Research reveals brand perceptions can make a difference in performance

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- While superior craftsmanship in a product can contribute to enhanced performance, a forthcoming paper co-authored by Lisa Bolton, professor of marketing and Frank and Mary Jean Smeal Research Fellow at the Penn State Smeal College of Business, reveals that merely believing a product to be better can also improve results.

Bolton and her fellow researchers (each of whom obtained their Ph.D. in marketing from Penn State), Frank Germann from the University of Notre Dame and Aaron Garvey from the University of Kentucky, conducted multiple experiments to determine whether brand perception can cause a performance effect.

Their paper, “Performance Brand Placebos: How Brands Improve Performance and Consumers Take the Credit,” will appear in the April issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

“We did not specifically elaborate on the brand name or point out its high quality, but the brand name label was salient,” Bolton said. “We pre-tested the brand names to determine which brands were spontaneously perceived as stronger or weaker performance brands in our samples.”

In one experiment, researchers invited participants to take part in a market research study about a new, prototype golf putter. One group of participants believed they were using a Nike putter. Those in another group were provided with no brand information about the putter.

Those who thought they were using the Nike putter needed significantly fewer attempts to putt the golf ball into the hole (approximately a 20 percent improvement). The results indicated to the researchers that strong performance brands can elicit a placebo effect that objectively improves outcomes in an athletic context.

In another experiment, participants were told they would be wearing a pair of foam earplugs to minimize distractions and improve concentration while completing a math test. Half of the participants believed the earplugs were made by 3M and the other half received no brand information about the plugs.

Those who thought they were wearing 3M earplugs answered significantly more questions correctly. The experiment also revealed that the performance brand works by boosting self-esteem, which lowers performance anxiety and in turn leads to better outcomes.

According to the researchers, not everyone benefits equally from the performance brand placebo. The effect is strongest among people who consider themselves novices in the task. Experts receive little or no boost.

“A marketing approach that emphasizes the performance benefits of the brand is probably still a good one — it helps drive the placebo, and it would also emphasize any performance gains that the brand does deliver from material differences,” Bolton said. “From a consumer perspective, of course, the placebo is actually another reason to invest in high-performance brands ... even if you are a novice, you may get a performance boost.

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Last Updated March 28, 2016