The 17 marketing tricks about food you still fall for. How not to fall for them?

fast food and unhealthy eating concept - close up of fast food snacks and coca cola drink on wooden table

The use of psychology techniques in food marketing has been known for a long time and is a common practice. The idea behind it is simple: to encourage customers to consume even more. And as long as customers know what they want, they are aware of their needs and satisfy the needs reasonably. In such a case, everything is fine, because the players in the game are equal and all of them know the rules. But this is not often the case. Most consumers are fully aware of the reasons for their actions and often fall victim to emotional impulses and decision-making patterns that are beyond their control. This is not good either for consumers (because they feel abused, although they may be responsible for it) or the market (because the whole industry suffers losses), or for shopkeepers (because they are no longer trusted by consumers). There is a solution, although it is not easy: to get some knowledge of the psychology of decision-making to become a more conscious consumer and be able to really control your own choices, especially in this fundamental area of your life: eating. In this article, you can read about the 17 most popular marketing tricks about food and about what you can do not to fall for the tricks.

1. Don’t buy colours.

A Cornell University researcher carried out an experiment to see how the colour of packaging affects the way consumers perceive the product contained in the packaging. A product with a green label was perceived by shoppers as healthier than the same product with a red label. The same rule works for waitresses: those who use a red lipstick get higher tips, and ginger-haired women have sex more often and with a large number of partners. Starbucks uses the colours of green and brown to calm its customers and create a home-like atmosphere. By learning about the psychology of colours, you will be more aware of how colour affect your mood and emotions.

2. Learn about the nutritional values of foodstuffs.

We all know we eat too much of sweets or French fries and that we drink too much alcohol. Quite naturally, we tend to reduce our feelings of guilt. This is helped by a communication tool known as “incomplete comparison”. It means using comparative forms of words (e.g. less, better or more) in product promotions. For example, the Avis brand says: “We try harder”, but they don’t finish this to explain harder than who. This is why we are more likely to buy products with labels such as: “25% less fat”. You will regain control if you ask yourself “Less than what? in such a situation and if you check the facts.

3. Food first, prices later.

If the price of a dish or meal is stated with a decimal place (e.g. 9.20), you are likely to think of the food as being of worse quality. If the last digit of the price is 9 (such as in “9.99”), then you will probably think you will save some money if you choose the food. Prices in the middle (e.g. 9.95) are friendlier, as they create the illusion of better quality for a good price. Full prices (e.g. 10) are reserves for better products, ones that do not compete with other products in terms of the price. A menu card with such prices is easier to read and understand, and will be trusted more.

4. Plan what you need.

Your brain remembers complete memory traces. These are experiences which stimulate different types of memory. The marketing guys achieve this by describing food in a way that helps to stimulate your sense of sight (cows grazing on a green meadow), your sense of hearing (crunchy chips), your sense of emotion (this flavour will kindle your senses), your sense of touch (they melt in your mouth, not in your hand), your sense of taste (the sweet taste of delicious meat) and your sense of smell (with a pleasant smell). With such sensory stimulation, it is more difficult to use your common sense. The solution is: decide what you want to buy before go shopping.

5. Don’t be taken in by names.

The use of ethnic names (such as ”Russian dumplings”, ”Polish vodka”, ”Mexican burrito” or “Argentinian beef”) is expected to make consumers trust a particular food more by emphasising the authenticity of the food. This is based on local cuisine stereotypes. These are ready-to-use patterns of thinking which automatically direct our attention to particular characteristics of the food. A consumer faced with the choice between an Argentinian beefsteak and a Czech beefsteak is more likely to choose the former, even if he or he can’t recognise any difference in taste.

6. Beware of keywords.

Chips like at your mum’s place? Grandma’s dumplings Home-made cake? The use of family words with the names of food is an example of ‘anchoring’, a process as part of the classical conditioning type of learning, i.e. a process where the use of family-related words (such as home-made, granny, auntie, mum, kids etc.) automatically activates positive reactions in customers. Such reactions are sometimes associated with a particular product, which directly translates to higher sales. Check whether the home-made cake you’re looking at was really made at home, or it is ‘home-made’ by name only.

7. Content first, form later.

The foods you are expected to pay attention to will normally be marked differently in a menu or a label. A frame will emphasise the uniqueness of the food, a bolded text will attract your attention, while a text in italics will add quality to the food. A photograph next to the food will make the message more attractive, even if the food will not look the same on your plate as it does in the photograph (which may be stated in small print under the photograph).

8. Forget the most expensive food.

Your brain makes decisions through comparisons. Therefore, whether you think that a particular food is cheap or expensive depends less on the objective value of the food than on a point of reference. Knowing this, the restaurant manager will design one expensive dish only to make some other dish in the menu seem much cheaper (if that other dish is relative expensive). The same is true for price reductions. First, the price of a product is calculated. Then it is multiplied by two, and the higher price is written next to the lower one and scratched off, with the words “special price” added. It may or may not be a special price. It’s up to you to make the decision.

