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The secret of taste is in the plate

Last updated on: May 23, 2008 00:54 IST

Does food served on a paper plate taste worse than the same food served on a china plate? Does mineral water served in a flimsy cup taste worse than the same water served in a firmer cup?

Yes, if touch plays a role, according to a study by Professor Aradhna Krishna of the University of Michigan, and Maureen Morrin of Rutgers University. The study, 'Does Touch Affect Taste? The Perceptual Transfer of Product Container Haptic Cues,' was published in the Journal of Consumer Research recently.

In a series of four experiments, Professor Krishna and Morrin found that many people judge a drink by its container. Specifically, the firmness of a cup seems to have an impact on consumer evaluations of the beverage contained inside.

Though the paper plate and flimsy cup may be less aesthetically appealing to a consumer, the product containers should not affect the actual quality or taste of the products. However, the two researchers found that consumers did in fact equate taste levels with the container.

The research found that touch-related characteristics of product containers may be transferred to the products contained therein through consumer inferences and evaluations.

But not all consumers are equally affected by such irrelevant cues. The researchers suggested that those who tend to enjoy touching products would be less affected by such cues because of their heightened awareness of and ability to correct for the potential impact of such cues.

Earlier studies had found that touching affects behavior. For example, touching has been shown to increase the tips a waiter at a restaurant gets.

But the effects of touch are different for different people. So the researchers separated the subjects into two groups – those who like to touch things before they buy them and those who were not particularly inclined to touch them.

The participants were blindfolded and asked to touch the object. Those who liked to touch were less influenced in a taste test of mineral water in a flimsy cup and a firm cup. Those who were less inclined to touch rated lower the same water in the flimsy cup.

The results were similar when participants were just told about the containers in a written description and did not actually feel them: Those with less inclination to touch were willing to pay more for a firm bottle of water than those who liked to touch.

Beyond the theoretical information, the current research has considerable managerial significance, the researchers noted. Firms like McDonald's, Starbucks, and Dunkin' Donuts spend millions of dollars on disposable cups and bottles each year. If such firms try to save on costs by using packaging deemed inferior when touched, it could affect consumers' perceptions of the taste or quality of the beverages.

These studies also suggest that if alternate versions of a product (for example, single malt scotch versus a blended scotch) are served in different containers at a social function to set them apart, then consumers may mistakenly think that the better-quality product will be served in the containers superior in touch-related cues.

Krishna is the Isadore and Leon Winkelman Professor of Marketing at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan. Morrin is associate professor of marketing, Rutgers University.

George Joseph