Tactile perception: “some like it furry”
Rushika Bhatia

Tactile perception: “some like it furry”

Tactile perception: “some like it furry”

A woman’s hormonal makeup drives her taste in fabrics and textures, with “estrogen-driven” women preferring animal fabrics such as wool, fur, leather, or silk, while their “testosterone-driven” sisters go for vegetal materials such as cotton and linen. So reveals Diana Derval of the market research firm DervalResearch.

She just presented her groundbreaking findings on hormones and tactile perception at the 15th annual meeting of the Society for Behavioural Neuroendocrinology (SBN) in Mexico.

DervalResearch didn’t just make this estrogen-animal/testosterone-vegetal theory up out of whole cloth, so to speak. Between April 2007 and February 2011, the firm studied 3,500 individuals from 25 different countries. Both men and women of various ethnicities, vocations, and general preferences were measured for their individual sensitivity to touch, and were also interviewed about which fabrics they preferred and which ones they found irritating to the touch.

The findings from DervalResearch are making waves in behavioural neuroendocrinological circles. Behavioural neuroendocrinology is the science that studies the interactions between the nervous and endocrine (hormonal) systems and our behavior. Professor Derval is concerned with the effects of prenatal exposure to estrogen and testosterone, which not only have a direct impact on physical traits and behaviour, but, according to her research, on sensory perceptions as well. Although hormonal fluctuations throughout the normal life cycle can have significant effects on mood and behavior, and people’s individual experiences can help determine likes and dislikes, prenatal hormonal exposures appear to have a profound and lasting influence on many basic preferences and reactions to stimuli.

The research DervalResearch presented at the SBN Conference in Mexico explored the link between hormones and sensitivity to touch. Depending upon gender, ethnicity, and immune system, individuals have different perceptions of light touch, pressure, pain, cold, and vibrations. “Touch is a vibration. We identified different tactile profiles based on people’s perception of touch: non-vibrators, medium-vibrators, and super-vibrators,” says Professor Derval. “The super-vibrators,” she explains, “are six times more sensitive to touch than others and clearly prefer to wear cotton to silk or wool.”

And this doesn’t only apply to women. “This tactile segmentation is also valid for men,” says Professor Derval. Her research has found that men on average are more sensitive than women to synthetic textiles such as nylon, but important variations can be observed among age-matched men of the same ethnicity.

As for those estrogen-driven women who prefer “animal” fabrics, they’re more likely to be non-vibrators or medium-vibrators, whereas the “testosterone-driven” women who prefer vegetal fabrics are more likely to be super-vibrators or medium-vibrators. Acting as a predictor, the influence of prenatal hormones seems to override both gender and ethnicity in explaining the different sensory reactions to an identical tactile stimulus.

These findings, Professor Derval believes, are critical not only for the fashion and luxury industries, but also for businesses involved in consumer packaging. “This research will aid them in designing the right sensory mix for their target markets,” she explains.

Beyond neuroendocrinology, DervalResearch is part of an intriguing new trend in “neuromarketing,” which combines cutting-edge neuroscience with marketing research. Not surprisingly, there is much more to the research than simply determining a person’s fabric preferences based on that person’s “vibrational” category. Prof. Derval’s findings also target hormonal influences on the other senses: vision, taste, smell, hearing, and proprioception (the ability to sense our own movement and position).

“Consumers are unique individuals but they are also predictable,” says Diana Derval. “Their preferences and behavior are directly linked to their biological and sensory perceptions. And again, these perceptions are greatly due to the influence of prenatal hormones. Similarly to what exists in many animal species, we have identified eight gender polymorphisms among humans based on the prenatal influence of hormones – four in male and four in female. We can identify the gender polymorphism or what we call the Hormonal Quotient (HQ) of an individual based on the gender, ethnicity, and different biomarkers, including the digit ratio – the relative length of the index and ring fingers of the right hand.”

Professor Derval explains that knowing consumers’ Hormonal Quotient (HQ) makes it possible to predict not only their favorite textures, but also their preferred flavors, smells, shapes, and sounds. These profiles are already used by leading brands and have enabled their teams to design and deliver the right consumer experience across their markets in a powerful yet cost-effective way. One big advantage, notes Professor Derval, is that companies will no longer need to conduct traditional, recurrent, and costly surveys. They just have to identify the profile and HQ of their consumers once. A wide array of industries – food and beverage, electronics, luxury items, fashion, cosmetics, automotive, pharmaceuticals, advertising, leisure, and tourism, to name but a few – can benefit from this research.

“Consumers will benefit from a greatly improved sensory experience,” adds Professor Derval.

Professor Derval elaborates on her findings on sensory perceptions in the book, “The Right Sensory Mix,” published by Springer. That book, which has been acclaimed by marketing and branding experts the world over, has just been nominated for the Berry-AMA (American Marketing Association) prize for Best Book in Marketing of 2011.

Professor Derval’s findings on hormones and sensory perceptions are already influencing the way more and more products are designed and marketed.

“Thanks to her discovery concerning the relationship between hormones and sensory sensitivity, Diana Derval proposes an amazing scientific approach to accurately profile consumers, according to their Hormonal Quotient,” says Wai Wong, Marketing Manager Accessories at Sephora Paris. This new approach will allow companies to fine-tune their positioning and product range for every local market, and systematically increase their innovation hit rate.

That’s good news not only for marketers, but also for consumers everywhere.