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Marketing Iinsights: Eating with our eyes

Eating with our eyes


Every good marketer knows all about “managing
perception.” Marketing communications live and die by their ability to
facilitate the buying process.

Every good marketer knows all about “managing perception.” Marketing communications live and die by their ability to facilitate the buying process.

While we may accept that a positive image may help raise awareness and even convert that awareness into sales, can it really fool our five senses and make us believe that something is better than it really is?

Brands are created to communicate a point of difference about a product. We remember that Charles Lindbergh was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean but we don’t remember who came after him – or do we? Does the name Amelia Earhart ring a bell? We remember her because she was a woman. She had a point of difference that stood out.

Our brains are bombarded with so much information that it becomes easier to notice what’s different than to notice similarities. Brands are simply stories about products, but we’ve become such adept storytellers that in some instances, these stories have eclipsed the actual product. The image actually becomes a new reality rather than a means of communicating the reality. Of course, no other consumer group appreciates a good story more than children do.

A recent study looked at 63 low-income children ages three to five. Researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine asked the children to taste five pairs of identical foods and beverages in basic McDonald’s packaging and in matched packaging without any branding on it. Parents of the children in the study completed a questionnaire on their child’s race/ethnicity, age, exposure to McDonald’s food, and toys and television viewing habits.

The foods and beverages given to the children included a quarter of a McDonald’s hamburger, a chicken McNugget, McDonald’s french fries, about three ounces of one-per cent milk (or apple juice for one child who was not allowed to drink milk) and two baby carrots. The research results indicated that 48.3 per cent of the children believed that the McDonald’s-branded hamburger tasted better than the burger in the unbranded packaging.

When it came to french fries, the brand had more power with 76 .7 per cent choosing McDonald’s-branded fries versus 13.3 per cent preferring the non-branded fries. In the chicken McNugget category, 59 per cent preferred branded Chicken McNuggets versus 18 per cent for the non-branded.

The power of the “McBranding” even held sway over the humble carrot with 54.1 per cent indicating “McDonald’s” carrots were preferable and only 23 per cent indicating the non-branded carrots were better.

A secondary analysis found that children preferred the tastes of foods and drinks that were thought to be from McDonald’s for four out of five comparisons. Preschoolers with more television sets in their homes and children who ate McDonald’s food more often were more likely to prefer foods and drinks they thought were from McDonald’s.

A research study conducted by UW-Madison assistant professor of psychology and psychiatry Jack B. Nitschke, tested whether or not a human being’s taste experience could be swayed by expectation based on visual cues. Subjects were given distasteful concoctions of quinine, sugar water or distilled water while undergoing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

“There is a potent impact to expectancy,” says Nitschke, who gave 43 undergraduate subjects potions of quinine, sugar water or distilled water while they underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A “minus sign” shown to subjects was to indicate to subjects that the liquid would have a very bitter taste. A “zero cue” heralded a neutral taste, and a “plus sign” indi-cated a pleasant, sugary taste.

What the subjects didn’t realize was that the cues would not always match the actual taste they were exposed to. When subjects were given a cue that suggested the taste they were about to experience would be less bitter, the taste was perceived as less bitter even if the actual sample was the most bitter of the bunch. They also found that if the brain believed the taste to be less bitter than it actually was, the regions of the brain that code tastes were activated less.

The big “ah ha” for researchers was to discover that a much larger area of the brain is involved in experiencing taste than previous thought. “It’s a huge area of activation,” reports Nitschke.

Look at your menu and rethink the descriptions. If you use ingredients with strong brand names – highlight it on your copy and in your advertising. Ask yourself if the plates can be styled a bit more effectively to enhance the experience.
Ever since our grandmothers chided us for having “eyes bigger than our stomachs,” we’ve known innately that eating is as much cerebral as it is gastric. It’s definitely “food for thought.”•