Branding's placebo effect: how our expectations about a product influence its performance

On 22 January 1944 lieutenant Colonel Beecher was one of the 36,000 allied soldiers who invaded Anzio, on the Italian coast.

The troops landed unopposed, but despite the early success the allies hesitated. The delay allowed the Nazis to regroup and within a week they had dug a warren of tunnels in the nearby hills, encircling the British and American troops. Churchill, dismayed by the caution, commented that “I had hoped we were hurling a wild cat onto the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale”.

The next few months were hellish for Beecher. The Germans’ elevated position meant they could pound the allied beachhead with artillery. The most pressing problem for Beecher, an army anaesthetist, was that his morphine supply regularly ran dry before his supply of injured patients.

In desperation, Beecher followed the advice of one of his nurses and injected the wounded men with salt solution, more commonly used to rehydrate patients, to maintain the pretence that he was administering pain relief. Beecher was shocked by the power of the placebo effect – men with the most gruesome of injuries were comforted by the pretence of receiving medication. From then on Beecher harnessed the placebo effect whenever his supplies of morphine ran out.

More than anecdote

When Beecher returned to Harvard after the war his interest in the phenomenon continued. In 1955 he published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which reviewed evidence about placebos from 15 clinical trials. In 35% of cases the condition was relieved by a placebo.

The story of Beecher, which I first read about in the wonderful book Born Liars, should interest marketers as well as medics because it shows that our expectations about a product influence its performance.

Branding acts like a placebo. It changes consumer perception and, in turn, those perceptions alter the nature of the product. As Jeremy Bullmore has said: “More than any other form of measurement, placebo experiments demonstrate the real power of The Brand”.

The devil is in the detail

The most interesting aspect of placebos are the nuances. Small, seemingly incidental, details have dramatic effects. For example, large pills generate a greater placebo effect than small ones. Two pills are more effective than one. Capsules are more powerful than pills, and injections are more potent still.

Even colour has an effect. Anton de Craen, a clinical epidemiologist at the University of Amsterdam, conducted a systematic review of 12 studies and found that red painkillers were consistently more potent than blue ones. This is due to the cultural connotations of each colour; while red suggests strength and power, blue evokes calming images of the sky and sea. For a painkiller, strength is more important than calmness.

Yet, many painkillers ignore these nuances. Consider colour. Only 14% of the painkillers I bought on a string of visits to pharmacies were red. What a waste. Why do so many medicines ignore the opportunity, when a small design twist could improve performance?

In every category there are a range of psychological quirks that could be applied to boost effectiveness but all too often aren’t. Like painkillers many brands fail to harness the nuances of psychology. Take menus. There’s a wealth of experimental evidence about their design. Removing the pound signs reduces price sensitivity, as does indenting the prices. But only a minority of restaurants exploit these biases.

Why? I think as an industry we’ve become seduced by the false promise of technology. Our attention is gripped by what’s new rather than what we have long known about human nature. If our advertising is to be as successful as possible we need to rectify this imbalance.

Richard Shotton is deputy head of evidence at Manning Gottlieb OMD. He tweets @rshotton

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