Marketing Tricks? Or Marketing Common Sense?

10 Aug 2007|Added Value

A Stanford University study of 3 – 5 year old kids in San Mateo, CA generated loads of press for its findings that the children preferred the taste of just about any food when it was wrapped in McDonald’s packaging compared to the same item with no packaging (you can read about the study here). This should come as no surprise to most marketers. It certainly doesn’t surprise those of us who work here at Cheskin. Our founder, Louis Cheskin, long ago developed the concept of “sensation transference” – the notion that sensorial cues in the packaging and environment in which a product or service is delivered (imagery, sounds, textures, etc) impact the impression they have of the offering – regardless of intent or accuracy. While the old adage “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig” may be true, Louis found that for consumers, it’s often the lipstick that matters.

Louis was a pioneer in bringing science and psychology to the study of consumer behavior. While design research is a hot topic today, Louis was a practitioner as far back as the 1950’s.
In experiment after experiment, Louis demonstrated to his clients the power of sensorial cues. In one famous study, he tested a leading citrus-flavored beverage brand’s packaging by varying the shades of green on the cans. Consumers who were asked to “taste test” the “different” products would report that the cans that were a yellower shade of green contained a formulation that tasted more lemony. In fact, all cans contained the same product. In another legendary Cheskin project, participants were sent samples of identical deodorants in different packaging and were told that they would be testing different formulations. Sure enough, the participants reported preferences between the products, and even that the “different” deodorant products had different levels of effectiveness.

Pundits of varying stripes are leaping to the front of the line to claim that this study’s results support their varied agendas – from those opposed to kid-targeted marketing to pediatricians. Even the title of the article (“Marketing Tricks Tots’ Taste Buds”) supports their positions. I’m no shill for McDonald’s – having grown up in a city that didn’t have one, I never developed much of a taste, and I’ve never done work for them, although Cheskin certainly has. And I think we can all agree that McDonald’s is one of the world’s most recognized and powerful brands. But in my view the study design is flawed and the conclusions are erroneous. As one University of Chicago marketing professor points out, the study might have had a much different result if the unwrapped products had been packaged in materials featuring Mickey Mouse or Dora the Explorer iconography. And, based on Louis Cheskin’s work across many decades and thousands of in-market experiments, we can say with confidence that adults who participated in the same study would likely report the same findings. Marketers know that branded products are perceived by many consumers to offer superior quality – that’s why branded products can charge a premium over generic products, even when the products themselves are the same. The San Mateo study simply demonstrates what Louis Cheskin discovered half a century ago – that packaging is part of an integrated experience – and what savvy marketers already know – that well-thought out and carefully executed brand building efforts deliver high returns.

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