Placebo: Why Design Can Make Your Product “Taste” Better

August 23, 2016


One of the biggest success stories when it comes to design and branding making customers come back over and over is Starbucks. This coffee chain is known for not only being all over the United States but charging high prices for what is arguably good coffee. In places where there are still dozens of other coffee options, Starbucks reigns supreme. What is it about Starbucks that makes it stand out from its competitors time and time again?

Elon Musk, the powerhouse behind substantial brands such as PayPal and Tesla, once said, “Perception will match reality over time.” What does this mean in relation to Starbucks? It means that value is created around a product based on people’s perceptions of what it actually is. Design and the proposed value of the design influence how people interact with the product itself.

How Design Impacts Experience

According to Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology at Duke University and the author of “Predictably Irrational” and “The Upside of Irrationality”, there are three important insights that any small business owner should consider when thinking about the best way to brand themselves and their business.

You Learn to Get What’s Expected From a Product

When you built your brand, you probably took the time to think about what it is that you did and the background behind getting to where you are now. These stories have more of an important rationale than you may have initially thought. A coffee company speaking about the sustainable conditions of their beans in the dewy mountains of Indonesia nearby a waterfall has a direct effect on the way that someone consuming that coffee will think that it tastes. That story creates a mental image that resonates beyond the product itself.

“Expectations are important because they have a way to fulfill themselves,” Ariely says, “Think about the experience of drinking coffee. Part of it is the actual smell and the sensation on your tongue, but the other part is what you expect it feels like to drink regular coffee versus what you expect it feels like to drink coffee that was picked in the mountains of Indonesia.”

When the design of the product matches this image, including through the logo, not only is this expectation reified, but it encourages you to share or carry the product around. If you learn that the mittens in a shop are hand-crafted but the profits directly work to provide farm animals to the artisans, you are likely to consider that product to be better-made than those from a big box department store, whether this is the case or not.

Coffee cups with brand logos on them

Coffee Cup Design From Two Major Retailers

Paying Attention to a Product Can Lead to Delight

A brand or service is, in short, an experience for the customer. In a quickly moving world, many people will not take the time to sit down and truly engage with a brand from beginning to end- but a business owner can take the time to encourage focusing on the product and the details rather than pure consumption.

“Language gets us to focus and pay attention to a product,” Ariely explains. “Wine experts, for example, tell you about complexity, acidity and tannins to make you slow your pace and pay attention to the taste. Other examples include a chocolate brand that went as far as giving instructions [about] how chocolate should be eaten. They told their clients to put the chocolate in their mouth, wait for two seconds, then take a bite and wait again while letting the smells and tastes mix in their mouth. This is an example of a background story that can even give you rules of how to eat something and enhance the attention you were giving it.”

How many clothes do you wear a week? How many coffee brands have you had this last year? What makes something stand out? The craft beer movement has adopted this need to slow down to taste a product to create enjoyment. Pick up a bottle in the craft beer section in the supermarket and read the descriptions- they’re oftentimes as rich as those for wine and have undoubtedly led to more people stopping to taste the complexities and nuances of craft beer, and the subsequent flavor boom.

Expectations of a Brand Influences How We Interact With It

Don’t think that design changes whether or not you like a brand? Your tastes, perceptions, and likes can change when you have a certain expectation since the mental assumption can create a physiological change within the body.

“The best example for placebo is painkillers, of course,” Ariely says. “The idea is that if you expect to experience less pain, your body, in anticipation of that, secretes a substance that can actually make things less painful. Your body thinks some painkiller is coming, and in preparation for that, it actually changes its physiology. “What’s important for placebo to occur is figuring out what kind of things can anticipation change,” Ariely clarifies. “The obvious thing is our immune system, but a true placebo effect occurs any time an expectation changes the physiology.”

The placebo effect works for experiences too. You begin to anticipate what’s happening and shape what you want to happen around it. Think of what happens when you walk in the dark after seeing a scary movie. Your hair’s on end, you start hearing small noises that may not exist, and your senses are heightened. Did anything happen to cause this? No, but the mental anticipation results in your body reacting to what would otherwise be a normal surrounding.

Starbucks doesn’t serve the best or most affordable coffee around, but they’ve nailed their branding story. With a name taken from the famous novel “Moby Dick” and drenched in the history of the Pacific Northwest, the company displays canvas coffee bags with a rustic feel, promote responsible recycling, carry Fair Trade coffee beans, and displays this all next to new, shiny high-end European coffee machines puts this a step above a mass coffee shop, and allows an attention to detail not often offered in small-time cafes. Even by attaching lengthy and descriptive analysis of each coffee bean means that the consumer is meant to slow down and sip.

Starbucks doesn’t sell the best coffee around. They sell the best branding experience around.