New research finds that an organization’s logo on a food product can trigger quick perceptions by consumers about an item’s healthiness and influence their decision making. That perception also may be seen as an endorsement that may not exist, said study coauthors Elizabeth Minton, PhD ’14, now of the University of Wyoming, and T. Bettina Cornwell, the Edwin E. & June Woldt Cone Professor of Marketing in the Lundquist College of Business.
The research, led by Minton as part of her doctoral dissertation while in the business PhD Program at UO, probed alliances of organizations through the placement of logos on mock food products. The findings are timely.
Earlier this year Kraft Foods Inc. and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics agreed on a deal in which the company would support research and public awareness campaigns on the importance of calcium and vitamin D in exchange for using the academy’s “Kids Eat Right” logo on its packages of Kraft Singles. The deal quickly was canceled amid a backlash about potential misperceptions about the healthfulness of highly processed foods.
“There has been fear about false perceptions of endorsement by charities and other partners when aligned with unhealthy food. That probably, while real, is less worrisome than the simple misperception that a food is more healthy,” Cornwell said.
The findings, published online ahead of print in the Journal of Consumer Affairs, involved a pre-test using nearly 300 undergraduate business students followed by three experiments that added different levels of complexity. In experiment one, student participants believed the cookies partnered with the American Heart Association (AHA) to be a healthier choice than cookies with no cause or those partnered with Goodwill. These findings, the researchers said, are alarming because consumer perceptions of the healthiness of a food changed with the cause logo on the package.
In the second experiment, the AHA logo on crackers, moved the student participants’ thinking toward choosing the product for health reasons. World Health Fund and Goodwill logos also worked because the causes were deemed worthy, but they did not increase health perceptions.
The third study—conducted with 120 nonstudent adults recruited by way of Amazon’s online crowd-sourcing Mechanical Turk—used a food-related but nonhealth charity cause, Meals on Wheels, as its focal point to probe if health perceptions, intentions, or attitudes influence a decision to purchase crackers. In the end, Minton and Cornwell found that the pairing of Meals on Wheels on the crackers’ packaging with wording about the cause slightly enhanced perceptions that the crackers are a healthy choice. That connection, the research found, is based on quick judgments that may or may not touch the assumption of an endorsement.
“Cause marketing can influence consumer food product evaluations when cause cues are integrated within food packaging,” Minton said. “Our findings build upon prior research that has shown that corporate social responsibility efforts generally influence food product evaluations.”
There are take-home messages for both consumers and marketers, Cornwell added.
“From a consumer perspective, it is worthwhile to pause a moment to take the time to consider just what additional communications on packaging might mean,” she said. “Marketers should be concerned about the potential for any unintended meanings from their products, packaging, and marketing communications. They should want to avoid misleading consumers by taking the time to look ahead about what such a relationship might communicate.”