Post No.: 0783
Price sets up such powerful expectations that a packaging design and price can make consumers presume its contents are either a higher or lower quality, even when the contents are the same as another product with another packaging design and price. Thus customers are often only paying extra for the fancier packaging and more flowery product description.
When we have little clue about something, we rely on mental shortcuts, and one of these is the assumption that, because high quality does typically come with a high price, then ‘high price’ must reliably mean ‘high quality’. This was covered in Post No.: 0746. If told (or lie to) that a wine is expensive then we’ll even perceive the taste of it differently – generally more favourably – compared to if told that it’s cheap plonk. Now we might be able to tell there’s no difference in taste if we compared the same wine that was presented with two different prices side-by-side (although even here we can occasionally be fooled) but in real-life contexts, we’ll just buy one wine at whatever price it was sold at then we’ll judge it solo, and if it was expensive then we’ll likely savour it, and if it was cheap then we’ll likely not; unless the taste was either so clearly awful or delectable respectively.
Businesses understand that many customers use this mental shortcut and so exploit it by simply charging more for what could be charged less for, as a way to boost the perception of quality, and of course their profit margins, especially regarding products that are hard to judge the minutiae of without side-by-side comparisons and/or that lack sufficient competition. Then we reward these greedy businesses with our custom!
Most consumers think they have sophisticated palettes or tastes, but that’s mostly in their own heads rather than taste buds and other senses. Even when knowingly tasting two identical products but where one has been presented with a fancier packaging and/or higher price tag than the other – some can still believe that the fancier-packaged and/or higher-priced product is definitely better! This demonstrates how much perception is subjective, even though we may believe we’re being totally objective.
Many consumers will trust in what’s familiar or popular when this won’t necessarily mean it is better than the alternatives. They’re swayed by commercials, and by promotional prices that mightn’t be better than a competitor’s regular prices. They rely on the perceptions of healthiness, wholesomeness or sustainability just because of, say, a picture of a meadow on the label, rather than question whether something really is, or even can be, healthy for them – even when the nutritional data is there, albeit in small print, on the packaging. Packagings for healthcare products or cosmetics are sometimes made to look like clinically-approved therapeutics when they’re not. There are ‘fake farm brands’, with names of farms that don’t really exist. People buy stories, like related to the provenance or heritage of a brand (which is often fabricated for desired effect by marketing departments), and not just what’s actually physically on sale.
Foreign-sounding names will sound more exotic and thus can be charged more for (e.g. edamame rather than soybeans). Skirting the limits of the law, marketing departments carefully choose phrases that sound more appealing than the more obvious terms, like ‘beef flavoured’ to make something sound like it contains at least some beef when it doesn’t, or ‘aqua’ instead of ‘water’ because the former sounds more expensive in cosmetic products. (It’s like spinning the term ‘national insurance’ instead of the more obvious ‘tax’; or ‘comfort women’ instead of coerced ‘sex slaves’ during wartime! A lazy credulity leads to being easily swayed into believing what others say, whether in the context of adverts or religious or political rhetoric.)
Manufacturers frequently come up with ‘new’ recipes or models of products that aren’t really that different, or necessarily better, compared to the last one they released – but the word ‘new’ gets people to want to try it.
Manufacturers also frequently exploit the heuristic that ‘a bigger container equals more content’ – hence packets that are mostly full of air! Like there are stylists for human photo shoots, there are food stylists for food photo shoots – and, skirting the limits of the law, they’ll use all sorts of tricks to make images of food on the fronts of packaging appear more appealing than real-world depictions of the contents.
Buzzwords or phrases like ‘natural’ or ‘no artificial preservatives’ are over-weighted. Many consumers still don’t realise that tinned or frozen fruit or vegetables are often nutritionally richer than their ‘fresh’ versions – the freezing or tinning essentially locks in the nutritional state of the produce not long after it was harvested, or sometimes the cooking process makes some micronutrients more bioavailable (e.g. lycopene from tomatoes). Meanwhile, the ‘fresh’ versions might have taken weeks after harvest before they reached our shopping baskets. This means that ‘fresh’ doesn’t necessarily mean better.
The difference in price of fruits and vegetables that come from the same fields is just to do with the labour to sort them out based on their appearance. There may sometimes be a difference in taste but is it worth the difference in price?
So one thing to try – with any kind of product – is to ‘downshift’ one level down from your usual range – from ‘premium’ to ‘branded’, from ‘branded’ to ‘own-branded’, or from ‘own-branded’ to ‘value’ – to see if you’re still happy.
