Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

Turns out that we as consumers can be easily manipulated — and it's probably happening far more often that we'd like to imagine. A couple of studies released this year draw attention to this. The first demonstrates that consumers are prone to value high price tags – not always because of any intrinsic quality such as better taste, texture, performance or higher comfort levels that the products bearing these prices possess – but sometimes simply because the price is higher.

Earlier this year, Antonio Rangel and his colleagues at the California Institute of Technology conducted a study that measured the relation between price and perception of quality. Twenty people (who weren't particularly experienced in drinking wine) sampled what they thought were five different Cabernet Sauvignons sold at different prices, while having MRIs of their brain activity performed. In fact however, they only tasted three wines, two of which were offered twice and were the same price.

A $5 bottle of wine was marked with its real price, and also marked as $45, while a $90 bottle of wine was marked with its real price and then again marked as being just $10. The results showed that the tasters' brains registered more pleasure at the higher priced bottles, even when they actually contained the same wine as the cheap bottles. In a nutshell: consumer happiness can be directly influenced by an expectation of quality, even if this level of quality does not actually exist.

Similarly, a recent MSNBC article by Robert Britt, reported the findings of a study in which participants were offered a range of products, presented in different ways, with some being presented as clearly superior. Consumers were found to blatantly prefer what they thought was the superior product, often regardless of the product's intrinsic qualities.

It's disquieting to think about how easily we as consumers can be manipulated. Britt lists several tricks of the trade that sellers employ in order to get people to buy: using a 50% off sign (regardless of the original price) works well; frequent but small discounts do better than less frequent but bigger discounts; asking which item a shopper prefers leads him to skip the phase of deciding whether to buy the product at all, instead focusing on which product he prefers.

Thinking about these studies led me to wonder about a broader question around branding – how much of a brand's appeal has to do with intrinsic quality and how much has to do with external influence (both intentional and unintentional.)

Of course, if people are buying a (designer) brand for it's aesthetic value, this is far more difficult to measure; although even here, one has to wonder whether perceptions about how aesthetically appealing something is can again be influenced by perceptions about fame and talent, regardless of whether these are in the slightest bit true.

My experience with this revolves around a friend who only shops at really expensive stores. But she only shops at these when things are on sale. I've never understood this mentality because, from the times I've gone shopping with her, it's usually the worst stuff that's on sale – not just in terms of the aesthetics but also just in terms of the quality. The worst of the "best" is definitely worse than the best of the "worst" (the $30 dresses from H&M) in my opinion. We disagree. She's always so enamored by the fact that something "branded" is on sale, that she'll buy it even if it looks like something you could buy at an H&M for quarter the price.

There are so many self-identified "designers" and artists who manage to get away with tacking on an extravagant price tag. They call their creations art and people pony up. Andy Warhol put it best: "Art is anything you can get away with." Today, what makes something art is just that – other people accepting it as art. And that's what's pivotal for a designer brand or a painting to become lucrative, having other people be willing to buy into or accept the value you (the designer) confer on it.

I'm not saying that designers and artists manipulate consumers into buying their products (if art can be called a product.) I'm just underscording how, in order for products to sell, consumers need to have a perception of value – whether that's tied to intrinsic value, talent or skill, or just to an overarching idea about the brand itself stemming from factors like the price, or the creator's fame. And here's where businesses have an open field to step in, mould (and sometimes, yes, manipulate) these perceptions.