Expectancy theory, adjectives…and crisps

Expectancy theory, adjectives…and crisps

Zenith’s Richard Shotton and Sophia McQueen reveal how run-of-the-mill products can be better enjoyed if we change the way we describe them

Most gourmets would agree that the best food available to man is the salt and vinegar crisp. The combination of crunch, vinegary bite and salty tang is unbeatable.

But the crisp aficionados among you will have noticed that premium brands are not satisfied with humble flavours. Simple labels are being replaced with grandiose.

No longer salt and vinegar, but sea salt and balsamic vinegar; not cheese and onion, but mature Devonshire Cheddar and caramelised red onion; not prawn cocktail, but hand cooked Scottish langoustines with dill & lemon.


Why all the adjectives?

The answer lies in expectancy theory: we experience what we expect to experience. Additional adjectives suggest finer ingredients, greater care and more attention to detail. Consumers expect them to taste better, and therefore they do.

This isn’t empty conjecture. Brian Wansink, professor of behaviour and nutritional science at Cornell University, has quantified the effect.

In 2005 he conducted a six-week experiment in a university cafeteria, where he tweaked the names of dishes. ‘Red Beans with Rice’ was renamed ‘Cajun Red Beans with Rice’, ‘Seafood Filet’ became ‘Succulent Italian Seafood Filet’, and ‘Chocolate Pudding’ was upgraded to ‘Satin Chocolate Pudding’. Nothing changed other than the name.

Having eaten either the regularly labelled food or the more descriptive ones, the 140 students had to rate the dishes taste and appeal.

Participants scored the more descriptive dishes 7% higher for taste and 13% higher for appeal. The label affected not only the image but also the actual taste of the food.

The broad application of expectancy theory

The relevance of expectancy theory goes beyond crisps and soup. It affects mainstream brands. Take ‘green’ goods. Zenith conducted an experiment to quantify the impact of labelling washing machine tablets as ecologically friendly.

We sent a large group of consumers the same type of washing machine tablet. They washed a load of clothes and reported back on the tablet’s performance. The twist was that half were told that they were testing a standard supermarket tablet, the other half a ‘green’ variant.

Once again, there was an element of subterfuge. We didn’t ask consumers directly what they thought of green food. Generally they make positive noises. Instead, we monitor behaviour in test and control conditions.

The results were clear. Those who used the ‘green’ variant rated the tablet as worse on all metrics.

Respondents scored the eco tablet 9% lower for both effectiveness and likeability, while the number who would recommend the product was 11% lower and the number who would buy it themselves 18% lower than for the standard version.

Despite eco-friendly products often having a higher price, consumers who tested the ‘green’ tablet were only prepared to pay £4.41 on average compared to £4.82 for the standard version.

If brands in this category are going to successfully sell green variants, they’ll need to counteract these negative associations, or spend heavily to bolster their efficacy credentials.

Why does this matter?

In advertising, we often suggest that our role is to change perceptions, attitudes and images. This sells our work short.

The labels and associations we use, change the very product experience.

The magic of a bag of Tyrell’s sea salt and cider vinegar crisps, is due to the name as well as the potatoes.

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