What’s in a name?

Shakespeare’s eternal question didn’t concern carrots, beets and green beans. Yet the labels we apply to things can have a huge impact on their appeal. That’s not news. What’s more intriguing is the way in which labels can actually alter experiences.

Consider a study at the Stanford University cafeteria. It tested whether using the types of descriptive words and phrases typically associated with less healthy foods would increase vegetable consumption. Every day for a semester each of the vegetables was labeled in one of four ways:

  1. Basic: carrots, beets, green beans.
  2. Healthy restrictive: “carrots with sugar-free citrus dressing”; “lighter-choice beets with no added sugar”; “light ‘n’ low-carb green beans and shallots”.
  3. Healthy positive: “smart-choice vitamin C citrus carrots”; “high-antioxidant beets”, “healthy energy-boosting green beans and shallots”.
  4. Indulgent: “twisted citrus-glazed carrots”, “dynamite chili and tangy lime-seasoned beets”, “sweet sizzlin’ green beans and crispy shallots”.

The vegetables were prepared and served the exact same way each day; only the label changed. The students were unaware of the experiment. Researchers simply recorded the number of people who picked the veggies, and the weight of the veggies served.

The results, reported by JAMA Internal Medicine in 2017, showed the power of the labels. Indulgent labeling led to 41% more people selecting the vegetable compared with healthy restrictive labeling, 35% more than with the healthy positive labeling, and 25% more compared with basic labeling.

The indulgent label also triggered a 33% increase in the mass of vegetables consumed compared with the healthy restrictive label, a 23% increase compared with basic label, and a 16% increase compared with the healthy positive label.

Expectations shape our reality

Hector Macdonald mentions the cafeteria study in a new book called Truth: How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape our Reality. He says that persuading people to like what’s good for them is often a matter of simple but smart marketing. “When we expect to enjoy something, we are more likely to enjoy it,” writes Macdonald.

He describes another experiment at Stanford and Caltech where researchers gave subjects two glasses of wine, and told them that one was more expensive. In fact, the wine was identical. While drinking the wine, the subjects went through an fMRI scanner.

The subjects reported that they liked the supposedly expensive wine more. Moreover, they showed greater neural activity in the region of the brain linked to pleasure. As Macdonald notes, they truly perceived the taste differently. All because of labelling.

We know that marketing influences choice. These simple mind games show that. Perceived value can also have a very real effect on how we function.

Baba Shiv, who co-authored the wine study, is a marketing professor at Stanford and an expert in neuroeconomics. He did another study where he gave subjects Red Bull. Some were asked to pay full price, others got a discount. Then they were asked to work on word puzzles.

Same drink, different price. But the full-price energy drinks “worked” better. In what can be described as a you-get-what-you-pay-for phenomenon, the people who spent more for a Red Bull actually solved more of the puzzles.

It shouldn’t be puzzling at all.

Shakespeare may have concluded “That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet”. But that which we call a carrot or wine can sure seem like it tastes better depending on the label or the price.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.

February 28, 2018

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