Imagine you are a cosmetic chemist. You are getting reports that your company’s shampoo isn’t foaming enough. How do you improve the foaming properties of a shampoo? Well you can look at the surfactant levels, or maybe change the type of foam booster you are using. In fact there are quite a few things that might affect the foam level that can be changed to make it work a bit better. But there is one rather surprising one. Make it smell nicer.
How does that work?
Well it is a strange thing when you first encounter it, but after a while it becomes commonplace. If people like the smell of a product they will generally rate everything else about it more highly. So if you put the same product into a trial with two different fragrances, people will report that the foaming is better in the one they prefer the smell of.
This well known and even has a name – it’s called the Halo Effect. It isn’t just fragrance. People will rate a branded product more highly than the exact same product in a plain package. And really bizarrely it doesn’t even have to be a well known brand. A fictitious brand will do better than an unbranded one too.
The Halo Effect is really pervasive but rarely noticed. One fascinating example is the natural product sector. If you can make a product appear natural then the halo effect will make people think not just that it is safer, but that it is also better. And it doesn’t take much to acquire this halo. Put a fraction of a percent of a plant extract, preferably a plant with a nice sounding name, and you are good to go. This is such a pervasive practice that ingredients added for this purpose have their own name – we call them tip ins.
Incidentally if any makers of natural products out there are getting worried that I might be putting them out of business divulging this sort of thing, I wouldn’t worry. The Halo Effect works at a level well below our conscious minds. As a culture we have got a deep seated belief that natural is good, and it is that deep seated belief on which we act. I had an excellent and unexpected demonstration of this once. I had prepared some samples of the same product with and without a natural extract. The samples were given to an in-house panel labeled with which was which. As expected, the sample with the extract was preferred. As an added twist, I had actually left the extract out altogether. This was all predictable. What surprised me happened next. I left the samples from the trial in the lab for people to help themselves to. Everyone knew exactly what I had done and that the only difference between the bottles was the writing on the label. And yet, the samples that had inaccurate claims on were picked up in preference, even by people who were in on the deception.
The manufacturers of natural products are well aware of how the Halo Effect works, but they are hardly the only people who use it. It is a lynch pin of brand management for most consumer goods. Selling a product o specific technical specifications is strictly for geeky products like computers. Generally you just want to get a sort of general feeling of goodness about your product. If you can do that, the Halo Effect will do the rest.