By Pierre Chandon
Food marketing works too well. It has created and pushed a vast variety of cheap, delicious, convenient food products, invariably claiming to be healthy but contributing to a worldwide obesity epidemic with consequences ranging from increased vulnerability to SARS-CoV-2 (Popkin et al. 2020) to stigmatizing overweight children (Tomiyama et al. 2018).
While winning the battle for our stomachs, the food industry has lost public support. Most people around the world now firmly favor tougher food industry regulations (Moodie et al. 2013).
Fortunately, work published in the Journal of Marketing Research and other academic journals offers innovative solutions to help practitioners and policymakers align food marketing and health.
In response to the global obesity epidemic, the food industry and academia traditionally suggested removing fat, salt, and increasingly sugar from products. But reformulation has limitations, even when it is possible to improve a food’s nutritional profile without impairing taste.
First, reformulation can create a “health halo” around foods, prompting people to eat more than they otherwise would. One Journal of Marketing Research study showed that labeling chocolate candies “low fat” led to a 28% increase in actual, but not perceived, calorie intake compared to labeling the candies “regular” (Wansink and Chandon 2006). A recent study replicated the effect, showing the health halo was stronger for obese people, unless they had undergone weight-loss surgery, which aligned their responsiveness to marketing framing effects with that of lean people (Cornil et al. 2021).
Second, consumers increasingly equate healthiness with preserving food’s natural properties, not its nutritional profile (André, Chandon, and Haws 2019). “Clean eaters” have therefore joined forces with nostalgic consumers against the reformulation of brands they know and like.
Healthy Eating Nudges Can Work
What should food marketers mindful of public health do? A recent meta-analysis identified the most effective interventions for encouraging healthier food choices, whether in supermarkets or restaurants (Cadario and Chandon 2020). The researchers group the “nudges” into three broad categories:
- Cognitive nudges provide information about food product healthiness, often employing a nutrition label or symbol. A recent Journal of Marketing Research study (Bollinger et al. 2020) and France-based randomized controlled trial (Dubois et al. 2021) both showed informative nudges have limited influence on food choices; they reduce a person’s daily energy intake by an amount equivalent to five to nine sugar cubes.
- Affective nudges attempt to motivate consumers to eat better using written or oral encouragement. They highlight a healthy food’s taste, not its nutritional value (e.g., “twisted citrus-glazed carrots”). Affective nudges are twice as effective as cognitive nudges, reducing daily energy intake by as much as the equivalent of 13 to 17 sugar cubes.
- Behavioral nudges seek to impact consumers’ actions directly without necessarily changing what they think or want. In other words, they emphasize convenience by making healthy choices easier than unhealthy choices, e.g., by precutting and pre-plating fruit or placing healthy food at the start of a self-service line. The most effective behavioral nudges change the amount of food people put on their plate. They are three times as effective as cognitive nudges on average, leading to a reduction in daily energy intake equivalent to as many as 32 sugar cubes.
Epicurean Food Marketing: Less Size, More Pleasure
A growing number of researchers have examined alternative ways to encourage people to eat better using affective and behavioral, rather than cognitive, interventions. Some researchers call the interventions “epicurean,” as they are consistent with the instructions of Epicurus, who wrote, “The wise person does not choose the largest amount of food, but the most pleasurable.”
The behavioral epicurean approach attempts to make small food portions seem “normal.” Portions and food packaging have grown enormously but look smaller in weight and volume than they are. One Journal of Marketing Research study showed that people underestimated the energy in a 1,000-calorie meal by 25%, despite accurately estimating the calories in a smaller meal (Chandon and Wansink 2007). The researchers found underestimation bias was related to portion size, not body size, as people with normal weights were as inaccurate in their judgments as the overweight. Other research has shown size perceptions increase more slowly than actual size for children and adults alike and even among professional chefs and dieticians (Chandon and Ordabayeva 2017). Consumers therefore choose cheap, supersize portions that are larger than they realize, leading to overeating and food waste.
Why don’t more companies downsize their products? Because shoppers notice size decreases more than increases and react negatively (Chandon and Ordabayeva 2017). An effective strategy to encourage smaller portion choices is to downsize products by elongating them (increasing height while reducing base), as first shown by Raghubir and Krishna (1999). In a later study, researchers downsized a product by 24% using elongation without participants noticing, even when they were incentivized for accuracy and able to weigh the product (Ordabayeva and Chandon 2013).
The affective epicurean approach draws on a consumer’s tendency to choose large portions because they provide value and are satiating and neglect to consider how he or she will feel while eating. Sensory pleasure is at its peak during the first bites of food and diminishes with each additional bite. Consumers do not realize that their overall experience rating is influenced by average, not sum, pleasure per bite. Both adults and children tend to choose portions that are too large from a pleasure standpoint, as their last bite denigrates the average experience (Schwartz et al. 2020).
In a series of studies published in the Journal of Marketing Research, researchers primed consumers with sensory imagery, asking them to imagine eating hedonic foods (Cornil and Chandon 2016). In one study, the strategy reduced the dessert size chosen by 367 non-restrained adult women by 24%, leading them to select relatively small portions for optimal eating enjoyment. Another study conducted among hungry children found that sensory imagery led to reasonable snack portion selection (Lange et al. 2020).
Rather than selling food as fuel as if they were in the energy business, food marketers concerned about public health and the obesity epidemic should consider focusing on eating’s pleasure. The strategy can also lead to improved firm performance. Instead of making more money by selling more food to more people more often, firms could profit from selling smaller portions offering more pleasure. The result would be a win for consumers’ health and enjoyment, as well as for business.
Pierre Chandon is the L’Oréal Chaired Professor of Marketing, Innovation and Creativity at INSEAD in France and the Director of the INSEAD-Sorbonne University Behavioural Lab.
Chandon, Pierre (2021), “Aligning Health, Business and Pleasure Through Epicurean Food Marketing,” Impact at JMR, (August 8, 2021), Available at: https://www.ama.org/2021/08/18/epicurean-food-marketing/
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