Nestlé’s Recipe for a Boiled Frog


Every year a new food health demon is discovered lurking in our diets; trans fats, processed meats, salt and the eternal favourite, sugar. So when Nestle recently announced they had patented a scientific breakthrough which would allow them to reduce the amount of sugar in their chocolate by 40% without it affecting the taste it seems like a win-win situation for all.

Now what I find most interesting about this is that maybe it is not a molecular breakthrough that you need to change the taste of something, but psychology. To use the (scientifically incorrect) metaphor of the boiling frog; if it is believed that the taste has not changed then will anyone notice that it has??



As scientists we operate in a world of double blind conditions when it comes to taste tests, lab participants are asked if A or B tastes sweeter, and are supposed to give their judgement solely based upon the biological sensory information that their taste buds are providing. But in the real world pretty much everything affects our taste; mood, colour, atmospherics and to a huge extent our own expectations.

It has been demonstrated in numerous experiments that identical products labelled as more expensive tastes better. There’s a lot of research that demonstrates Our preferred brand also tastes better to us than other brands, but only if we see the branding, the so called Pepsi Paradox! What’s even more interesting is in patients who had experienced damage to their vmPFC, an area of the brain which is heavily involved in decision making, the preference for the branded product disappears and preference becomes solely based upon taste.

Basically if we expect something to taste the same then there is a good chance it will. I’m not suggesting that Nestle haven’t made genuine scientific progress with the structure of sugar (it’s probably not possible to patent a placebo yet, though there’s a good argument it should be), rather that it is more important that consumers believe that it tastes the same, because that in turn will influence how it ‘actually’ tastes. Society treats the placebo effect with contempt, and I’m as guilty as anyone of denouncing pseudoscience, but nutritionists, scientists and marketers need to consider that physiology and psychology are inherently intertwined.

Classical conditioning is an important factor in this phenomenon, when we see branded chocolate it acts as a conditioned stimulus and provides us with a reward. With a conditioned response the reward is provided by the conditioned stimulus, not the actual real reward, so whether or not we go on to consume the chocolate we don’t gain any more “utility”. So what it’s not as good as it was when it was sweeter? You’ve received your serotonin reward already.

To paraphrase Descartes “I think therefore it is”; all of our judgements of an item take place in our brain, and it is ultimately the sum of these inputs that determines our perception of “taste”. Or, as Kahneman (2011) so succinctly put it, What You See Is All There Is.


Why sticking to brand values adds brand value


Last Friday was Black Friday, a day where online sales alone accounted for over $3.3 billion dollars and is one of the most important days of the year for retailers. On that day, one company donated 100% of its $10m profits to charity, well over 1% of its annual turnover. That company was Patagonia.

Now for the disclaimer, I love Patagonia. I think they’re a fantastic brand, with a great ethos and a genuine focus on sustainability. Unlike other companies which focus on purpose driven marketing Patagonia isn’t part of a massive corporation of brands with conflicting ethics (think Unilever owning Dove and Lynx and you get the picture).

Oh and here’s the kicker. A global company, with its headquarters 5000 miles away in California, actively supported a campaign to save the SSSI river Conwy from a potentially hugely damaging hydro scheme. (Something that I felt strongly against.)

Now you could be sceptical and think that it’s just another PR campaign to buy goodwill. But I genuinely believe that the culture of the company is so focussed on creating the least environmental impact that they were genuinely concerned for our environment in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

It’s not just this campaign Patagonia have supported, they supported the documentary Damnation and many others. They run events where they will repair outdoor clothing for free, by any manufacturer, and offer a lifetime warranty on all their products. They also came up with one of the best pieces of advertising I think I have seen, the “don’t buy this jacket” campaign.

Can any company seriously support this ethos and be successful? Well in the two years following the ad’ sales at Patagonia increased by 40%.

What is going on?

Many studies have demonstrated the effect of classical conditioning which results in us transferring emotions from one thing to another, and marketers have been using it for decades.

Family Guy – How to sell the wheel

Research finds that we develop attitudes about brands rapidly without conscious cognitive thought when they are placed with relation to something we have feeling towards. Those who value being in the outdoors are likely to value preserving it for obvious reasons, and these are Patagonia’s target customers. The market for outdoor sports and mountain sports is rapidly growing especially amongst young, more affluent consumers, who are more likely to be concerned with environmental sustainability. 

