The margarine test: why marketers must look at what people do rather than what they say

"People are poor at accurately describing what motivates them"

The 1940s were a dispiriting decade for American margarine makers.

Despite being cheaper than other spreads, shoppers viewed margarine as an unappetising white gloop. Its reputation was so tarnished that Joseph Quarles, a Wisconsin senator, said: "I want butter that has the natural aroma of life and health. I decline to accept as a substitute caul fat, matured under the chill of death, blended with vegetable oils and flavoured by chemical tricks."

At this low ebb Good Luck margarine, a leading American brand, decided to hire a Ukrainian psychologist, Lois Cheskin, to understand what was causing its, well, bad luck.

Cheskin began his research by inviting local housewives to a series of lunchtime lectures. These lectures were preceded by a buffet; nothing fancy – just triangles of white bread and chilled pats of butter.

After the talk a researcher scuttled round the room quizzing the attendees.

"How engaging was the lecture?"

"Did it last too long?"

"How well dressed was the speaker?"

"Oh, and one final question… what did you think of the food?"

Cheskin repeated this experiment half a dozen times, alternating between serving margarine and butter. The results fitted with the prevailing opinion of the two spreads: the diners made more derogatory comments about margarine than butter.

But then Cheskin revealed his twist.

In the tests, he’d dyed the margarine yellow and labelled it butter and dyed the butter white and labelled it margarine. When the participants were disparaging the margarine as oily they were actually commenting on butter.

The purpose of Cheskin’s charade was to prove that the enjoyment of margarine, and other products, was determined by our expectations. All the elements of the experience – colour, smell, even the packaging – contributed to our expectations and therefore the taste. Cheskin called this phenomenon “sensation transference”.

Cheskin used his theory to make suggestions to the marketing team at Good Luck. His most important change was to the colour. Margarine was naturally an off-white colour, the uncharitable might even say grey; Cheskin turned it yellow so it would benefit from buttery associations. Then he changed the packaging from a dull plastic to foil. After all, at the time foil was mainly used by more expensive foods. Finally, to shed the negative association, Cheskin renamed the brand: it became Imperial margarine.

It wasn’t just Good Luck who benefitted from his tactics. Other brands swiftly copied the yellow colouring and category sales soared. In the 1950s margarine overtook butter in popularity. A lead it held for more than 50 years.

How can we apply Cheskin’s findings?

Cheskin tackled the problem obliquely. He created a situation in which margarine was eaten, without making it the focus of the occasion. That’s preferable to the artificiality of a focus group.

Then he engaged in a handy piece of deceit. By switching the appearance of margarine and butter, but not the taste, he unpicked which factor was the true driver of enjoyment, rather than what people thought was influential. This is an important distinction.

People are poor at accurately describing what motivates them. When they’re asked directly they give plausible, rational reasons for their actions – in the case of food they emphasise the taste and downplay the incidental details like packaging. After all, that’s what is commonly believed to be the case.

We need to learn from Cheskin and look at what people do rather than what they say. Once we do this we’ll see that we must spend more time on the incidental and emotional details of products rather than the supposedly important and rational.

Richard Shotton is deputy head of evidence at Manning Gottlieb OMD and the author of The Choice Factory, a new book about how you can apply findings from social physchology to advertising, which is available for pre-order. He tweets @rshotton

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