You are what you package

Successful businesses understand the almost-magical powers of packaging.

If they want to be as successful as possible, people in the hospitality business or any form of retailing need a full appreciation of the almost-magical powers of packaging and presentation. Package it one way and the product takes off; package it another way and it bombs. Present it this way and it sells well; present it that way and sales are poor.

Some business people understand this intuitively. They’ve spent their working lives carefully observing and building up their knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. Others need to have it explained in a textbook and demonstrated in controlled experiments – which, of course, is just what the more psychology-inclined marketing experts have done.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating book Blink, published by Penguin, he writes about the American marketing pioneer, Louis Cheskin’s discovery of “sensation transference”. This is the notion that people unconsciously transfer impressions they gain from the packaging of a product to the product itself. That is, we don’t really distinguish between the product and its packaging.

The classic proof is a Cheskin company experiment with the 7 Up bottle, in which it added more yellow to the green on the label. In taste tests people complained the drink had a lot more lime or lemon flavour than they were used to. A certain brand of tinned ravioli had a picture of its supposed chef on the label. When the marketers changed him from a photograph to a cartoon figure, people were less satisfied with the taste and quality of the ravioli.

When they added a tiny sprig of parsley to the logo on a can of meat, people perceived the meat to be fresher. When Del Monte took their peaches out of a tin and put them into a glass container, people thought that they tasted better. When ice-cream was sold in a cylindrical container rather than a rectangular tub, people were willing to pay a bit more for it.

Another must-read book with a lot of eye-opening news is Mindless Eating, by Brian Wansink, a professor of marketing at Cornell University, and published by Bantam Books.

Have you ever looked at those flowery descriptions of items on a menu and thought they were way over top? They work. If one item is described as “chocolate cake” and the same item is called “Belgian Black Forest double chocolate cake” people will buy the second. And get this: they’ll also give it a better taste rating (the fact that the Black Forest is a long way from Belgium doesn’t seem to matter.)

In Wansink’s experimental cafeteria, he tested red beans with rice versus traditional cajun red beans with rice; seafood fillet versus succulent Italian seafood fillet; grilled chicken versus tender grilled chicken; chicken parmesan versus home-style chicken parmesan; chocolate pudding versus satin chocolate pudding and zucchini cookies versus Grandma’s zucchini cookies.

On average, the same food but with the with the fancy name sold 27 per cent more. The versions with the descriptive names were rated as more appealing and tastier. And customers who ate the food with the descriptive names also had more favourable attitudes towards the cafeteria as a whole. So the mere addition of one or two words changed sales, tastes and attitudes towards the restaurant.

In another experiment, diners at a restaurant were given a complimentary glass of red wine. It was very cheap wine but in half the cases it was billed as “NEW from California” and in the other half as “NEW from North Dakota”.

California is famous for its wine, of course, but North Dakota has no wine. It’s famous only for snow and buffalos. People who thought they had drunk Californian wine rated both it and their meal as good, whereas people who thought they had drunk North Dakota wine rated it as bad and their meal as less tasty. And the Californian wine people also ate 11 per cent more of their food and stayed 10 minutes longer at their table. So people’s expectations of the wine conditioned their perceptions of the whole meal.

But note this: when diners were asked whether the state’s name on the label had influenced them, almost all of them said no, it hadn’t. This is the common reaction: people don’t know their judgments are being influenced by superficialities. Similarly, people don’t realise how much they’re influenced by numerical signs. A sign such as “Limit 12 per customer” will increase sales. Even a sign like “2 for $2″ will sell more than “1 for $1″.

Wansink’s studies show that the size of packages of foodstuffs such as pasta, influences how much of the stuff people cook at a time, and how much they cook influences how much they end up eating. People given 100-gram complimentary bags of M&Ms will eat more than people given 50-gram bags. People judge the size of a serving by reference to the size of the plate it’s on – so if you’re running an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord, use smaller plates.

Big businesses have marketing departments that understand this stuff. Smaller businesses need to be observant enough to figure out the tricks for themselves.  

By Ross Gittins. Ross is an economics columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.