Ninety-nine versus 100 calories: How marketing affects mindset

Today, grocery store aisles are lined with a plethora of smaller-portioned bags and boxes; arguably 90% packaging and 10% actual food. Yet, very little is known about how the package labelling and descriptions affect consumer preference.

In 2004, Kraft Foods Group (owner of Heinz) introduced a line of 100-calorie mini packs of some of their most popular snack foods, launching a snacking revolution. The smaller portions appealed to calorie-conscious shoppers and generated over US$75 million in sales that first year alone.

Christopher Lee, marketing professor (W. P. Carey School of Business), conducted a study to better understand how certain cues on 100-calorie packs affect consumer preference – and whether one calorie really makes a difference.

If someone is faced with buying a 99-calorie pack, 100-calorie pack, or 101-calorie pack—which one are they more likely to choose? Does one calorie in either direction really make a difference?

In our research, respondents generally had more favourable attitudes to products with distinctive calorie information—99 and 101—as opposed to non-distinctive—100.

Another way to think about the results of our study is through the lens of pricing. Consumers tend to prefer things that end in 99, such as £5.99, even though the extra penny isn’t financially meaningful. It is not by accident that many of the products consumers buy—such as food and gas—tend to end with .99.

Our research is suggesting that, similar to pricing, a one-calorie difference may influence our perceptions about a product. That being said, attitudes and purchase intentions were the same for 99 or 101 calories, so it isn’t the direction of difference but rather the uniqueness of the calorie count.

What happens to consumer preference when labels include a calorie count and descriptive words, like “mini” or “jumbo”? Does adding words make a difference?

Words do make a difference. When a consumer sees “jumbo” they think big, and when a consumer sees “tiny” they think small. Those words set a reference point, or expectation, of what the consumer will receive.

In our study, respondents rated products more favourably when “tiny” was paired with 99 calories than when it was paired with 100 calories. Similarly, respondents rated products more favourably when “jumbo” was paired with 100 calories than 99 calories.

When the descriptive words and calorie count didn’t align, for example, “99 calories” and “jumbo”, consumers rated the products less favourably. Both the descriptive words — “jumbo” versus “tiny”—and calorie count—99 versus 100—combine to set an expectation. Aligning the descriptive words on the packaging with the calorie count on the nutrition label makes it easier for the consumer to process while also setting a consistent expectation of what the consumer will receive.

What can food marketers take away from your research when it comes to consumer preference and package labelling?

Calorie counts are heavily regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FDA guidelines state that food with more than 50 calories should be rounded to the nearest 10 calories to allow for natural variability in products based on weather, soil, processing, etc. That is why when you’re shopping at a grocery store, you never see 99 calories or 101 calories.

Food marketers could potentially lobby the FDA for more flexibility with calorie counts given our research shows small calorie differences can influence perceptions. One option could be a compromise between marketers and policy-makers that keeps calorie counts rounded to the nearest five or 10 calories on the nutrition label but allows the marketer to have an asterisk on the packaging outside of the nutrition-facts panel to indicate the actual calorie count.

In addition, food marketers should be aware of the relationship between package labels and calorie counts. Our research shows that both the calorie count and package labelling make meaningful differences in health perceptions.

Marketing and manipulation: How susceptible are you?!

Imagine Megan Fox biting into an apple. The skin breaks and the juices pour onto her mouth, a single drop reaches her chin. She licks her lips, her tongue lingering as she savours the sweet, succulent taste.

Now, imagine if more time was spent setting up this scenario, followed by an ‘unrelated’ question “How much do you like apple mac computers?”. According to science, it’s guaranteed you will rate them more highly than without being told how much Megan Fox enjoys apples.

So, just as your mind has been manipulated, marketing plays on how predictably the human mind can be influenced, in view to selling products. In this case, the language used to depict Megan Fox and her juicy apple is associated with sex.

Sex sells. Marketing campaigns with references to sex engage the pleasurable reward centre of the brain, so it’s not difficult to see how priming people with sex is incredibly effective. However, sex is not the only subconscious influence to take hold of our behaviour. Be it our addiction to Starbucks coffees, an uncontrollable urge for McDonald’s, or simply a fear to branch away from branded items; all are unknowingly provoked by scientific advances in marketing strategies.

Take the example of Coca-Cola. It tastes better than Pepsi, right? Yet, can you really be sure that the effectiveness of Coca-Cola’s campaign isn’t manipulating your preference?

These days, scientists use brain imaging methods to examine how our brains respond to brands – such as Coke versus Pepsi. Participants were given two taste tests – one blind and the other clearly labelled Coke or Pepsi. When participants were unaware of the brand, the pleasure centre of the brain was active as they drank Pepsi. However, when they knew which was which, the area of the brain associated with memory and emotion was active—this time in favour of Coke. This shows us that although people really enjoy the taste of Pepsi, the emotional connection and nostalgia associated with Coca-Cola’s brand—driven by extremely effective advertising—creates a preference for Coke.

Remember when our names started to appear on Coke bottles? This personal marketing ploy generated a significant increase in sales. The company’s television ads are orientated around everything a person would want to be; sociable, fun and free. As consumers, we are largely motivated by what makes us feel good, so it’s not surprising we subconsciously succumb to a bottle of Coke every now and then.

KitKat’s are arguably the most popular chocolate bar in the world. But is this really down to how it tastes? Or could it be that whether at home, school, or in the workplace, we “have a break, have a KitKat”. This tagline quickly became ingrained in the public’s mind, becoming one of the most successful brand slogans in history.  Needless to say, 60 years down the line and the marketing strategy continues to have a profound effect.

A slightly more laughable strategy is that used by the junk-food company, Frito-Lay. This junk-food giant, responsible for the sales of Cheetos, decided to hire a neuromarketing firm to investigate how we respond to these cheesy puffs.

But can you guess the selling point of these products? The pattern of brain activity concluded that consumers responded strongly to the messiness of the Cheetos. These cheesy puffs turn our fingers orange with residual cheese dust, but who knew that this is what keeps us coming back for more? Frito-Lay subsequently launched an award-winning campaign targeted at our love of cheesy mess. Unsurprisingly, sales soared.

Whether it’s the obvious use of sex appeal, celebrity endorsement, or the catchiness of a jingle that makes us pause when we come across a KitKat or McDonalds, we remain naïve to campaigns tapping into our subconscious desires. As human beings, we can’t help but gravitate towards familiar phrases and symbols. It’s not surprising the marketing industry has learned to exploit the predictability of our behaviour.

So what can we do? We can be aware. Well-informed consumers are less likely to form irrational judgments, are more likely to make more deliberate and healthy decisions, and even save money by not succumbing to branded products. Next time you find yourself wandering into a high-end supermarket or a chain coffee shop, take a moment to question your motives. Are you there because you genuinely prefer these products, or have you, too, been unknowingly influenced by brand identity?

Maybe you’ll never know.