How Do I Choose When I Sort of Like Both? Using Cursor Tracking to Understand How Consumers Analyze Brand Versus Product Attributes

In every single thing that you do in your life, you are choosing a direction. Your life is a product of choices.

Dr. Kathleen Hall

Consumers are bombarded with countless choices every day, and our purchase decisions are almost always influenced by a complex web of factors—two of which are product desirability and brand desirability. For example, consider an individual deciding whether to buy a t-shirt from New Balance or shorts from Nike. Although the consumer prefers the aesthetics of the t-shirt to the shorts (i.e., they perceive the t-shirt to be more desirable than the shorts), they generally prefer the Nike brand to New Balance (i.e., they consider the shorts’ brand to be more desirable than the t-shirt’s brand). To make their decision, the consumer needs to consider how desirable they find each product and brand and integrate their assessment to select the preferred product–brand combination.

A recent Journal of Marketing Research article authored by professors Geoffrey Fisher and Kaitlin Woolley explores this interplay between product and brand desirability using cursor tracking to capture this decision-making process in real time. More specifically, they indicate how cursor tracking can help marketers understand consumers’ journey of integrating their attribute desirability into brand vs. product and making choices.

Which Comes First: Brand or Product?

The authors show that consumers usually process the desirability of the product’s attributes ahead of brand attributes. To generalize their findings, the authors designed a number of choice trials across the studies, including a study with price attributes to mimic a more complex real-world context. In addition, the authors demonstrate the impact of spatial location attributes and advertisement emphasis on the timing of brand/product consideration.

Every choice we make as consumers is a balancing act shaped by our unique needs, priorities, and the ever-changing landscape of options around us. Thus, the inferences from this article have important implications for researchers. From a literature perspective, the authors highlight how cursor tracking can be a useful methodological tool to better understand consumer choices. They also demonstrate the importance of the salience of brand-based attributes to steer consumers to make brand-based choices, rather than product-based ones.

Implications for Managers

Current e-commerce analytics firms and online advertisers actively track consumers’ cursor movements, but they often only perform basic analyses with the data. The results of this research suggest that firms can make quality inferences about consumers on the basis of their prior cursor pathways. In addition:

  • The findings suggest that any intervention that increases the relative time at which brand attributes are processed should encourage consumers to make more brand-based choices (e.g., displaying brand attributes more on product packaging and in advertising).
  • Collecting mouse-tracking data is accessible, cheap, and scalable, and companies can integrate the tools introduced in the study with cursor data they may already be collecting to better segment customers by identifying those who are likely to initially attend to brand-relevant features.

We had the opportunity to contact the authors to learn more about their work and gain additional insights:

Q: In the paper, you mentioned the convenience and relevance advantages of mouse cursor tracking compared with the eye-tracking method. Do you think the two methods can supplement each other? If eye tracking can be used as a supplementary method, how would you employ it to improve your studies, especially because the world is consistently moving away from cursors into touch-screen-enabled devices?

This is an interesting idea. Yes, we do think eye tracking could be a nice method to integrate with mouse cursor tracking. That data would enrich our understanding of how people look at different features, but not necessarily when they start to utilize each feature in their decisions. One thing to note regarding the cursor tracking paradigm is that it is intended to relate to physically reaching for a product. Along the lines of collecting more process tracing data, hand movements toward physical products could be another interesting data source to make these paradigms increasingly reflective of real-world environments.

Q: In the rating task of Study 1, you measured brand familiarity in addition to brand and product desirability, but there was no mention of brand familiarity and its role later. What role does brand familiarity play in your studies, if any?

In the current study, not much. We only asked about brand familiarity as a binary variable: Do you recognize the brand(yes/no)? In our main tasks, we only included products and brands that were liked or disliked (i.e., not neutral), with the intention that this would restrict our stimuli to instances where individuals had some knowledge about the feature.

Q: This research makes significant contributions to theories and managerial practices. Have you considered extending this research in the future to different contexts, such as gift purchasing, in which consumers have to consider both their own and others’ product and brand preferences and in which the decision-making journey might not be linear.

Thank you! We have not thought about extending this to gift purchasing, but we agree it would be an interesting paradigm, especially since there is some recent work utilizing mouse cursor tracking in self–other decision-making (Smith & Krajbich 2023).

Q: In all three studies conducted, the independent variables are differences in food desirability and brand desirability. In this case, does the value of the differences also have a significant impact on the decision-making process? For example, a participant may have a difference of X when it comes to burger and donut but a difference of Y when it comes to burger and burrito. Can these values also have an impact on the time and decision-making process?

We agree that these values can certainly influence decision making, and our work does not exclude this. The importance of attributes (e.g., brand vs. product) also matters. Our work finds that, in addition to these factors, the time that one first processes the attributes is yet another factor that influences decision making.

Q: In the paper, it was pointed out that consumers process desirability toward product-based attributes earlier than brand-based attributes in a choice-making situation. In this case, based on the findings from the research and apart from the spatial location of the brand, what other techniques can you suggest to marketers to ensure that brand desirability is more prominent in choice?

We think there are other marketing tools besides the spatial location of the brand that can influence when individuals process these attributes. For example, beyond spatial location, marketers could manipulate visual prominence in other ways that we didn’t test (e.g., size, color). Outside of visual salience, one additional technique that we explored in the paper relates to advertisements for brands. We find advertisements that increase the importance of branding (relative to product attributes) can result in consumers thinking about brands relatively earlier. We suggest that future research should examine additional techniques that alter attribute starting time to understand whether this would be a useful factor for marketers to include in increasing brand prominence.

Q: In the experiments, you tested participants’ choices of clothing and food items. Do you think that your research findings can be generalized to other high-ticket products as well, such as furniture and home appliances?

Perhaps. It is possible that the timing factors that we observed were fixed across contexts. However, it could also be the case that high-priced items cause consumers to process brand information earlier, as a brand can be a strong signal of quality. Our work focused on decisions that are more frequent, but we agree that it would be interesting to test the generalizability of these findings further.

Read the Full Study for Complete Details

Read the full article:

Fisher, Geoffrey and Kaitlin Woolley, “How Consumers Resolve Conflict over Branded Products: Evidence from Mouse Cursor Trajectories,” Journal of Marketing Research, 61 (1), 165–84.


Smith, Stephanie M. and Ian Krajbich (2023), “Predictions and Choices for Others: Some Insights into How and Why They Differ,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 152 (2), 528–41.

Go to the Journal of Marketing Research

Zoe Li is a doctoral student in marketing, University of Missouri, USA.

Anuja Bhattacharjya is a teaching assistant and behavioral researcher, Fundação Getulio Vargas, EAESP, Brazil.