9. Don‘t by taken in the atmosphere.

Although not every day is Christmas time (when the number of sensory inputs into your brain is so large than your brain doesn’t know what to concentrate on and so it is more exposed to influence), a store that is well designed in marketing terms will always create the right atmosphere for consumers. The results of research carried out at the University of Leicester, classical music makes people spend more money, because it makes them feel wealthier. Less sophisticated pop music is likely to reduce your bill by 10%, but if the sound level is kept within the range of 70-90 dB, sales of refreshing beverages will go up. Don‘t forget the smell of lavender, if you want shoppers to spend more time in your store. Oh!

10. Make sure it’s you who makes the choice.

If the number of options for you to choose from is limited, you are likely to protest against the limitation. On the other hand, if you are faced with too many options, you will not know which one to choose. The results of marketing research offers some help: a fast-food restaurant should offer a choice of six dishes per category (appetizers, main courses, desserts etc.) and a traditional restaurant should have ten. If this knowledge is put within the framework of communication with other people (your colleagues or family members), offering different options is all right, but within some limits. The case is similar within the context of giving instructions or defining the steps in a particular procedure.

11. Let yourself make the decision.

There is even a phrase that refers to this process. It’s “menu engineering”. According to Korean research, one in every consumers is likely to choose a product that first caught his or her attention. In psychology, this is known as priming. In practice, it means making you look at what the store wants you to buy. When you’re reading something, you start at the top left side, moving in zigzags to the right, then down to the left and so on, until you finish reading at the bottom on the right side. The same mechanisms can be used within the context of building your first impression and making people notice you at an important meeting,

12. Beware of the more expensive ”doubles”.

When a restaurant offers, for example, a salad, it sometimes uses what is known as bracketing. This involve ”doubling” the product (or preparing another, identical salad, but one is bigger and more expensive). You are most likely to choose the cheaper one, thinking that you’ve saved some money. The truth is, however, that the bigger salad acts as a distraction. Not many people will choose it, but it makes the cheaper one seem more attractive.

13. Don’t cover content with form.

“A portion of strawberries sleeping under a downy quilt” (instead of: a spoonful of 18% cream from a discount store); or “green-legged chickens, bred with love on a natural diet” (instead of “killed on a conveyor belt”) etc. It’s been known for a long time that people buy stories rather than products. Hence the sophisticated food-related language that is reduced to preparing a nice form for the same content. Descriptions such as those above boost sales by 27% (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and contribute to increased consumer satisfaction with his or her meal.

14. Check if what is said to be healthy is actually healthy.

The fact that all of us either look after our health for preventive reasons, or at least know that we should do so, is another opportunity for the marketing guys to show what they can do. Some words or phrases (such as antioxidants, multigrain, take care of your heart, fitness, weight control, fat-free, or naturally sweetened) are associated with health and, if used in connection with a particular foodstuff increase the likelihood of the foodstuff landing in someone’s shopping basket or trolley. Some have nothing to do with health at all (In the US, a drink manufacturer boasted about the content of antioxidants in one of its soft drinks).

15. What you buy, not where you buy, is what matters.

The key to success in selling food is the location of food in the store. Enter a store and walk past a heap of various kinds of fruit and your mood will be stimulated positively and automatically. Products placed on eye-level shelves are usually more expensive (because you are more likely to buy them), while children are stimulated by placing products on lower shelves. And there is more chance for you before you reach the till: chewing gums, sweets and such kind of things. “Small” and “cheap”, they sell best to customers queuing to pay for the shopping.

16. Check the labels.

No sugar, no artificial colourings, no chemical substances, no trans fat. According to the psychological theory of loss, people are twice as motivated by what they may lose than by what they may gain. It is, therefore, better to say what ”bad things” have been eliminated from a particular foodstuff (although some customer don’t understand all that means) than to motivate consumers to buy the foodstuff. It’s like saying: ”We eliminate all that may hurt you and is bad for you”, “We take care of you” or “We want you to feel food”.

17. Drink from a narrow glass.

Eating from a large plate, you will eat more and still think you did not eat a lot (Delboeuf’s optical illusion). Drinking from a wide flat glass (a whisky glass), you will drink more than from a narrow and tall one. If the waiter or waitress fails to take your plates away and leaves them on the table, you are less likely to order a dessert (because the plates will remind of the food you’ve just eaten). Eating from a blue plate, you will eat less, and if you eat with small fork, you will eat more than you would if you used forks of a different size.

How do you fell now with the new knowledge? You’re certainly more aware! But there is one more thing you should be aware of. It’s the most important thing. It’s responsibility. After all, it is not always about lack of knowledge. It is often far less visible, namely conscious ignorance.

Only one in every five people in Poland reads product labels, and only one in three looks at the best-before date. Most of us are aware that the sausage you’re about to eat was made of a minced cow’s udder, or that the fizzy drink you’re about to buy is full of the harmful sugar, but we prefer to pretend not knowing all that. We go to great pains to make ourselves believe that we have no time to do sports on a regular basis and delude ourselves into believing that this or that diet will work wonders for us. Or that we can lose weight without any physical effort, or that a low-sugar yoghurt will help us lose weight. We try to think of ways to eliminate our sense of guilt, e.g. by smoking slim cigarettes, because they make us believe that we they destroy our health less. Sometimes we are hypocritical, and unless we give up our hypocrisy, we will not regain control of our own choices. And autonomy, apart from being competent and building interhuman relations, is one of the three key factors in happiness.

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