Expectations can determine the perception of your product. Setting that expectation and spreading it is the next step, but beware of trickery. Consumers are constantly told that the latest Nike running shoes or Mercedes-Benz can offer higher performance. Consumers believe it, they make a purchase and they even experience it. From sportswear to cars, expectations of a product or service can actually create a resulting experience. But how?
Even the savviest and most jaded consumers rarely approach a new product with complete objectivity. A multitude of factors tells us what to expect, including price, packaging, and the product’s ad campaign, among others. But just how powerful are these expectations in shaping customers’ thoughts about what they consume? And how do they influence future behavior and sales? Pre-consumption expectations about a product affect more than what we say, or even what we think, about that product. Our biases are reflected in our brain activity, affecting our perceptions of what we consume at a deeper and more direct level than psychologists can measure, says Hilke Plassmann, Assistant Professor of Marketing at INSEAD speaking about her recent paper How Expectancies Shape Consumption Experiences, co-authored by Tor D. Wager of the University of Colorado at Boulder.
An MRI/Wine Tasting
Plassmann’s conclusions stem from a study she co-conducted in 2008 measuring neural responses to drinking wine. Participants were instructed to sample various wines through a straw from inside an MRI machine. The rub? The researchers deliberately misled participants about the prices of the wines, claiming one cost US$45 when it actually cost US$5 and presenting another as costing US$10 when it really retailed for US$90. “This allowed us to observe their brain activity while they were consuming the wine,” Plassmann told INSEAD Knowledge in an interview. “Are they rationalizing after the fact that it should be better because it’s more expensive, or does it really change their taste processing? What we found is that it really changes the neural activity in an area called the medial orbitofrontal cortex, which is an area that encodes our experience of pleasure.”
These results came as a surprise to some of Plassmann’s collaborators on the study. “Some of us were thinking, ‘Oh, it’s more like rationalization; it’s more like a cognitive process.’ At this point, it was an open question. We had competing hypotheses.” For Plassmann, the findings highlight the speed with which humans form lasting impressions that synthesize all types of data. “The bias kicks in at a very early stage,” she says. “It really changes your taste perception, or your visual perception, or your pain perception. These are complex processes where you receive a lot of input, and such information that has nothing to do with the taste itself – they are so fast and integrated more holistically into your experience that you can’t distinguish. You think it’s linked to the taste.”