Interdisciplinary Insights: Esoteric Descriptors Could Decrease Perceived Appeal of Products

Ernst Baskin and Peggy J. Liu (2021) published research in the Journal of Consumer Psychology that explored how descriptors that may be unknown to consumers can have unexpected effects on price and appeal judgements.

A simple descriptor in the name of a product serves multiple purposes.  First, it can help distinguish one product from another.  Diet Pepsi, Wild Cherry Pepsi, Pepsi Real Sugar, and Pepsi Caffeine Free each communicate an important attribute that distinguishes each product and how it differs from the original Pepsi.  La Croix adopts the same principle, each flavor is named according to its flavor, such as key lime, tangerine, mango, coconut.

Pepsi and La Croix, however, target different markets, and La Croix’s naming conventions reflect this.  There is a certain experience to drinking a La Croix that makes them name flavors Pastèque and Múre Pepino rather than simply watermelon or blackberry cucumber, respectively.  These fancier, more obscure names may work well for a La Croix in their marketing and among their target customers, but is that always the case?

Ernst Baskin and Peggy J. Liu (2021) published research in the Journal of Consumer Psychology that explored how descriptors that may be unknown to consumers can have unexpected effects on price and appeal judgements.  Baskin and Liu were interested in the truly meaningless descriptors, words that are so obscure or which originate from another language such that the average target user would have no idea what it means.

A local restaurant offers piri piri chicken tacos.  I know what chicken and tacos are, so I can deduce what the entrée would essentially be, but what makes it piri piri?  The accompanying description simply says, “lime, garlic toum, local lettuces $25”.  The word toum is also meaningless to me, maybe piri piri is related to that?  When it comes to food, I’m not much of a risk-taker, so for the similar price of $26 I might choose the Korean short rib tacos instead.  I’ve never tried Korean BBQ, but I know what the word means, so it seems a safer choice. [Note: Toum is a Lebanese garlic sauce, and Piri-piri are South African peppers with a 300k Scoville rating.]

To assess the effect of meaningless descriptors on price and appeal judgements, Baskin and Liu conducted a series of studies where participants assessed different products, from food varieties to common products like hand soap and facial tissues, with either no descriptor (e.g. “fried chicken”) or a nonsense word descriptor (e.g. “puq friend chicken”).  The authors chose a true nonsense word to control for any chance that some respondents may actually know the meaning of more esoteric words.  In all studies, the meaningless descriptor product was rated higher on price judgements and lower on appeal.

These findings contradict the typical positive relationship between price and appeal, in that more attractive items are generally associated with higher prices.  In this case, however, meaningless descriptors inverted this relationship.  The authors provide some theoretical implications for why this might be.  A meaningless descriptor can often signal some rarity or luxury element to a product; it’s not just chicken tacos, it’s SPECIAL chicken tacos.

From economics theory, one would expect to pay more for rare or luxurious products.  However, because the descriptor is meaningless and creates a sense of “the unknown” there is inherently a risk associated with this purchase; I don’t actually know exactly what I am getting.

On average, most people are not risk-takers, particularly into the pure.  Those who do take risks will be taking calculated risks; they have enough information to judge if the risk is worth it.  Le Croix customers may prefer to reach for something a bit fancier, like the múre pepino, but without knowing what múre pepino means, it would be quite the risky purchase, as far as beverage purchases go. When Le Croix tells you it means blackberry cucumber, there is still some risk if you never tried that combination before, but at least you have more information from which to decide if it’s a risk worth taking.

Baskin and Liu discuss this element of risk-taking in their fourth study where participants were asked to rate how appealing the product might be to someone else who either had conventional or unconventional tastes.  When thinking about someone with unconventional tastes, the appeal ratings were back in line with price expectations.

This demonstrates the importance of understanding your target market when naming products.  Are your customers risk-takers who like the excitement of making a blind decision?  Esoteric descriptors really only work for a target market of risk-takers who enjoy jumping headfirst into the unknown.  Chances are, though, you’re reaching wider than this niche market.  For the average person, such unknowns are more aversive than appealing.

Source: Baskin, E. & Liu, P.J. (2021). Meaningless descriptors increase price judgments and decrease quality judgments. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 31, 298-300. doi: 10.1002/jcpy

This article was previously published by Greenbook here.