LONDON: Own-label "copycat" brands are taking business from leading brands by "preying" on shoppers' unconscious decision-making processes in noisy and confusing retail settings, neuroscience research suggests.

Writing in the current issue of Admap, Tim Holmes, director of research at Acuity Intelligence, outlined a research project designed to examine the impact of copycat brands on visual search, decision-making and product recall.

This involved four scenarios, with participants asked to locate branded products in situations where both the original brand and copycat appeared, where each one appeared alone, and where neither appeared at all. The performance of package design, rendered in colour and black and white, both in and out of focus, was also considered.

While it took participants 3.55 seconds on average to locate a brand when no lookalikes were on the shelf, participants were much quicker (2.67 seconds) to first consider the imposter brand when both versions were present, Holmes reported.

"In a moment, and without spending a penny on design or market research, these imposters command our attention," he said. And if this is the case in a lab setting, the effects are multiplied in the real world "where we are constantly distracted, and forever short of time, and always after a bargain".

The research also identified colour as the vital factor in "findability".

"Colour is everything," Holmes stated. "It enables brand originals, seeking differentiation, to stand out, and pretenders to the throne, seeking acceptance, to join in – which is the great conflict of brand authenticity."

The research further demonstrated that when the target brand was present, participants failed positively to identify the product in situ in 25% of the shelves – regardless of whether the copycat was on the shelf or not.

The error rate was much higher (41%) when the copycat appeared alone, "implying a dramatic increase in the likelihood of mistaking an imposter for the real deal when the original is not available for reference, as is typically the case in Aldi and Lidl".

With much grocery decision-making done on autopilot, "the visual similarity of most copycat packs meets the minimum requirement for recognition which would translate to a purchase in-store".

He advised brands to consider distinctive product design. "Colour can be trademarked and, more importantly, should be unobscured by cluttered designs and faithfully rendered across all variants and package types."

Data sourced from Admap