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The Placebo Effect & Branding

We’ve all heard of the placebo effect in medical terms: you’re given a sugar pill in lieu of a medication and still you think it works. You feel better even though it’s only a sugar pill. But what about the same effect in other contexts? How much of an impact do the brands we create have on the way our consumers act and feel? According to NPR’s Social Science Correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, “There’s been lots of new research that applies the same [placebo effect] idea to all manner of consumer products.”¹

His example? Experiments wherein well-known name brands proved to give people more confidence in completing the tasks they were assigned. The first was an experiment with golfers in which half the participants were told they had a Nike name brand putter and the other half were not told what brand they would be using. In reality, they all used the exact same putter. Interestingly enough, results showed that those who thought it was a high quality brand name putter on average needed significantly fewer putts to sink the golf ball. The second involved ear plugs. Volunteers were required to do a math test wearing ear plugs to block out sound. Half were told the ear plugs were 3M brand while the other half were told they were using a generic brand. Those who believed they had the higher quality brand performed better, with less distraction.

The man who led the experiments, Frank Germann says, “The use of a strong-performance brand causes participants to feel better about themselves when undertaking a task, you know, have greater task-specific self-esteem. And this higher self-esteem lowers their performance anxiety, which in turn leads to the better performance outcomes.”²

There’s an important lesson for brands here. When creating a brand, we aim to draw upon a sense of connection with the consumer that elicits an emotional response. Of course we want our customers to feel compelled so they act to buy our products and services. However the results of these studies add an additional level of emotional connection.If you create a strong brand—one like Nike and 3M that emphasizes its performance characteristics and positions itself on a relevant performance dimension—it will influence the way individuals feel not only prior to purchasing, but also while using the products and services. As it turns out, our brands and all the work that goes into building them have an even bigger hand in shaping behavior than we may have thought.

Image via Brand Channel

¹ Greene, David, “Does the Placebo Effect Influence Consumer Product Purchases?” https://www.npr.org/2016/05/11/477607394/does-the-placebo-effect-influence-consumer-products, May 11, 2016.

² Greene, David, “Does the Placebo Effect Influence Consumer Product Purchases?” https://www.npr.org/2016/05/11/477607394/does-the-placebo-effect-influence-consumer-products, May 11, 2016.