thoughts and feelings.

This research strongly suggests that greater emotional processing is facilitated by the physical material than by the virtual. The “real” experience that the physical media provides means it’s better at becoming part of memory. It generates more emotion, which should help to develop more positive brand associations. The real experience is also internalized, which means the materials have a more personal effect, and therefore should aid motivation.


Greg Branson

Greg’s passion is the research and development of methods that improve design management and the role of design in business.

Greg has developed a series of business tools to help designers manage their business better along with a series of workshops that show designers how to use these tools.