In matters of taste, most people, most of the time don’t know what to think unless someone or something tells them.
In 19th century Paris, the official arbiters of taste in art were the Salon jurors; the people who decided what would and would not be displayed in the yearly Salons. The artists that made it into the Salon got the glory, prestige and, most importantly, the commissions from the well-to-do. Back in the 1860s, the jury liked big portraits of grand subject matter — history, mythology and the classics, like the Birth of Venus painting above by Alexandre Cabanel.
That left the early impressionists out in the cold. Their paintings were considered by the jury to be unfinished, uncouth and undesirable. They were certainly dramatically different from the accepted style as shown in the excellent Birth of Impression exhibition at the de Young Museum which includes works by impressionists and artists who painted in the style the Salon preferred. Some of the impressionists (particularly Manet) kept trying to get into the Salon but others (Rodin, Monet..) gave up and set up a rival exhibition of their work. Many art critics continued to find their work “despicable” but a few critics and art dealers liked what they saw and the tide started to turn. These days you could buy quite a few Cabanels for one Renoir.
Let’s move from high art to wine appreciation. In How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer describes a Cal-Tech experiment where 25 people sampled what were described as five Cabernet Sauvignons. They were distinguished solely by their retail price (from $5 (my end of the spectrum) to $90). In fact there were just three different wines and the same wine would appear in the test with two different price points. Not surprisingly, the people preferred the wines labeled more expensive whether or not the wine was really the more expensive one.
But this was a Cal-Tech experiment so it had an interesting wrinkle–all the tastings were sipped inside an fMRI machine. The fMRI showed that there was a specific region of the brain that responded to the price. The high-priced wines got the medial orbitofrontal cortex all fired up and it sent out instructions to the rest of the brain telling it that these wines tasted better, overriding any evidence from the taste buds to the contrary.
As one of the comments to Jonah’s post points out, there are people out there who really know their wine. These experts can tell you everything about a wine just by tasting it, sometimes down to which side of the hill, in which vineyard it comes from. They don’t need price as a cue. Or even the label. The rest of us may think we know something about wine but we really don’t know that much and our medial orbitofrontal cortex rules. That’s not a criticism of the rest of us. We don’t have the time or money to be expert in everything–using cues like price or, in the case of art, critical opinion makes sense.
Feel like we’re drifting closer to a point about branding? Here it is. Most of our customers are not experts either so we’ve got to go out there and support that medial orbitofrontal cortex. We’ve already seen that price works (and P.S., it works both ways–if you’re constantly price discounting, that’s a cue that your product is no better than the cheap version). What else? Talking about a product’s essences is one approach–Coors brewed with 100% Rocky Mountain water or Evian water sourced from the Alps. In other categories, things like the Hemi engine for Dodge. What you come up with doesn’t have to necessarily be that impactful on actual taste or performance–it just needs to fire up that cortex of ours.
And lest you think that this seems a little cynical and we should be spending our time creating “real” differences, let me remind you of something. Once our cortex has spoken, that is our reality. For those people stuck in the fMRI machine drinking their wine, the ones with the high price tag really did taste better whether it was the expensive wine or the cheap one. Still don’t agree? Do a blind taste test with Corona in it. Then you’ll know what I mean.
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