Halo effect: first impressions and their role in marketing

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression”. There is more than just a grain of truth in this proverb. In psychology, this is called the halo effect. It is a kind of cognitive distortion where people are unduly influenced by a (false) first impression.

What is the halo effect?

Cognitive distortion always affects several factors: perception, memory, thoughts, and judgment. These distortions are all systematically occurring mistakes or misjudgments people make, which can be reliably reproduced in studies. In the case of the halo effect, the first impression of a person or thing is so positive that this image is slow to adapt to the reality of the situation afterward, and sometimes it does not change the situation at all.


Halo effect: The halo effect is the tendency to subconsciously infer unknown characteristics of people or things from known characteristics. Even if the first impression turns out to be incorrect in hindsight, this cognitive distortion has a long-term effect which makes the halo effect useful for fields such as marketing.

The theory: how does the halo effect work?

The halo effect was first observed in 1907 by Frederic L. Wells. However, “‘halo effect” was coined by the American psychologist Edward Lee Thorndike to describe the phenomenon. Its origin in psychology clearly shows that this kind of cognitive distortion is useful for marketing and sales. After all, many practices in marketing are based on psychological principles. Therefore, the use of psychology in sales processes is an important sub-topic of industrial and organizational psychology.

The halo effect also has an enormous influence on the interaction between people, making it difficult for us to make judgments objectively. However, the more you know about types of cognitive distortion such as the halo effect, the more likely it is that you will be able to avoid making an incorrect judgment, such as when selecting employees, suppliers, business partners, and so on - in short, when choosing to work with someone.


Due to the halo effect being so far-reaching, counter strategies against it have always existed. These used to be carried out intuitively and in an evolutionarily selective fashion before psychologists discovered it. Targeted scientific work is now conducted on it since it has become clear how serious the effect is on human behavior.

It is quite simple to explain how the halo effect works. Let us say you have just met a person, but you have too little information to make a reliable judgment about them. However, you will use these few impressions to establish an idea of their personality as quickly as possible so that you can behave appropriately. Generally, the process of assessing and evaluating another person occurs completely subconsciously.

Anyone who is aware of the processes that take place during the sensitive stage of getting to know a person is at an advantage. For a favorable first impression, the time you get the information (as soon as possible) is just as important as the value (as positive as possible). The halo effect can be long-lasting. Even if you have a negative experience later, such as in a partnership of any kind, it will often be overshadowed by a positive first impression. The halo effect thus describes an essential aspect of social capital.

Examples of the halo effect in practice

Through concrete examples, we can see how effective the halo effect is. For example, studies show that more attractive people are automatically perceived as being smarter even though there is no correlation between appearance and intelligence. Heavier-set people are seen as being gentler, but once again, there is no correlation between the two. Additional examples can be observed in sectors such as education or media. Teachers perceive more attractive students as being more competent, and the friendly newscaster seems more intelligent.

The first significant analysis conducted on the halo effect provided an excellent example illustrating the importance and danger of this kind of cognitive distortion. When the American psychologist Thorndike examined the assessment performed on soldiers, astounding findings came to light. Soldiers with particularly good posture were significantly more likely to have accurate marksmanship in the assessment reports even though, in practice, this was often not the case. The officers performing the assessment had subconsciously concluded their evaluation based on a distinguishing characteristic. Other parameters of the evaluation are found to be positive because good posture is observed as highly important in the environment where the assessment took place.

The halo effect in marketing: A great opportunity

In marketing, you often only get one chance to make an impression on potential customers, so it’s a good idea to make the most of it using your knowledge of the halo effect. This applies to both sales through direct personal contact and indirect contact via websites, advertisements, and other advertising means.

When harnessing the power of the halo effect, a single carefully chosen positive personality trait is needed to put the entire person or product in a particularly positive light. The effect gives the person or product a kind of “halo.” You should thus choose this characteristic very carefully to achieve the desired effect. When it comes to personal contact, especially in B2B sales and B2B marketing, it may be useful to work with a unique “halo” for each potential and existing customer to make the best first impression. This positive first impression can then be leveraged during later negotiations. You can also leverage the appeal and success of a product to increase the value of the rest of the product range, and improve sales across both e-marketing and e-commerce. Experts refer to this as the “Brand Halo Effect.”


The halo effect also plays a large role in personnel management and selection in specific situations (e.g., job interviews, shortage of personnel). After all, both the company (e.g., the recruitment manager) and the job applicant want to leave the best possible impression, and both parties understand the “ritual”.

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