01 July 2022

Science Doesn’t Always Sell

Eight years ago, I blogged: I am warm! I am friendly! Trust me, even if I’m a scientist! I was reviewing a Princeton University study that found scientists may be respected by the public but not necessarily trusted. Why? Because scientists are not perceived as warm (Trust a Scientist). Well, that issue came up again in conjunction with marketing.

Welcome back. A recent study by researchers affiliated with Simon Fraser, Notre Dame and Ohio State universities began with the premise that consumers view science as they view scientists--competent but cold.

They conducted 10 experiments involving more than 7,000 Americans to demonstrate that mentioning science in marketing a product can help or hurt sell the product. It will help with utilitarian (i.e., practical) products, which we tend to associate with competent and cold; it will hurt with hedonic (i.e., sensory pleasure) products, which we generally associate with warmth.

Experimental Findings
In one experiment, 511 students were presented cookie choices described either as "having a luscious chocolatey taste" or "scientifically developed to have a luscious chocolatey taste." The science appeal to the sensory pleasure of eating chocolate chip cookies reduced the likelihood that students would choose that option by 30%.

Your choice: luscious chocolatey taste or scientifically developed to have a luscious chocolatey taste (photo from tarateaspoon.com/taras-chocolate-chip-cookies/).
Yet in another experiment, the researchers showed that marketers can reduce the negative effect of mentioning science to promote a pleasure-focused product. They simply have to first tell consumers that science is needed to make the product. When 814 participants read how chemistry is a necessary part of baking, they were equally interested in a cookie whose taste was scientifically developed as they were in a cookie that wasn’t associated with science.

Some products can have both a practical and a pleasurable purpose. Science can be a positive selling point for those products if it is matched with the product’s utilitarian purpose. For example, one experiment presented a new body wash to 1,015 participants. When the participants were told the lather will “immerse your senses in an indulgent experience,” they were less likely to say they would buy it if it was marketed as scientifically developed. But that changed if they were told the lather will “wash away odor-causing bacteria.” Pairing practicality and science makes sense to consumers.

An unlabeled pump-container filled with a new body wash that has both hedonic and utilitarian purposes; only the latter should be marketed as scientifically developed (photo from shop.vermontsoap.com).
Wrap Up
Building on the premise that consumers view science as competent but cold, the study demonstrated that marketers would benefit from mentioning science when promoting practical products. When promoting hedonic products, however, they’d do best to either omit the mention of science or explain that science is necessary for the product’s development.

Nevertheless, consumers have mixed feelings about science in general. One experiment found, as you would probably guess, that mentioning science can help sell all products to consumers that have high levels of trust in scientists or that actually work in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

On the flip side, public opinion polling consistently finds Republicans have lower trust in scientists than do Democrats. As I wrote in the blog post I mentioned in the opening, I suppose Democrats could just be more trusting or more gullible or maybe more scientific.

Thanks for stopping by.


Study on invoking science in marketing in Journal of Consumer Research: academic.oup.com/jcr/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/jcr/ucac020/6581083
Articles on study on EurekAlert! website and Notre Dame News:

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