Marketing rewires the brain, no less

 |  By: Steve Johnson In: Trends


New research shows that when people think a food or drink product is expensive, that perception changes the brain physically. As a result they genuinely perceive it as tasting better.

It’s long been known that people can be given identical varieties of products such as chocolate or wine and describe each very differently, even though the only difference is the way the product was packaged or priced. Expensive products always seem to taste better. But what’s actually going on in the brain?

In a new piece of research, participants were given five wines to sample. They were told that they were priced around £3, £7, £25, £30 and £55. The result was that the tasters’ ‘knowledge’ of the prices swayed their taste judgements, with considerable prejudice shown towards the ‘expensive’ wines. In fact, there were only three different wines there, bought by the experimenters at only two different price points.

What’s particularly interesting about the study is that this isn’t showing some simple snob effect. The participants had their brains scanned, showing that they genuinely experienced the ‘expensive’ wines differently. In fMRI brain scans, the before-and-after brain patterns of the consumer experience were different. Yet the only difference was the erroneous question of price.

Of course price isn’t the only way that product perceptions can be prejudiced. In other experiments, participants were told that some of the wine was organic. The participants duly reported that these tasted better. And of course these effects don’t only work with wine. The experimenters tried it with milk shakes, supposedly of different prices, with the same results.

The study concluded that preconceived beliefs about price may create a placebo effect so strong that the actual chemistry of the brain changes.

"Understanding the underlying mechanisms of this placebo effect provides marketers with powerful tools. Marketing actions can change the very biological processes underlying a purchasing decision, making the effect very powerful indeed," the authors said.

Clearly the implications for marketing and creative agencies are huge. You could almost argue that as an agency you have a moral obligation to big-up a product because the end result will be a richer and more enjoyable experience for the consumer, even if the product is actually much the same as competing products. And if this involves raising the product price to make it feel particularly special, so be it.

OK, maybe moral obligation is a bit strong there. But the next time you meet a world-weary client who mumbles that branding, advertising and product design are superficial and overpriced exercises, remember this:

  • Marketing alters what products actually taste like and feel like.
  • Marketing rewires the brain.

Superficial? Overpriced? Think again. Are you sure you're charging enough?