Learning from Placebos, Mexican Coke & Acupuncture
Want to launch a new product or service? Your packaging and branding need to align closely with customer expectations. Sure, you can break the mold and get super-creative, but be sure to bring your multi-million dollar marketing budget with you. That’s what it will take to significantly alter customer expectations.
Placebo research, Mexican coke, and acupuncture offices all illustrate the power of expectations. If we believe a medicine will work, a product will taste a certain way, or that we’re in an environment where others get well, we’re likely to have similar experiences –if only because we expect to.
Medical professionals have long known about the power of placebos. Expectations that a pill or injection will improve a particular condition are often as powerful as taking the drug itself. What a customer or a patient “expects” has a lot to do with whether they’ll be satisfied with the eventual outcome. If you want your product or service to exceed the customer’s expectations, then it’s worth learning a bit of neuroscience and marketing to try to understand exactly what the customer expects.
Let’s suppose that you and a friend just finished watching a full day of football, drank too much, and definitely ate too much. With a raging case of heartburn, you ask your friend if he has any remedies. He pulls out three pills--one red, one green and one purple--all of which he swears are dedicated to relieving heartburn. Are you likely to take the red pill for your heartburn? Probably not, because innately you understand that a red pill doesn’t quite seem right for heartburn relief. As you watch your friend down a purple pill, and see how he instantly feels better, you ask if he has another.
What we’ve witnessed in this fictitious example is the power of expectations. A New Yorker article titled “The Power of Nothing” confirms that our expectations of how a product or service will work have a lot to do with how satisfied we are with the results. The article mentions that patients expect an aspirin to be of a certain shape or color, and that even tasting the bitterness of an aspirin on the tongue can decrease pain instantly.
A friend of mine prefers “Mexican Coke,” or Coca-Cola made in Mexico with sugar cane, instead of Coca-Cola made with corn syrup (as it is in the United States). My friend says she can taste the difference between the two colas, although she’s never done a blind taste test. I suspect the packaging of the soda and the fact that she buys it “contraband” from a large retailer (Coca-Cola from Mexico is only supposed to be sold in Hispanic groceries and markets) all influenced how the cola tasted even before it touched her lips. While Coca-Cola claims there are “no perceptible differences” between corn syrup and sugar cane cola, they acknowledge that for some Hispanics, “the familiarity of Coca-Cola with cane sugar and in a tall glass bottle…is a reassuring 'piece of home.’” In this case, the labeling and the glass bottle may have more to do with how the product tastes than the actual ingredients.
What we expect to happen often actually does. And that’s why it’s so important that your marketing identifies customer expectations and then delivers on a plan to exceed them.
Consumers probably expect your product or service to be delivered and consumed in a certain way. Give them what they want. You can use market research, behavioral studies, or analysis of behavioral data to figure out what consumers’ expectations are, and to create an experience that hews to them.
Note that I mentioned “experience.” Context matters, probably even more than the product or service itself. That’s why practitioners of acupuncture often take great pains to create an environment of tranquility and harmony even though, according to the aforementioned NewYorker article, clinical studies fail to demonstrate its effectiveness. Patients believe they’re in a place of healing, and they expect to get well.
Some marketing purists might argue that such an approach lacks creativity. They might also say that consumers don’t know what they want, so a company must deliver the unexpected. Perhaps this is true in some cases, as when Salesforce.com debuted the software-as-a-service model back in 1999. But companies that attempt this need to have a whole lot of money in their marketing budget, because that’s what it’s going to take to change decades of pre-conceived customer expectations. You can sell cola in a green-labeled can if you like, but I can tell you right now that this is a recipe for a lot of wasted marketing dollars.
Like it or not, this is the human brain at work. For marketers, there’s little use fighting it. Best to go with the flow, and give the people what they want – and expect.
PAUL BARSCH | Columnist
Paul Barsch directs professional services marketing programs for a top ten software company. He blogs on technology and marketing at Boundaryless Marketing.