The true value of marketing

Hand a glass of white wine to a professional wine taster—how will he rate it? Let’s say 88 on a scale of 80 to 100. Give the same wine to him again, even minutes later—the rating will be plus or minus four points, on average. After adding flavorless dye to one of the glasses, researchers at the University of Bordeaux found even experts mistook the dyed liquid for a typical red. And like non-experts, wine professionals will rate a glass of wine from a fancy bottle higher than the same wine poured from a cheap bottle. (You know, something with a bird on it.)

British psychologist Richard Wiseman found that average consumers have a 50/50 chance of guessing which wine is $5 and which is $48. Serve a non-expert a glass of wine during an fMRI and tell her it’s expensive; her brain scan suggests she’ll enjoy it much more than if she thinks it’s cheap. In short, nobody can tell the good stuff from the jug wine. (This is a modified take on William Goldman’s rule of studio filmmaking: “Nobody knows anything.”)

Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at Oxford, says these wine-centric conclusions can likely be applied to coffee. “They both have a very complex, aromatic and multi-sensory profile of taste and texture,” he said. Spence earned a name for himself with clever studies showing that cup color changes the taste of hot chocolate, and the sound of an espresso machine affects the perceived taste of the brew.

(In case you doubt the wine versus coffee comparison, a Consumer Reports blind taste test determined that Folger’s decaf is the best of the grocery store offerings, noting it has “a touch of fruitiness and earthiness, but papery and cereal aromas make it a good candidate for milk and sugar.”)

I asked Spence, who has consulted with corporations from Starbucks to Unilever, about how to leverage cross-sensory experience, and if anyone can really identify a vanilla top note. “We are all suggestible,” he said. “In the absence of any branding or labels or descriptive sensory stuff, perhaps you can’t tell the difference.” But given a description of what you’re supposed to taste, “that allows you to sort your experience in a different way, and then maybe you really do experience those things. But you needed the label or the information or the cue or the trigger to get you there.”

In one study, undergraduates took a questionnaire that sought to determine values, including the importance of “seeking authority, wealth, social recognition, and preserving one’s public image.” Given a choice by scientists, kids who most valued social power preferred a sausage roll. Those less-inclined to value power chose the veggie alternative more. The punchline: the two rolls were identical.

In another study, researchers compared Perrier to a generic brand of mineral waterand found that Perrier was favored only when the two drinks were labeled. (My personal favorite is the study that showed most people can’t tell paté from dog food.)


Advertisers, of course, are keenly aware of all of this. They fund a ton of social and cognitive psychology research. (There’s literally a field called consumer psychology.) They know the cup in our hands is a visible symbol of our place in the social strata, and that our preference has almost nothing to do with flavor. Sell it right, and we’ll buy our own loyalty.

Are you a Mac or a PC? A Starbucks or a Blue Bottle? Who do you want to be when the chips are down?


This is not to say expressions of identity through brands and the pleasure taken in their consumption are invalid. There are genuine human desires for association and distinction, and value in meeting them.

(via the awl)


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