Furthermore it’s well established that the millennial generation is very concerned with self image, and wearing a brand that conforms to socially desirable normative values is likely to provide a genuine sense of self worth. By purchasing Patagonia’s products the consumer is saying “I relate with this brand”. The power of branding alone is enough to make us abandon the judgement of our other senses, and can even be powerful enough to override our primal instinct of loss aversion.

Does it make sense for a brand to tell us not to buy its products? Well there’s an assumption that we own the product that it’s advertising, or at least a very similar product, otherwise we would have a need for that product. The endowment effect means we value the things we own  more strongly than we logically should, so encouraging us to hang on to their products plays to a natural urge and enhances our affection towards the product. Then there’s the availability heuristic; we replace the question “is this product good?” with the simples question “is this brand good?”. By supporting good causes the answer to this question is likely to be less. And finally consistently supporting these values creates a brand halo, where we become more trusting of other messages communicated by them. Considering it costs between 5 and 25 times more to attract a new customer than to keep an existing one this long term genuine conscientiousness is a cost effective strategy likely to keep Patagonia’s customers returning for generations.

U Can’t Touch This: The curious case for vinyl


In the UK space is one of the most expensive assets, so it seems like a win win that it has never been easier to slim down our media collection. Even a phone with a relatively small 32gb of memory will easily store 6000+ songs,  something that previously would have required somewhere in the region of 400 vinyls or tapes (and about a dozen pencils to rewind your chewed cassettes!). Vinyl’s are heavy, bulky, inconvenient, expensive, and unlike digital recording mediums they perish, the speed of their demise determined only by the love and care given by its owner. Whole generations rejoiced the advent of the CD, and death of the CD was initiated with the birth of MP3. So why the hell is vinyl the fastest growing music medium??

We as humans love stuff, as any anthropologist would tell you. And contrary to the commonly accepted wisdom that this is a Western, post-industrialisation phenomenon, people across the globe have been collecting for millennia. (Matt Ridley’s 1996 book, The Origins of Virtue, gives a fantastic account of socio-biological evolution).

From an evolutionary point of view our brains have evolved to collect, and to be part of a collective. We are social creatures who will always a seek a sense of belonging. Whilst there’s no denying that there’s a massively social aspect to digital music it doesn’t quite represent us, or have the same emotional bond as physically purchasing media. Psychologist Kahneman and Tversky demonstrated that we feel pain whenever we experience a strong feeling of loss when we part with money. Vinyl’s are expensive, but by going through the pain of parting with our money to buy physical media we are committing ourselves to that band, and saying to us and others “I value this music”. As Belk (1988) put it, owning loved objects is an extension of our self.

There’s no shortage of research showing that our musical taste becomes a big part of our sense of self. I enjoy listening to tropical house on Spotify (there’s no accounting for taste!) but I’d never buy a vinyl of it, however I have Guns N’ Roses Appetite for Destruction on CD, Vinyl and the t-shirt too. Why? Because I love rock and am a rock fan. I don’t see myself as a tropical house fan; I don’t relate with the artists or fans and I feel no sense of community.  Whilst the music itself is the same irrelevant of the format (sorry audiophiles) the experience is different. Playing physical media involves engaging with it, making a conscious choice to play it. We store music in visible places, on shelves or CD racks, so that our guests can see our tastes. (You can argue that we store them like that because they’re more convenient, but you use your plates more frequently and keep those hidden away in a cupboard). Our possessions are who we are, and we are our possessions. Sixty years ago, Marshall McLuhan argued that it was not the message being conveyed which was of key significance, but the medium through which it was delivered. What better example than vinyl?

🎶All that you touch, all that you see all that you taste, all that you feel…

The Great Escape (from reality) this Christmas.


Looking back at the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year  paints a good snapshot of the English speaking world at that point in time. A decade ago, when the world was arguably a rosier place, carbon-neutral was the chosen word. Unsurprisingly post financial crisis the choices get a bit less chipper, with “credit crunch”, “refudiate”, “squeezed middle” and “big society” (the less said on the latter the better!) making the list. However, things were starting to look up for the UK, unemployment was falling, markets were growing and we’d been distracted by “selfies”, “vapes” and LOLing emoticons. On to 2016, where post-truth” (or more simply put: lies) is the word of the year. To put it kindly, 2016 has not generally favoured the voices of the the young or political liberals, and the death of some of the greatest British icons; Bowie, Rickman and the Land Rover Defender was the icing on the cake.

