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Consumer psychology has been, is, and will be of great interest to those building businesses, market products, and also operators restaurants. No matter who we talk to, for some reason people find it interesting to know more about the psyche behind the consumer and the way you can influence it. In the next few months, we will provide you with the latest insights, research, and fun facts in the area of consumer psychology all contributing to improving your guest experience in the restaurant. The first topic that we will tackle in the consumer psychology series: expectations.
“A great deal of the pleasure of food is expectation.” (Gill 2011, p. 13)
An expectation is defined as a belief or anticipation of a future event. Expectations play a vital role in the experience of the guest in a restaurant. It has for example been demonstrated that we tend to like food and drink more if they meet our expectations than if they do not. In this article, we will give examples of different variables influencing expectations in the restaurant and information on how you can make expectations work for you to provide the perfect experience for your guest.
The expectations that people hold may be based on a number of variables. By knowing which variables contribute to expectations and how you can influence the people in the food industry provide information or set up conditions to optimize the consumers’ experience and expectation of the food experience.
The first example of a variable that can influence expectations is the naming of products and services. Take for example the study conducted by Yeomans and colleagues (2008). In their study, they gave an unusual ice cream flavor (smoked salmon) different names. In one condition they called it ‘ice cream’, while in the other condition they labeled it as ‘frozen savory mousse’. In the latter condition, the participants liked the ice cream more, perceived it as less salty and bitter, and found its overall flavor more pleasant than when the salmon ice cream was labeled ‘ice cream’.
Heston Blumenthal (owner of the restaurant The Fat Duck in London) experienced a similar effect. He served a savory ice cream that looked like strawberry ice cream to guests in a laboratory setting. The guests that hadn’t been warned before tasting that the ice cream was salty instead of sweet liked the dish far less than those who knew (by the name of the dish) to expect a savory flavor beforehand. Even giving the dish the name ‘Food386’ already helped in preparing diners to be surprised, and thus be open to new experiences.
Take also the study of Lee et al. (2006) in which they provided participants with two different types of beer. In one condition they provided a regular beer and in another, they added two drops of balsamic vinegar (which actually slightly improves the taste of the beer). The majority (59%) of those unaware of the balsamic vinegar preferred the balsamic beer. The same goes for the participants who were informed afterward (52%). By contrast, only 30% of those who were informed prior to tasting preferred it.
Another variable that can influence expectations is – unsurprisingly – the pricing of products. Goldstein and colleagues (2008) investigated the relation between price and subjective appraisal of wines during which the price of the wine was unknown. More than 6.000 participants participated in the experiment. The main finding was that people who are unaware of the price do generally not like the expensive wine more. However, if people are aware of the price they tend to favor the expensive wine. Thus, people think that a drink tastes better when they have been told that it costs more.
Branding is also strongly related to setting up expectations. In one study children preferred the tastes of food and drinks more if they thought they were from McDonald’s. These effects were even greater when children watched more television and visited McDonald’s more often. In another study, Pepsi and Coke were compared in a blind and non-blind taste test. It turned out that Pepsi was preferred in the blind taste test, but Coke in the non-blind taste test.
Lastly, the appearance of food or drinks plays an important part in setting up expectations. For example in a study conducted by Zellner (2014) diners in a restaurant liked the same meal more when it was rated as more attractive than in the less attractive version. Another example comes from Dan Ariely. He presented free coffee to subjects and gave them a number of condiments to choose from. Then subjects tried the coffee and they asked them whether they would like the coffee to appear in the cafeteria and against which price. During the course of a few weeks they presented the condiments in different ways: sometimes really high class using small silver spoons and nice labels and sometimes more down to earth, for example in simple cups with handwritten labels. It turned out that when the condiments were presented in a high-class manner, the coffee drinkers were more likely to indicate they liked the coffee a lot, would be willing to pay for it well, and that they would like to see the coffee in the cafeteria. Thus, presenting the food and drinks in a more attractive, upscale manner can affect the liking of the flavor.
In conclusion whenever we eat and drink in fact, even before we eat and drink, our brains will have made a prediction about the likely taste/flavor of that which we are about to taste and a judgment call about how much we are going to like the experience. It has also been demonstrated that when a food or beverage item fails to meet our expectations we are likely to evaluate it, both immediately and for a long time thereafter, more negatively than when our expectations had been met.
It is therefore crucial in the process of concept development to take every detail of the concept, and their contribution to setting up the right expectations, into account.
It is vital to set the right expectations matching the quality and other properties of the food or drink to ensure that the consumer ends up having positive evaluations of the food or drink. Yet, setting up expectations just a little higher than what the diner really gets is probably okay and might even be a desirable option (Spence, 2012). After all, the small difference might not be noticed by the diner, and might actually end up enhancing the perceived flavor of the food or drink itself (Spence, 2014).
Cynthia de With –
Specialist in consumer psychology
“Our business is highly complex amongst others due to the number of details you need to get right. Making sure there is absolute alignment with your Brand Promise, Brand Expectation, and Brand Delivery. As Conceptional we have extensive experience in supporting our client in this volatile and detailed journey. ”