In the introduction of Influence, Robert Cialdini recounts the story of a friend who, in an attempt to sell off a consignment of slow moving turquoise jewelry, left a hand-written note for one of her sales staff to mark down the stock at “x ½” price before leaving for an out-of-town trip. On her return, she wasn't surprised to learn that the stock had sold out, BUT she was surprised that due to her bad penmanship, the saleswoman mistakenly reading the “x ½” on her note as “x 2”, and everything had sold for twice the original price. The story illustrates nicely how, in the absence of other information, the price of an item can often serve as an effective decision trigger—in this case if something is expensive then it must be good.
Such an effect doesn't just apply to high-end keepsakes like jewelry. It can also sway our evaluations of consumables too. For example, studies have shown that people’s evaluations of wine are significantly higher if they’re told it is expensive before tasting. Similarly, learning the quality brand name of a food before sampling often leads to improved perceptions of taste and satisfaction.
In each case the information, be it about the price or the brand, is presented prior to sampling the product at hand. But what happens if that same information is presented after, rather than immediately before, sampling? And what are the implications for your business when it comes to presenting information to your clients and customers?
Marketing professors Keith Wilcox, Anne Roggeveen, and Dhruv Grewal from Babson College, Massachusetts thought that although consumers will typically view a product more positively when favorable information is presented before sampling, the opposite might be true if that same information was presented after sampling the product.
In one of their experiments, a group of participants was given information about a new chocolate product prior to being offered a sample to taste and a survey to complete. The information given prior to sampling the chocolate was manipulated so that half were told the manufacturer came from Switzerland (a country renowned for its quality of chocolate) with the other half being told that the manufacturer of this new chocolate came from China.
Another group of participants, also enrolled in the taste-test study, was given the same information (half were told the chocolate came from a Swiss chocolatier and half from a Chinese one) but this time the information was provided after they had tasted the product.
When the country of origin was presented before they sampled the chocolate participants were almost twice as likely to select the bar of chocolate when told that it was from Switzerland compared to China (64 percent vs. 33 percent). However, the reverse was true when information about the country of origin was presented after sampling. In this condition only 40 percent of participants selected the Swiss chocolate compared to 66 per cent who selected the Chinese one.
At first glance these results seem odd. Nothing changes about the product sampled. And nothing changes about the information provided either. The only thing that changed was the point at which the information was presented—for half it came before they sampled the chocolate and, for the other half, afterwards. Yet as we have frequently reported in this column, often it’s not the information itself that makes the biggest difference but rather small changes to the context in which information is presented.
And that’s what happened in these studies. The people who were given the information before sampling the chocolate were more likely to assimilate the parts of that information consistent with their previous beliefs and knowledge. So when they were informed that Switzerland was the country of origin they would likely think “chocolates made in Switzerland are usually good, therefore this chocolate must be good too” leading to higher evaluations. However being told that the chocolate originated from China might lead people to think, “I can’t recall ever eating a good Chinese chocolate before, so this one is probably not going to taste that great,” resulting in lower evaluations.
But when the people in the study were given information after sampling the chocolate they processed that information in a different way. Rather than assimilate the information with their previous experiences and look for consistencies, the information instead served as a reference point which produced a contrast effect on their judgment. So those people provided with information about the country of origin after sampling the chocolate were more likely to think to themselves, “Compared to my reference point of Swiss chocolate this one is not so good.” In contrast, being told after sampling that the country of origin was China would have had the effect of surprise leading to the Chinese chocolate being rated higher.
The researchers conducted similar studies for various other products and measured similar results. When information was presented before sampling, consumers evaluated the product more positively when that information was in alignment with a previous favorable experience but more negatively if the information was aligned with an unfavorable experience. When the same information was presented after sampling the opposite was true.
These results have important implications for marketers and market research professionals who carry out customer insight work and sampling programs—especially for experiential products like food, drinks, videos, music, and perfumes. It could also be beneficial to retail staffs who offer samples to customers in an attempt to promote sales.
For example, a sales adviser who offers a sample of a high-end product to a customer who already has a favorable impression of that company, brand and products would be advised to convey favorable product information (e.g., its price, the name of the brand, or the country of origin) before providing the customer with a sample. However if the product on offer has less favorable impressions the reverse would be true. For example, a retailer launching an experiential product from a country with an unfavorable reputation (e.g., a wonderful tasting chocolate made in China), should wait until after the product has been sampled before presenting information about the country of origin.
It is also important to note that when the researchers conducted similar studies for non-experiential products no difference in evaluation was measured regardless of when information was presented. But for those who market, sell and promote experiential products, it seems that a small change to when you present information can lead to a BIG difference when it comes to people’s evaluation of your product and their likelihood to do business with you.
**** Have you ever been given information immediately before or after trialing or sampling a product that persuaded you to make (or not make) a purchase? What happened?
- Wilcox, K., Roggeveen, A. L., & Grewal, D. (2011). Shall I tell you now or later? Assimilation and contrast in the evaluation of experiential products. Journal of Consumer Research, 38(4), 763-773.
- Cialdini, R. B. (2001). Influence: Science and practice (Vol. 4). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
- Plassmann, H., O'Doherty, J., Shiv, B., & Rangel, A. (2008). Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(3), 1050-1054.
- Makens, J. C. (1965), “Effect of Brand Preference upon Consumers’ Perceived Taste of Turkey Meat,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 49 (4), 261–63.