Gatton Professor Examines How Performance Brands Can Cause Placebo Effects

Firms frequently promise consumers that use of their brands will improve performance outcomes. Whether it's a high school athlete considering the premier brands of basketball shoes, or a college student weighing which graduate test prep course to take, a ubiquitous marketing message remains “you will perform better with us.”

A new research study led by Aaron Garvey, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Kentucky's Gatton College of Business and Economics, reveals that brands can improve human performance through purely psychological means that are unrelated to functional differences in a branded product’s materials, craftsmanship, or design.

"In our research, we examine whether the mere belief that a particular brand is effective at enhancing performance can actually result in better performance outcomes, while holding product functionality constant" said Garvey. "That is, we examine if brands can induce a placebo effect upon performance."

The results of the study, soon to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research, indicate that using particular brands can positively impact human performance in athletic and test-taking contexts.

Together with fellow investigators Lisa Bolton of Penn State University and Frank Germann of the University of Notre Dame, Garvey conducted multiple experiments to determine how brands cause such a placebo effect.

"In one study, we invited participants to take part in a market research study about a new, prototype golf putter," said Garvey. "All participants used the exact same golf putter to complete several putts on a putting green. However, we manipulated the label such that one group of participants believed they were putting with a Nike putter (a strong performance brand), whereas those in another group were provided with no brand information about the putter. Although all participants used the same putter, those who thought that it was a Nike putter needed significantly fewer putts to sink the golf ball (approximately a 20% improvement). Thus, our results indicate that strong performance brands can elicit a placebo effect that objectively improves outcomes in an athletic context."

In another study, participants took part in a moderately challenging math test. “All participants were told that they would be wearing a pair of foam ear plugs to minimize distractions and improve concentration. Each participant again received the exact same ear plugs; however, the package labels were manipulated such that half of the participants believed that the ear plugs were made by 3M (a strong performance brand), whereas the other half received no brand information. Those who thought that the ear plugs were made by 3M answered significantly more questions correctly.”

Why does this placebo effect emerge? "Our results indicate that performance brands help through reducing performance anxiety during the task, which in turn leads to better performance outcomes," said Garvey. “Specifically, participants using a strong performance brand (versus a weak brand or no brand information) felt better about themselves when undertaking the task. This heightened, task specific self-esteem buffered against otherwise detrimental performance anxiety.”

Garvey said the research team also discovered some important factors that can strengthen or weaken this performance brand placebo effect.

“First, we discovered that not everyone benefits equally from this performance brand placebo," said Garvey. "The effect is strongest among people who consider themselves novices in the respective task, whereas experts receive little or no boost. People who are inexperienced at a task (e.g., golf putting or math tests) have more self-doubts and performance anxiety that the brand helps to alleviate, whereas experts already have high task specific self-esteem and low performance anxiety when undertaking the task."

In addition, Garvey and his team found that the brand placebo effect only emerges when participants firmly believe that the brand is effective at improving performance. For example, in a golfing context, a very prestigious brand that is not strongly associated with athletics (e.g., Gucci) did not elicit the placebo effect. Thus it is not enough to be a premium brand — the brand must also have strong credibility at improving performance in the task domain.

Furthermore, this study also indicates that consumers who benefit from the placebo do not increase the amount of credit given to the brand but rather take more credit for themselves.

Generally, the results indicate that performance brands can improve consumers’ athletic as well as cognitive performance. This finding leads to interesting insights for both consumers and brand managers.

"An important takeaway for consumers is that using a strong brand can actually improve your performance outcomes — even if that brand does not actually have functional advantages. However, you must strongly believe in that brand’s capability to improve your performance," said Garvey.

"Brand managers should be excited to learn that mere beliefs about their brands can provide customers with tangible benefits in the form of improved performance. Hence, we recommend emphasizing the performance characteristics of your brands, and positioning brands on those performance dimensions.”

Again, the full manuscript will be published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Consumer Research.