The staple Christmas adverts last year from M&S and John Lewis were both unorthodox. M&S tried to ditch their middle age image, and went for a sexy, modern, flashy number titled #TheArtOfChristmas, set to the tune of “Uptown Funk”. In fact, the finished product looked as I imagine Fargo would have had it been directed by Michael Bay, with a stark backdrop accompanied by big noise and fireworks. The advert requires only peripheral processing (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986), instead hitting you with glitz and noise.

This year’s offering is somewhat different, out with the new and in with the old, safe option. Gone is the boldness, instead replaced with British nostalgia inducing cues, which I’m not going to list in their entirety but include; tea, cheese and pickle sandwiches, a woman who could easily be your aunt, a lovely townhouse log fires and Santa. We’re presented a lovely narrative about how a young boy really does love his sister even if it doesn’t always seem like it, and our heroine, Mrs Claus, is a powerful middle age, middle class woman, (not unlike M&S’ target customer) with a less than subtle nod at being Bond. John Lewis have gone down the same lines, replacing their tear jerking #ManOnTheMoon advert with a much less controversial hyper-active boxer dog.

Why this shift in style, from striking to sycophantic stereotypes? Post Brexit (and Trump) Britain has entered a period of huge uncertainty, something which is disadvantageous to retailers. With over 65% of graduates believing Britain will be worse off, this valuable cohort are likely to be feeling dubious about the future. What better way then than to remind consumers of all the lovely things we have as a nation, stereotypical family values and get a good old giggle in there too, laughing at the subtle “50 Shades of Red” book Mrs Clause is reading or the absurdity of the view of the dog barking over the fence.  Humor has been shown to have a reducing effect upon fear and anxiety, and nostalgic advertising has been shown to have a positive effect upon consumer’s attitudes and purchase intentions. Research also shows the effectiveness of story telling in advertising, and the simplistic story lines require only limited cognitive effort yet we are still developing a positive attitude towards the advert and brand.The British people are, in the words of Shaun of the Dead, being politely encouraged to “have a cup of tea and wait for this to all blow over”,  and who can blame them, so long as they remember the presents!

(Though for all you sceptics out there the Daily Mash have another take on the subject.)

Superman Selfies: GoPro “Be a HERO”


This blog post was inspired by an excellent article on wing-suit BASE jumping on National Geographic.

For those of you who don’t know wingsuit BASE jumping involves jumping from a stationary platform (as opposed to from a plane or helicopter) in order to achieve the closest experience as one can come to unaided human Ffight. Many pro’s from various extreme sports have taken up BASE jumping, and even say it beats the experience of the sport which they choose.
So how does this link to GoPro? Well there are few names as synonymous with extreme sports as GoPro. Initially launched as a cheap alternative to professional underwater film cameras GoPro branched out into their most popular digital HD “Hero” action cameras in 2010. These cheap, hardy cameras with universal interchangeable mounts allowed extreme sports fans to record and share their adrenaline inducing experiences from their point of view for the first time, and as such have become hugely popular, with 100 hours of GoPro footage being uploaded to the web every minute!

Extreme sports by their very nature, are risky. That is the fun in them. In a Western society where our day to day contact with the elements is eternally shrinking we seek to push ourselves and regain that visceral connection to nature, and a big part of that is risk.

Research has found that risk behaviour is contagious and that our risk preferences are based on observation of others. You can see where this is going, as you watch someone’s video upload of an extreme sport as an amateur you think to yourself “I could do that”, and often do.

So why am I picking on GoPro? Red Bull also sponsor a huge number of athletes from various extreme sports, with the stunts usually being filmed using a GoPro. However it’s GoPro’s branding and slogan “Be a Hero: GoPro.” which I have issues with. “Hero” is a hugely powerful word and concept which spans cultures. We are implicitly and explicitly taught it from an extremely young age through fairy tales, and as children are asked to name our “Heroes” when we are being asked who we aspire most to be. Newspaper headlines focus upon Heroes who sacrifice themselves or put themselves at risk for others. The verbal priming effects of the slogan “Be a Hero”, implying that taking risks for video makes a person “admired for their courage”.

Even the brand name itself implies that you can better yourself and Go Professional. The choice of colour of the GoPro branding, blue, conveys a trustworthiness, relaxation and competency, qualities you don’t generally associate with throwing yourself into a highly unpredictable adrenaline fuelled situation!

A continual normalisation of these videos adjusts our own expectations, the more we are exposed to videos of our peers successfully attempting extreme feats the more likely we are to attempt the same feats as we consider it a social norm.

