The power of perception: The best examples in history

One of the greatest branding and repositioning stories in history might have actually been a myth: King Frederick the Great of Prussia was keen for his subjects to start consuming potatoes, to reduce famine and provide another source of carbohydrates. His subjects however, completely rejected the strange looking vegetable.

Unfortunately, in the 1700’s Europeans were more than ‘put off’ by the strange, South American vegetable- in fact, many deemed them unfit for human consumption, and they often got fed to the pigs. So, instead of ordering the consumption of potatoes, King Frederick declared potatoes a Royal Vegetable, and declared that all growing potatoes be locked away in a field, guarded by his royal majesties guards…with one catch. He gave his guards secret instructions to let some of the peasants sneak into the locked potato field at night. Sure enough, the peasants attempted to, and successfully snuck into the fields at night, stole the potatoes, and started their own underground potato trade. King Frederick tapped into one consumer truth that was just as relevant back in 1774; if it’s deemed as aspirational or out of our reach, everyone will want a piece.

Scientists at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston during the late 1970s/early ‘80s took the classic market research “blind-taste-test” one step further when they scanned their participants brains with an MRI scanner to find out, once and for all, which brand really was the nation’s favourite: Pepsi or Coca-Cola. The results showed that in fact, Pepsi was the unmistakeable favourite cola of choice, according to brain activity. The participant’s ventral putamen- the part of the brain associated with seeking reward- lit up like a Christmas tree. However, after the participants were told which brand they were drinking, Coca-Cola was the undisputed winner- but the part of the brain which was flashing was now the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for recognition. Studies show this part of our brain becomes active when we recognise our family members, or have a ‘eureka’ moment after solving a problem, for example. Although Pepsi had a more enjoyable chemical reaction within the brain during the blind-taste-tests, the recognition of the coke brand had the same comfortable and familiar feeling that we experience when we spot a family member in a crowd- and this was the biggest influencer in purchase.

And there are hundreds of examples of consumer perceptions being radically changed, without the fundamental ingredients of the product being altered at all, and this doesn’t only apply to food either; a study published in 1981 in the British Medical Journal found that branded over-the-counter painkillers were actually 30% more effective at reducing pain than non-branded OTC painkillers.

Horlicks is personally one of my favourite examples of this, which is happening within its marketing communications right now. As a UK consumer, we think of Horlicks as the night-time drink, designed to help us wind down, bringing us comfort before we fall asleep. We’ve been told since 1987 that Horlicks is “the key to a nice relaxed evening” and it’s been the “natural way to relax” since 1991. However, whilst we’re sipping our relaxing cup of comfort, in our comfiest PJs next to a roaring hot fire, with a good book; in India, consumers are enjoying Horlicks as the country’s number one energy drink. That’s right, the sleepy-town Horlicks you know and love has an alter ego, a more energetic ego, and one that focuses around fuelling your day, and even helping your children to concentrate better in school. The beauty of this is that the ingredients in the box are the exact same: the same ingredients and the same nutritional value. But if you drink Horlicks in India, you’ll feel full of energy, whereas in the UK, you’ll be getting ready for bed.

Winning that ‘sweet spot’ consumer insight is the only way to tap in, create and alter brand perception. Asking the right questions in the right way, and really delving deeply into consumers underlying choice factors, unravelling the real reasons behind our decision-making processes is more crucial for FMCG brands than ever. Why do we buy Coca-Cola over Pepsi, even though it’s scientifically proven we enjoy the physical taste of Pepsi more? Market saturation in the food industry means that it doesn’t matter how many ventral putamen’s you light up… unless you’re lighting up that pre-frontal cortex, you’ve got your work cut out for you.