PLACEBO MARKETING: HOW EXPECTATIONS ALTER EXPERIENCE
"No matter what technology brings, human psychology has been largely the same across time. Master that, and you can market in any era, come what may"
A placebo, by definition, is a substance that doesn't actually provide the promised benefit. To put it simply, a placebo is not real, but the placebo effect is very much real. Widely known in healthcare, the placebo effect is used to describe the beneficial results that occur in patients/clinical trials when only an inactive pill is consumed. The placebo doesn't have the intrinsic properties to create beneficial results; therefore the reason for improvement is attributed to the patients belief in the treatment alone. The power of the placebo effect is not an illusion, and it results from very real chemical changes. It is real because people believe it is real, and the influence of expectation is so powerful that it changes the perception of the experience - it alters reality.
The logic behind the placebo effect can be applied to marketing and advertising, as the concept revolves around the principle that experiences can be shaped by our expectations. Behavioral psychology tells us that decision making occurs both consciously and subconsciously in the human brain, with 90% of information processed subconsciously. The majority of consumers believe that their choices are determined after a rational analysis of available alternatives. However, emotions greatly influence and in many cases, determine our decisions.
Kraft Heinz, a nationally recognized company with a vast brand portfolio, announced they made a big change to one of their most popular products. After listening to the voice of their consumers, Kraft made the decision to remove artificial flavors, dyes and preservatives from its iconic macaroni and cheese recipe. Given the increasingly health conscience nature of consumers, coupled with criticism over processed foods the past few years, the decision to change the ingredients wasn't a big deal. The change sparked a lot of buzz but not for the change itself but rather the brilliance of the advertising campaign - or lack of advertising to be exact. Kraft recently announced that they changed the ingredients, and they made the announcement AFTER they sold 50 million boxes. Why you might ask - well its simple (and genius), it all goes back to the placebo effect, and the concept that expectation shapes experience.
Last Spring, Kraft made an announcement that they would be reformulating their iconic macaroni and cheese. The announcement was met with concern that the taste would change: and consumers even started to comment that they noticed the change - prior to it being changed. Kraft assured their consumers that they would experiment until perfection, and so began the journey of testing countless recipes. Then, Eureka! the research and development team at Kraft discovered the perfect ingredient substitutions that would provide the same taste, texture and appearance as the original one. As if that wasn't challenging enough, now came the daunting task of breaking through consumer perception.
Many major food companies have been in the process of eliminating artificial flavors, and not all consumers have welcomed these changes. Iconic brands have been trying to sell the promise that their healthier, simpler reformulations will still taste the same, but fail to deliver on those promises. When it comes to new products or changes, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and for some consumers, that first impression occurs in the shopping aisle of grocery store prior to purchase. When consumers purchase the classic blue box, they have an expectation of great taste that has delivered over and over again. Promise and expectation, its the basis of the bi-directional consumer-brand relationship, and it is completely based on consistency. Now that Kraft has created a healthier recipe without changing taste, how do they convince their consumers?
Rather than following in the footsteps of other well-meaning brands, Kraft decided to think outside the box - literally and figuratively. In December 2015, Kraft quietly stocked grocery store shelves with the new recipe in the old box. On March 6th 2016, Kraft announced the reformulation in national advertising campaigns that stated "We would invite you to try it, but you already have". Kraft held the world's largest blind taste test, and the silence spoke volumes. The announcement that the ingredients would be changing sparked more complaints about the taste than the new formulation inside the old boxes. Kraft let their consumers be the judge about the reformulation, and they did it by eliminating all of the external factors that could influence experience.
Trends change, products change, marketing channels and avenues of communications change, but the fundamentals of consumer behavior do not. Therefore, an understanding of consumer purchase behavior, as well as a comprehension of the influence that emotions have on decision making lead to more effective marketing. You do not need to be a psychologist or behavioral economist to successfully market a product, but you do need to understand the psychology behind purchase decisions. Customers make decisions on a large number of factors, and although it is impossible to influence them all, successful marketers have the ability to strike a balance between appealing to the emotional and rational sides of consumers. Kraft successfully positioned their brand to remain competitive in the increasingly health conscious marketplace without disrupting the existing emotional connection. They managed to accomplish something that most brands struggle to achieve, and they did it using neuromarketing tactics in the retail environment. Two to three seconds, that is the average time a brand has to communicate with potential consumers in grocery stores. Had Kraft changed the packaging to point out the change in ingredients, things most likely would have turned out very different. Kraft strategically paced change, and their tactics paid off, which can leave one to believe that in a world where the only thing constant is change, maybe the most innovative approach is to take the focus off of what will change.
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