Branding Research Shows Placebo Effect on Consumers - Podcast Transcript


Have you ever wondered who was doing the research that will impact your future? The research podcast lets you met those people, and learn how the University of Kentucky is exploring and strengthening our understanding of the world through research and discovery. 


Here's Alicia Gregory, director of Research Communications. 


Alicia: Today we’ll meet Aaron Garvey, an assistant professor of marketing in the Gatton College of Business and Economics at UK. His work in consumer behavior looks at the psychology of how consumers act, think, and feel. He begins by telling us about his first research project.


Aaron Garvey: Well, if you want to go way back, my first research project was when I was fourteen. So, when I was fourteen, I saw in my math textbook, there was basically this-- this algorithm - this formula for determining the trajectory of something. How far something would go based upon where it peaked. And I turned that into a science project where I launched baseballs, and I tested whether or not this theory-- I didn't really believe it when I saw it, so I tested whether or not it was real. And, it was a pretty good physics project. Evidentially. So, it made it all the way to the international science fair. I don't study physics anymore, but… That was my first exposure to research, and I guess, the real-- the thing that drove me to it then, is I've always liked, kind of, hearing other people's ideas, developing my own ideas, but ultimately, I want to see it proven for myself. I want to see it tested for myself. I want to know if it's real.


Alicia: Specifically, how did you end up in the topic area you’re doing right now?


Aaron Garvey:  When I was younger, I probably, you know, probably didn't even know that my area existed, right, when I was fourteen. But, I did work in industry for some time as a marketing manager.


What really initially got me interested into looking at branded consumption and the kinds of impacts that just branding can have on people's perceptions of products, was- worked in product marketing, and we would test prototype products sometimes. And, I was just amazed that you could take the exact same product that you were thinking about taking to market, and you could put it in front of consumers, and you could change what price you were going to launch it at, and you could change what brand it was, and they would have dramatically different impressions of that product. And they would tell you incredibly different things about the product. That they thought it was made of different materials, that they thought it weighed more, or it weighed less. So, really out-there stuff, that, at the time, you know, we joked about, and we couldn't explain it. And we never went any deeper on it.


Aaron Garvey (cont.):  Why people like different brands and brand identities has been around for a while. But this work that looks at what kind of impact is that having on you, is fairly new. This impact of, we know that people gravitate towards certain brands, because they identify with them a certain way, or because it makes them kind of feel a certain way about themselves. But, that's got a lot of other impacts. It has impacts on how you interact with people, so interpersonal relationships. It's got impacts on how you actually use the products, and how well you use the products. So, a lot of different ways that it influences how you behave and how you think. 


So, my primary stream of research deals with branded product consumption and conspicuous consumption, luxury consumption and the kind of impacts that that has upon consumers. So, for example, I've got a recently published piece of research that looks at how brands can actually have placebo effects upon consumers. So, this is-- you know, placebo effect is something that's just entirely belief based.  And, they've been around in the medical literature for a long, long time, and historically, what's been shown is that placebo effects have what are called subjective impacts on consumers.


If I give somebody a sugar pill, and I tell them that it's a Tylenol, they'll say that they feel better. Right? Or, if I give somebody a glass of wine and I tell them it's a very expensive, very fine wine, they will think it tastes better, right. And they'll actually-- there's actually MRI studies that show that it will taste better. 


Aaron Garvey (cont.): What my research does, is it looks at how branded products can actually change performance, say in athletic context, or change performance say in test-taking context. And, we see that there are psychological effects that brands have. They can improve someone's self-concept, they can reduce anxiety in situations that produce performance anxiety, and they can actually cause people to perform better at say, at you know, at say a golf putting task is one of the experiments that we did. Or say, doing difficult math products is another experiment that we did. Say there are real impacts that brands can have on consumers. That's part of a strain of research that I have that looks at, not just brands, but also conspicuous consumption. And, I kind of look at both sides.


So, there's some-- there are historically branding, conspicuous consumption, there have been kind of detriments to consumers. Like, there are downsides to that for consumers and consumer well-being. But I also look at the other side; of when they can actually have benefits, right. When can they help to improve people's quality of life? When can they help to improve their life satisfaction, or their performance at task or goals that they're trying to accomplish or trying to achieve?


Aaron Garvey (cont.): There's a lot of research, I guess, in marketing that deals with preference. And, I've got some work that does-- that deals with that as well. But, a lot of preference work in marketing has to deal with, you know, do you like product A versus do you like product B? And, I've been involved with some of that, but a lot of what I look at examines how does your consumption of a product change something downstream. Something that happens later on. So, an example would be, when, you know, when you consume or use a branded product, how do you perform with it. Another example could be, when you consume a product, can that change your experience subsequently, or right afterwards, with a different product? So, if I-- can I actually consume one product, and then it changes my experience with another? 


So, there's a really well-known phenomenon known as licensing. And, this is just-- it happens to us all. This is when you do something really good, and you know it's good, and you feel licensed to indulge yourself, right. So, you know, you went and worked all day helping to-- helping Habitat for Humanity, or you went and worked all day doing volunteer work, and you decide that you deserve to have dessert that night, right. You're a good person. Or you eat a salad earlier in your meal, and then you decide it's okay to have dessert, right. Because you've been good and you've done well. So, it's a well-documented phenomenon.


Aaron Garvey (cont.): A recent piece of work that I and my co-author put together, saw that that actually can change your experience too. When you decide to indulge yourself after you've been licensed. I've gone and I've done volunteer work all day, and that evening I decide to indulge myself in a dessert. Well, the dessert will actually taste better than if you had not licensed. Not only are you more likely to have it, but when you eat it, it will literally taste better. You will enjoy the experience more than you would have otherwise. 


So there is a downside to it right? Which is you indulge. But, you enjoy yourself more when you do. Right? So, you are kind of amping things up, right. So, when you're licensing, you're kind of increasing how much pleasure and enjoyment you can get out of something. 


Alicia: How has your research impacted the way you train students? Are you involved with teaching students? 


Aaron Garvey: I teach both undergraduates, and then I also teach graduate students in our MBA program, there at-- at Gatton. I would say there's a few different ways. One is, I try to use it as a motivator; to kind of get them interested, so I use my own research as examples. Show how it's kind of relevant to what they'll, you know, eventually in my field, what I do, can be relevant to what they ultimately do in their careers. So, I try to tie those two things together. Probably the biggest way that my research directly impacts my teaching. 


Alicia: So, how did you end up at UK? 


Aaron Garvey: I actually attended UK as an undergraduate. So, I have a long history with UK, and a very good impression of UK. Went elsewhere for my career, went elsewhere for graduate school. But, when an opportunity arose to come back to UK, I prioritized UK over a lot of my other options.


Alicia: So, what do you like best about being part of Gatton? 


Aaron Garvey: I would say my colleagues. So, these are people, spend a lot of time with them in the office, we're co-authors on papers, spend a lot of time with them outside of the office.


Alicia: What would you tell someone who's thinking of joining the research enterprise here at UK? 


Aaron Garvey: I would say, the resources are here. So, if you think that you're a good fit for the community, or in your particular area, that there are the right kind of scholars here that you can work with, then it's an excellent opportunity. 


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