Insights & Expertise

How Appetizing Are Food and Other Product Descriptions?

A new research study by Assistant Professor Ernest Baskin, Ph.D., examines how the words used to describe products impact consumer perception of price and quality – and willingness to purchase. Hint: Don’t get too fancy, marketers.

Couple in grocery store looking at food labels

by Marie Williams

Keys to the Article
  • According to a new study of food and non-food items, meaningless product descriptors increase consumers’ expectations of price but lower their expectations of quality and intention to buy.
  • This finding runs counter to prevailing industry literature, which expects consumers’ assumptions about price and quality to be positively correlated.
  • The research has implications for marketers in how they market products in general and in global markets.

When it comes to consumer perception of food’s worth, expectations of price and quality generally align. According to prior literature on this topic: the higher the assumed price, the higher the expected quality. But a new study by Ernest Baskin, Ph.D., assistant professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph’s University and a national food industry expert, upends conventional wisdom about this connection.

The study, “Meaningless Descriptors Increase Price Judgments and Decrease Quality Judgments,” co-authored by Peggy J. Liu, Ph.D., assistant professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh, was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology in January. 

Using four different experiments, the researchers sought to understand what impact “meaningless” product descriptors would have on consumers’ beliefs about product price, expected quality and purchase intentions. As noted in the paper, “This question fits within a large body of consumer research on how product descriptors shape product perceptions and thus downstream judgments and decisions.”

In the food world, a distinction exists between meaningful descriptors (e.g., low-fat, slow-roasted) and meaningless: words for which the consumer has no frame of reference, either in general or in context. Theoretically, meaningless descriptors may be perceived as similar to a unique but irrelevant product attribute (for example, Milanese-style dried pasta or Alpine down fill), which prior research has shown can differentiate brands, facilitate choice and boost brand equity.

Consumers often intuit that words they do not know mean that the product is both more expensive and lower in quality. This is problematic because it will often cause them not to buy the product. … Using fancy words can backfire.

In this case, the researchers’ hypothesis, which turned out to hold true in all experiments, was that meaningless descriptors would lead to increased price judgments but decreased quality expectations. The rationale for this prediction is based on work suggesting that most people do not seek risk, both specifically with regard to food products and more generally outside of the food domain. Interesting, when it comes to food, people’s inherent survival instinct to avoid ingesting unfamiliar food tends to kick in. This risk aversion is less prevalent in other industries, such as technology, but still exists.

In the three food-based experiments, the researchers focused on cornbread mix, fried chicken and glazed donuts because these types of products lend themselves to descriptors and are commonly sampled in stores. In one experiment, randomly assigned, meaningless three-letter words were added to the beginnings of the products (e.g., bem fried chicken) in the experimental group, and a control group was used for comparison. In the additional non-food experiment, a ballpoint pen, a neck pillow, hand soap and facial tissue were utilized.

Across the board, the findings indicate that participants view products with meaningless descriptors as more expensive and less affordable and, in the case of food, less desirable for purchase. 

This type of research has potential implications for consumers and marketers, particularly in a global market. “The globalized world implies that descriptors which consumers don't know the meaning of or can't figure out from context clues are becoming increasingly more common,” notes Baskin. “This effect applies to both domestic and foreign products.” 

He concludes: “Consumers often intuit that words they do not know mean that the product is both more expensive and lower in quality. This is problematic because it will often cause them not to buy the product. For marketers, this is particularly a problem if they are a luxury brand or are selling a high-end product. Using fancy words can often backfire.”