Maybe Fine China Really Does Make Food Taste Better
Serving food and beverages in cheap containers leaves a bad taste with consumers, research shows.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Does food served on a paper plate taste worse than the same food served on china? Does a drink served in a glass taste better than the same drink in a plastic cup? For some of us, the answer is yes, says a Michigan Ross researcher.
"Although the paper plate and plastic cup may be less aesthetically appealing to a consumer, rationally speaking, the product containers should not affect actual quality or taste of the products within those containers," said Aradhna Krishna, professor of marketing.
Nevertheless, she says, physical characteristics of product containers, such as texture, hardness, temperature and weight, do, indeed, affect the taste of food and drinks—but not for people who have a strong need to touch products to determine whether or not to consume or buy something.
In a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Krishna and colleague Maureen Morrin of Rutgers University tested nearly 1,000 college students in four separate experiments on how touch affects taste. Participants drank mineral water from either firm or flimsy cups, and were asked about the water's taste. The researchers found that haptically oriented individuals, i.e., those who like to touch things, are less influenced by the feel of a product.
"People who inherently like to touch and feel objects do so very often, compared to people who do not care as much about touching," Krishna said. "Over time, they develop an expertise in understanding when touch is related to the inherent product quality and when it is not. While they might like touching objects, they are less likely to be 'misled' about product quality created by differences in haptic input."
While prior research has shown that those who like to touch products are more influenced by the sense of touch when it provides objective information relevant to product judgment—such as touching a sweater to assess its thickness or texture—the researchers say their study is the first to consider haptic cues that are not objectively relevant to the judgment task.
For example, the fact that a cup feels flimsy to the touch should not affect the actual taste or quality of the beverage itself, they say. Krishna and Morrin say their study has considerable managerial significance beyond its theoretical contribution to sensory research—from the material quality to the shape and design of a product and its packaging.
"Firms such as McDonald's, Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts spend millions of dollars on disposable cups and bottles each year," Krishna said. "If such firms try to save on costs by using haptically inferior packaging, this could affect consumers' perceptions of the taste or quality of the beverages they contain. "Our research suggests that a good understanding of the effect of haptic cues is clearly important for managers for their product and packaging decisions. If the haptic feel of bottles and cups in which drinks are served and/or sold affects brand inferences, taste perceptions and reservation price, then evidently the choice of material for packaging and for dispensing drinks has implications for managerial profits."
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