Pretty much everyone I know who partakes in any extreme sport has a GoPro (myself included) and they’re a fantastic piece of design. I don’t propose that we should stop people from filming and uploading their experiences and great achievements. However I do think that the “Be a HERO” slogan should be dropped for something with less connotations of self-sacrifice.

Playing their cards right: Why charities could benefit from new payment systems


Image Source:

Contactless payment is rapidly gaining popularity in the UK, with contactless payments more than doubling year on year. It’s never been easier to spend your money than it is today, you don’t even need to have remembered your wallet, these days all you need in many retailers is to have your smartphone on you (and let’s face it, who goes out without one?).

But what impact is this shift in payment method making to us as consumers? Researchers have found that people are more willing to spend on card than physical cash, especially when it comes to impulsive purchases of unhealthy food (see Thomas, Desai & Seenivasn 2010). But what difference does contactless make? Well there currently isn’t a great deal of research published on that topic, but Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behaviour (1991) would suggest that contactless would increase impulse purchases by lowering Perceived Behavioural Controls (less physical and mental effort to pay contactless) and also become a Social Norm.

So how can charities make use of this technology? Research found that in a door to door charity collection card donations were far less common, but the amount donated was significantly higher (Soetevent, 2011). The advent of contactless reduces the effort for the consumer to donate, with just one touch they can make a charity payment at the doorstep. What’s more, with smartphone payment becoming ever prevalent there is a much greater chance they will have their e-payment method to hand.


Many retailers already offer the option of a charitable donation at the P.O.S.  for example TK Maxx & Ebay. (both retailers shopping experiences have an element of luck in finding a bargain which is likely to put us in a good mood, increasing our generosity (Swinyard, 1991)). However this relies on the customer wanting to donate at that point in the purchase process. With contactless the possibility to shift the donation point to a more relevant point in the store where the consumer may be primed becomes a possibility. For example, a contactless donation point for an animal shelter in the pet food aisle, an aid charity in the children’s section or an environmental charity in the organic section. It would also offer the potential for charities to influence injunctive norms by informing consumers how many people gave, how much they gave, and how much closer to the target the charity now is thanks to their donations.

Is this ethical? That’s another issue for another blog!



Charity Begins … at the Supermarket?


Image sourced: http/


After reading an interesting blog post on Nudge theory and charitable donations to foodbanks in supermarkets it got me thinking, how does the form our donation takes influence what we chose to give?

Many supermarkets offer charity tokens for free with your purchase which you then put into a box of the charity of your choice, with the number of tokens in the box determining how much the charity receives (usually from the revenue generated by the compulsory carrier bag charge) This tactic is clever in that it offers the consumer two sets of choices, both of which can have a positive outcome. They can either bring their own bag, thus saving themselves 5p, or they can purchase a bag with the knowledge that some of the money they spend on that bag will go to a charity of their choice.

What’s interesting is the design of these schemes. The consumer is more often than not given just one token. There is usually a choice of three boxes, enough to allow the customer the feeling of choice but not too many that they are overwhelmed by choice, reducing the chances that they will experience regret. (See Sheena & Lepper, 2000 for an interesting overview on choice and satisfaction). Each box has a description of the charity, its aims and what the money will be spent on.

Whilst we are not spending our own money, we still have an attachment to the arbitrary token (after all, what is money that is not backed up by a physical reserve!?), we “earned” it (by spending our real cash) and we are “spending” it (in the choice of charity we are giving to). We are gaining a sense of satisfaction through giving to a charity. Whilst it may not be “real” money it has been shown that other primates have a sense of fairness and can understand the value of tokens (Behavioural economists love testing the idea that chimps are rational maximisers, there’s a plethora of studies but Milinski’s 2013 study is one of the easier ones to read).

With charitable donations there is also the issue of guilt as well as regret, with each charity having its own good cause how does one justify why one has made that decision and deprived the others? Post “purchase” rationalisation plays a key role.

To add to these factors in the decision making process the boxes are made of clear plastic, allowing us to see the amount of tokens in each box, thus exposing us to a Descriptive Social Norm we know to be accurate (for more on the influence of norms see Schultz et. al. 2007). As such the box which has the most counters at the point when the customer donates can be expected to be more likely to receive that individual’s donation. As the number of counters in the box increases we can expect this effect to magnify.

Keep your eyes peeled, I’ll be looking at another aspect how the medium we give through affects donations in a future blog!