A new study, led by an Indian researcher, has shown that touch does have an effect on how a consumer perceives the flavour of a particular food or beverage, by finding that products packaged in flimsy containers are evaluated lower than those in a more substantial container.
Aradhna Krishna from the University of Michigan, said that the millions of dollars that firms such as McDonalds and Starbucks spend on disposable packaging every year might not be worth it and may negatively impact consumers' perceptions of taste and quality.
In a series of four experiments, Krishna and Maureen Morrin from Rutgers University found that many people do indeed judge a drink by its container. Specifically, the firmness of a cup seems to have an impact on consumer evaluations of the beverage contained inside.
"We found that the nondiagnostic haptic qualities of a product package or serving container can affect how a product is evaluated; that is, such cues can indeed have an effect on product evaluation," said Krishna, who completed her Ph.D in Marketing from Graduate School of Business, New York University, and finished her MBA in Marketing from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, India.
Not everyone has the same sensitivity to touch, though, the researchers explained.
They first performed a pretest to determine which participants were strong autotelics, the sort of people who like to touch things before they buy them - and which participants were not particularly inclined to touch products (low autotelics).
Participants then evaluated the feel of the cups while blindfolded or in an evaluation in which they could both feel and see. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the largest difference in ratings for the firm and the flimsy cups was in the blindfolded condition among those most sensitive to touch.
However, the researchers also found that those who like to touch are least influenced by touch in taste evaluations. Indeed, in a taste test of the same mineral water from both a flimsy and a firm cup, it was low autotelics who gave the most negative evaluations of the taste of the water in the flimsy cup.
The results were similar when participants were just told about the containers in a written description and did not actually feel them: Low autotelics expressed a willingness to pay more for a firm bottle of water, while high autotelics did not.
"High (vs. low) autotelics receive more pleasure from touching objects, tend to touch them more, and are more consciously aware of the potential effect of haptic clues on product judgment. As a result, they are more capable of adjusting for such clues in their product judgments when they are nondiagnostic in nature," the researchers said.
The study appears in the April issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.