Even better, if you can get someone else to set up blind tests for you – blind taste a range of different brands of the same kind of product with different prices. Go with the taste. Don’t just follow the brand, packaging or price. Even if a pricier brand is more preferred – ask is it worth the price difference gram-for-gram? Pricier processed foods aren’t necessarily better nutritionally – they might just include more flavourings and colourings. Think intelligently – could you just add your own extra pinch of pepper if something isn’t peppery enough or something like that? That’ll cost virtually no time, effort or money on your part. Indeed, a huge part of it is down to your own skills in the kitchen or elsewhere!
If one lacks the necessary personal skills, knowledge and/or confidence, then one will tend to throw money at a problem (e.g. when organising the food for a party). Businesses love to exploit the desperate, insecure, ignorant, suggestible and fearful, for they will pay above the odds to have their (perceived) problems solved. To a more self-assured and sensible person, a wristwatch just has to reliably tell the time and look decent enough, and good food depends on the ingredients rather than the price tag, for instance. Indeed, to the knowledgeable and wise – it’s what’s on the inside that most counts, whether regarding what we pay for or the people we love.
If the markets are working efficiently then technologies will eventually filter down to cheaper models, like power steering, electric windows, ABS, central locking and airbags did for cars. If there’s only refinement rather than true innovation, or revolution rather than evolution, in a product category, or more exotic materials won’t make a real-world difference to performance or function, then the cheapest products in a product category will eventually become just as good as the expensive ones. If the markets are efficient, products will start to commoditise, there’ll be no value difference between brands and the only differentiation will be on price. Things like convenience, warranties and after-sales service will follow this trend too. Brands will attempt to give the impression of innovation though to differentiate themselves from others in order to try to justify higher selling prices for their products relative to their competitors; but it’s often just an impression.
Marketing therefore adds enormous value to brands – yet consumers must ask themselves whether paying more for purely psychological benefits is worth it? Shouldn’t something purely psychological (the evocations of palm trees on a golden sandy beach being lapped by crystal blue waves), rather than intrinsic in a physical product (the amount of water, sugar, coconut water and lime), come for free because consumers can conjure these mental experiences up for themselves with anything they consume if they had the imagination? Or is the psychological component, even though subjective, all that really matters and is the hardest part to get right because consumers generally lack their own imagination?
The difference between the expectations of what a comestible tastes like (when we’re influenced by its brand or presentation) compared to how it actually tastes like during blind tasting (so without any prior expectations or therefore personal biases, or without the psychological influence of marketing) is essentially the placebo effect. Only blind tasting, or blind testing, will reveal a person’s unalloyed preferences. And this is why blinding in scientific experiments is vitally important to remove the effects of biases.
When blind testing fragrances (with the fragrances decanted into generic bottles with no labels), people who are actually sampling their own usual brand can be convinced that it smells inferior to their usual brand if they enter already assuming that it has been replaced by a cheaper version(!) Perception again occurs in the mind.
Many claim that they taste foods or drinks without biases or expectations affecting their judgements, but blind tasting reveals that people are affected at least to some degree – this is also true of most people’s own biased opinions about themselves not being biased when judging anything else in any other context(!) Probably the most pernicious bias is believing that one can be totally objective and unaffected by biases (the bias blind spot). It’s never just about the objective information on the ingredients list. Along with our own personal biases, the context matters too – a meaty smelling roast is nice to most people but a meaty smelling fart is not(!) Woof!
It’s thus easy being a food critic because judging food is highly subjective. There are some consensuses and the skill in cooking can be evaluated – yet something that’s not salty enough for some can be too salty for others, not everyone can smell sulphurous odours as intensely as others, some like their steak rare and others like it well-done, what’s boring or exotic depends on what we normally eat, and so on.
…You’d think we won’t ever be gullibly misled by over-inflated prices because we’d easily discover when something being flogged to us is inferior. But we cannot always see the product inside the packaging at the point of sale, and so we’re just relying on the pictures and labels on the packaging, and the price. The quality of a product isn’t always easy to determine without a direct comparison between the competing products tested together either, like different bagels or batteries. And this is where side-by-side blind testing comes in. Independent laboratory tests can be used to assess objective elements, like the durability and colour-fastness of clothes; although objective stats don’t always have the final say.
So sometimes we’ll only notice or care about a difference between two things if we get to compare them both literally side-by-side and really concentrate to find any differences, like the picture qualities of a pair of TV sets, or losslessly compressed music versus a format that’s only very slightly lossy – if you even have the equipment to expose, and the hearing to notice, the differences. And if you’d be happy with either of them – especially if one was cheaper than the other – then fantastic. And you’d rather have cheap than expensive tastes because if you’re happy and can pay less then it’s a personal double win!
Other savvy shopping tips exist apart from ‘downshifting’ or blind testing – like knowing the best time to buy things or where to get the best deals. But sometimes the savvy don’t really want them to be more widely known because there’ll be more elbow-jabbing between customers trying to nab those limited deals(!)