Brand Experience and Placebos

May 04 2014

“We expect small things to be lighter than big things, to get smaller as they move away from us, and to grow larger as they get nearer … Though seeing and hearing and touch seem simple and direct, they are not. They are fallible inferences based on knowledge and assumptions which may or may not be appropriate to the situation. Listen to a tape recording of an audience clapping. In the kitchen, it sounds like bacon frying. In the garden, it sounds like rain.” – Richard Gregory

Marketing and branding are all about creating instant meanings, and there is a lot to be learnt from how placebos work. This is not to argue that marketing is about ‘happy pills’, but rather that expectations matter and marketers need to think carefully about how expectations are created and linked to the things that people value.

Why do expectations matter so much? The brain constructs meaning by identifying previously seen patterns and using this information to predict, “what happens next”. The patterns that the brain searches are the sensory signals in the environment, always situated within a context (place, time, social situation, cultural norm) and an emotional goal (motivation, consumer job).

Emotions and context are used to filter past experience to select only those occasions that are most relevant for understanding today and predicting tomorrow. The brain is wired to look for patterns, and sees them even when they are not really there, as in many visual illusions or seeing faces in the moon (or pieces of cheese).

Expectations are important because they help the brain to predict the future, and thus simplify the world, helping the brain to work as efficiently as possible. Of course, sometimes our expectations prove wrong, leading to a “correction” in our evaluation of a situation. But often our expectations are close enough to reality to pass the test. In this way out brain can be fooled into thinking that white wine tastes like red wine (with a suitable colouring added), or that expensive wine tastes better than cheap wine (with a suitable price label).

The role of expectation can be best understood by looking at he power of placebos, which has been documented over hundreds of studies in medicine and marketing. Placebo effects are usually attributed to a combination of expectancy and classical conditioning, and several studies by Dan Ariely have investigated the role of such expectations in the evaluation of prodyucts.

For example, in one experiment it was shown that members of a fitness centre worked out less and were more fatigued when they had purchased a reduced-price energy drink compared with when it was purchased at full price. That is, price discounts led to a measurable impact on behavior!

In other experiments, Ariely and his team compared intrinsic expectation effects (e.g., an active drug ‘should’ work) with extrinsic expectation effects (e.g., the difference between delivering a drug as an injection or capsule) and existing beliefs (e.g., the impact of brand name and price).

Across the different studies, they showed that

1)   participants solved fewer puzzles when given a discounted energy drink compared with a full-price version (and were unaware of the effect)

2)   the effect disappeared when they drew their attention to the link between price and efficacy

3)   the effects were repeated when participants were given new information about the efficacy of the drink (e.g., additional marketing information), and this effect was independent of the price effect

Similar results were found in experiments of the efficacy of a ‘drug’, with reduced price drugs providing less pain relief. The importance of such studies is that it confirms that price not only effects perceptions of quality, but also influences actual perceived quality. That is, changes in price really do change the experience of a product.

It is true that “believing is seeing” (and not the reverse) in the sense that what we experience is highly dependent on what we expect to experience (because it’s what we have learnt to experience on numerous previous occasions).

In one further experiment, the addition of balsamic vinegar to a beer increased preferences for the beer when tasted blind, but when participants were informed of the vinegar, their preferences switched. The timing of the information about the vinegar was crucial, as when the information was given after tasting the beer, then preferences reverted to those seen in the blind test. It was not the information that changed preferences, but the experience of drinking the beer with the information about it.

So what does this teach marketers? I certainly don’t want to argue that marketing is about fooling people into believing things that are not true. However, marketers need to know that experience is a ‘pro-active’ construction of the world and not a ‘reactive’ acceptance of what happens to us.

Perceptions are hypotheses about the world around us, or a ‘bunch of guesses’ to quote Richard Gregory again. Our brain doesn’t produce a picture or video image in the same way as a camera, but actively creates a ‘virtual reality’ model of what it thinks is there. As long as this model is good enough to predict what’s important then that’s good enough and the brain doesn’t need or have the energy to worry about the details. Truly a case of satisficing!

That’s the reason for the ‘hollow face illusion’, one of the most remarkable visual illusions you will ever see (check it out on YouTube). Because our brain has seen thousands of convex faces where the nose protrudes, it forces us to see the same even when we are looking at a concave model of a face. Our brain figures that it is so unlikely to see a face like this, that our perception must be wrong, and over-rides the reality of our experience for the safety of a more useful prediction.

Perception is learnt from experience, so marketers can only fool ‘some of the people, some of the time’. In fact the lesson is that if your customers learn that they always have a great experience with your brand, they can be quite forgiving of the occasional slip as long as you give them enough clues to prime their expectations.

Marketing is all about making sure that your customers remember experiences and link this memory to a relevant meaning. Once this is learnt, then the next time that customer experiences an associated sensation in the same contextual and emotional state, then their expectations will kick in accordingly. The more you can help customers to predict the right emotional outcomes, the more they will favour your brand.

You can read more about the role of expectations and the reality of perception in Brand esSense.

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

Seeing Through Illusions: Making Sense of the Senses by Richard Gregory

Brand esSense by Neil Gains

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