Nearly 2,000 years ago the Roman gourmet, Apicius, famously stated, “We eat first with our eyes.” He was one of the first people to realise that the appeal of a dish is not just a matter of what goes into our mouth. Much of our experience is set by our expectations.
This ancient insight is supported by a number of more evidence-based studies: if a brand can create a prior assumption that it will be tasty, the probability that it will be is boosted.
For example, in 2006, Brian Wansink, a professor at Cornell University, gave out 175 brownie samples at a cafe in Urbana, Illinois. Each one the same size and from the same recipe. The twist was that the customers received their food in one of three different serving styles: either on pristine china, a paper plate or a napkin.
When the participants rated the brownies the difference in taste was stark. The brownies served on a napkin were rated as OK, those on a paper plate as good and those on china as excellent. And, remember, the brownies were identical; any difference in rating was due the serving style.
Wansink’s study isn’t a one-off, further research shows that a multitude of factors can help boost diners’ expectations – from the price to the colour. In each case, boosting expectations creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When good intentions backfire
So far, these findings might not surprise you. But there’s one area where the results are more counterintuitive, and that concerns messages about healthiness. A 2006 experiment led by Raj Raghunathan, a professor at McCombs School of Business, suggests these might be counterproductive.
Raghunathan invited a group of diners to sample a selection of Indian food and drink. Half of the guests were told that the lassi (a yoghurt drink) was healthy, while the other half were told that it was unhealthy. When the guests later rated the taste, those told the lassi was unhealthy scored it 55% higher than the others.
It seems people assume that healthy or diet foods taste worse and, as we know, that affects the experience.
This finding is interesting as it runs counter to how most brands behave. Normally, they trumpet their nutritional credentials, but this experiment suggests that might be a mistake.
So, what can you do instead?
Well, a 2017 study led by Bradley Turnwald at Stanford University suggests an alternative. Turnwald created menus for a cafe which sometimes emphasised the taste of the dishes, for example ‘twisted citrus-glazed carrots’ or ‘dynamite chilli and tangy lime-seasoned beets’. On other occasions he described the dishes in terms of their healthiness, such as ‘carrots with sugar-free citrus dressing’ or ‘lighter-choice beets with no added sugar’.
He then monitored the effect on sales. The descriptions which focused on taste boosted sales by 41% compared to those emphasising nutrition.
Counterintuitively, if you want to sell foods that are good for people, you might want to emphasise an entirely different attribute – namely the taste. One brand that does this well is Nakd. Even though health credentials are an important part of its offering, the names it has chosen for its bars, like Lemon Drizzle, Blueberry Muffin and Bakewell Tart, highlight their indulgent side.
Another tactic you might want to consider is provenance. In 2007, Brian Wansink served diners bottles of cabernet sauvignon. Each diner received the same wine but sometimes it was labelled as being from California, on other occasions, North Dakota – a region not normally associated with high-end vineyards.
When questioned, those drinking the ‘Californian’ wine rated it as 41% better than those who had the supposedly ‘North Dakotan’ bottles.
This study suggests that communicating details about an admirable provenance might be an alternative tactic for improving your customer’s expectations.
What if being healthy is a crucial part of the brand?
If conveying healthy messages is a must then all’s not lost. You might find a 2006 study from Leonard Lee at Columbia University heartening. He asked nearly 400 pubgoers to taste two drinks: a regular beer and a beer that had a few drops of balsamic vinegar added. He christened this concoction, MIT Brew.
All drinkers sampled the same beers but they were given one of three preambles. The first group were told nothing before their drinks. In this setup, 59% preferred MIT brew.
The second group were informed that the MIT brew contained vinegar before tasting. On this occasion only 30% preferred the MIT brew. Participants assumed that adding vinegar would be detrimental to the taste and that’s what they ended up experiencing.
Finally, the last set of drinkers were told about the vinegar only after they had tasted it, but before they rated it. Just over half of drinkers (52%) preferred MIT brew. By holding back the negative information until after consumption, it didn’t have the chance to affect their experience.
From lab to supermarket
These findings aren’t just theoretical. Consider Kraft’s Macaroni & Cheese, a huge brand in North America. It had decided to remove all artificial preservatives and colouring from its product. However, perhaps aware of Lee’s experiment, it kept the changes quiet.
It waited for three months and then announced the recipe change with a fanfare, billing it the “world’s largest blind taste test”. By that stage shoppers had had the chance to sample the new recipe without being influenced by their misconceptions about natural flavourings.
You can watch the amusing Cannes-winning case study here.
On one level, Lee’s experiment, and the Kraft case study, suggest that if you’re ever removing some of the nasties from your ingredients then silence might be golden.
However, on a deeper level Kraft shows that the greatest value of these experiments comes when they are combined with a bit of lateral thinking. An insight from behavioural science plus a dash of creativity is the perfect recipe.
This article was originally published in Marketing Week and was written by our head of behavioural planning Will Hanmer-Lloyd and Richard Shotton.