Skip to Content Skip to Footer
How “Ugly” Labels Can Increase Purchase of Unattractive Produce

How "Ugly" Labels Can Increase Purchase of Unattractive Produce

Sid Mookerjee, Yann Cornil and Joandrea (Joey) Hoegg

According to a recent report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (2020), each year in the U.S. farmers throw away up to 30% of their crops, equal to 66.5 million tons of edible produce, due to cosmetic imperfections. Such food waste has detrimental consequences for the environment: 96% of wasted food is left to decompose in landfills, releasing methane and contributing to climate change. Additionally, 1.4 billion hectares of land and 25% of the world’s fresh water are used to grow produce that will be later thrown away. To address this issue, French retailer Intermarché in 2014 launched an advertising campaign using the word “ugly” to describe unattractive produce, which attracted a lot of media attention. Subsequent campaigns by other retailers have used more understated labels such as ‘Imperfect Produce’ or ‘Produce with Personality.’ Many retailers do not label unattractive produce in any specific way.

A new Journal of Marketing study seeks to answer two important questions:


1. Why do consumers reject unattractive produce?

2. Does ‘ugly’ labeling increase the purchase of unattractive produce and, if so, why does it work?

We discover that consumers expect unattractive produce to be less tasty and, to a smaller extent, less healthy than attractive produce, which leads to its rejection. We also find that emphasizing aesthetic flaws via ‘ugly’ labeling (e.g., “Ugly Cucumbers”) can increase the purchase of unattractive produce. This is because ‘ugly’ labeling points out the aesthetic flaw in the produce, making it clear to consumers that there are no other deficiencies in the produce other than attractiveness. Consumers may also reevaluate their reliance on visual appearance as a basis for judging the tastiness and healthiness of produce; ‘ugly’ labeling makes them aware of the limited nature of their spontaneous objection to unattractive produce.

We tested the efficacy of ‘ugly’ labeling in various contexts. First, we show the effectiveness of ‘ugly’ labeling in a field study. We sold both unattractive and attractive produce at a farmer’s market and find that consumers were more likely to purchase unattractive produce over attractive produce when the unattractive produce was labeled ‘ugly’ compared to when unattractive produce was not labeled in any specific way. ‘Ugly’ labeling also generated greater profit margins relative to when unattractive produce was not labeled in any specific way—a great solution for sellers to make a profit while reducing food waste. In our second study, participants were told that they could win a lottery worth $30, and could keep all the cash or allocate some of the lottery earnings to purchase either a box of attractive produce or unattractive produce. We found that ‘ugly’ labeling increased the likelihood that consumers would use their lottery earnings to purchase a box of unattractive rather than attractive produce.

In Studies 3 and 4, we show that ‘ugly’ labeling positively impacts taste and health expectations, which led to higher choice likelihood of unattractive produce over attractive produce. We also ruled out alternative explanations for the effect of ‘ugly’ labeling, such as humor, originality, surprise, self-perceptions, credibility, and naturalness expectations.

In Study 5, we consider how ‘ugly’ labeling might alter the effectiveness of price discounts. Typically, when retailers sell unattractive produce, they offer a discount of 20%-50%. We showed that ‘ugly’ labeling works best for moderate price discounts (i.e., 20%) rather than steep price discounts (i.e., 60%) because a large discount signals low quality, which nullifies the positive effect of the ‘ugly’ label. This suggests that by simply adding the ‘ugly’ label, retailers selling unattractive produce can reduce those discounts and increase profitability.

In our last two studies, we demonstrate that ‘ugly’ labeling is more effective than another popular label, ‘imperfect.’ Although ‘imperfect’ is used by major brick-and-mortar and online retailers and was preferred by 50+ grocery store managers that we interviewed, we find that ‘ugly’ labeling was more effective than ‘imperfect’ labeling at generating click-throughs in online ads.

Importantly, our findings largely contrast with managers’ beliefs. While grocery store managers believed in either not labeling unattractive produce in any specific way or using ‘imperfect’ labeling, we show that ‘ugly’ labeling is far more effective. Given retailers’ participation in the U.S. Food and Waste 2030 Champions Initiative—with an objective of cutting food waste in half by 2030 (Redman 2018)—we urge retailers and sellers to use ‘ugly’ labeling to sell unattractive produce.

Read the full article

From: Siddhanth (Sid) Mookerjee, Yann Cornil, and JoAndrea Hoegg, “From Waste to Taste: How “Ugly” Labels Can Increase Purchase of Unattractive Produce,” Journal of Marketing.

Go to the Journal of Marketing

Sid Mookerjee is a Ph.D. Student in Marketing, University of British Columbia, Canada.

Yann Cornil is Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of British Columbia, Canada.

Joandrea (Joey) Hoegg is Associate Professor of Marketing, University of British Columbia, Canada.