Appendix: Academic Research Relevant to Branding for Food Businesses - A Literature Review
Influences on Customer Perception of Restaurant Brands
A model commonly used to examine consumer behavior in the context of experiential businesses is the stimulus-organism-response (SOR) model. Stimuli present in the environment induce affect change in an organism, which causes a response. Goi et al. identify aesthetics, layout, ambient conditions, comfort, service quality, in-store music and aroma as influential stimuli in a restaurant and cafe setting; these stimuli induce pleasure in the consumer (the organism), leading to a response, such as revisit intention, store satisfaction, and/or store loyalty (2014).
Studies referencing the SOR model examine how changing the environment (stimuli) affects the organism’s perceptions and responses. The physical environment affects consumer perception of food businesses; atmospherics even may encourage customers to perceive service and food quality more positively, as demonstrated in a Korean restaurant setting (Ha & Jang, 2012). Chang et al. (2011) also found direct effects of ambient and design characteristics of environments on consumers’ positive emotional responses to the environment, but in a retail context, where atmospherics influenced impulse buying behavior. Their results may be extrapolated to restaurants and cafes, for which ambient and design characteristics are important qualities.
Music: Spence (2017) mentions auditory stimuli primes drink preferences; playing French music causes more customers to order French wine while playing German music lead to higher German wine sales in the same environment. If your brand centers around a particular location or place, playing music from that region places customers in that environment.
A 2019 study also demonstrates the impact of multiple environmental factors (including sound) on taste perception and evaluation. Researchers analyze the joint effects of background music and plate color on taste, playing high- and low- arousal background music and serving food on red (high-arousal) and blue (low-arousal) plates (Cho et al., 2019). When two stimuli have "congruent arousal qualities," participants liked the food more and prercieved it to be higher quality compared to food in "incongruent arousal conditions" (2019). In other words, with high arousal background music, participants gave higher evaluations for a food item served on a red (vs blue) plate. Conversely, when low arousal music was played, the blue plate led to higher food evaluations compared to the red plate.
Cho et al. acknowledge that this is consistent with prior research suggesting slow tempos encourage people to slow down while powerful and heavy music influences taste to also be percieved as such (2019). The authors note that restaurants designed to be warm and welcoming like Pret a Manger "may want play slow tempo, classical background music to match with their wooden, tone-down interior." Contrastingly, energetic restaurants "serving food on high-arousal colorful plates (e.gYO!Sushi) may find it helpful to play fast tempo music to enhance customers’ food perceptions” (2019).
Space Design: Despite consciously knowing angular furniture won’t endanger us, the amygdala - a part of our brain involved in fear processing - responds implicitly to non-conscious visual cues of threat, exhibiting higher activity when viewing sharp everyday objects like a sofa with sharp corners compared to its curved counterpart (Bar & Neta, 2007). Using round forms to would create a sense of safety and warmth, promoting comfort. That's not to say angular forms should never be used; merely that it would be incongruent if a brand is centered around being homey or comforting. Sharper forms may be compatible with a more avant-garde look.
Light & Color: Yellow lighting, compared to other colors, has been found to increase appetite (Spence, 2017). Appetite is also stimulated when the ambient lighting matches the color of food; as most foods tend to be warm-toned.
In addition to physical touchpoints, stimuli in a digital environment also have potential implications on consumer perceptions of a brand. Color influences our visual judgment of food via associations and prior experience; cues in photos can prime our expectations of sourness, sweetness, bitterness, flavor strength, and freshness. Background, plate, and cup color had been shown to influence arousal, and subsequently, perception of taste and evaluation of food. Cai and Chi (2020) revealed that the red and green brightness of food pictures affects on customers’ food evaluation and food consumption behavioral intentions. An image with higher levels of red brightness, versus the same control image or the image with higher green brightness, leads to more favorable intention and willingness to pay. Red brightness demonstrates a significant effect on customers’ affective food evaluations of arousal and perceived tastiness - this is consistent with previous findings on human judgment of natural foods (Cai & Chi, 2020). As “people rely mainly on the red and green color brightness to evaluate nutritional and appetitive properties of natural/raw food” (Foroni et al., 2016, as cited in Cai & Chi, 2020). Although changing “red brightness does not alter customers’ perception of food healthiness,” increasing it “accentuates customers’ perception of calorie content” (2020). Cai & Chi suggest that “restaurants that feature a healthy theme should be cautious when manipulating the red brightness of their food pictures” (2020).
Spence (2019) summarizes multiple studies when concluding red, blue, and purple are more commonly associated with sweetness while green, yellow, and orange were rarely associated with sweetness regardless of participant’s region. Is it a coincidence that the colors perceived as "non-sweet" common colors of vegetables? Conversely, with blue (a color not commonly found in nature), Shankar et al. (2010) found that people across cultures may associate different flavors with the same color; “the majority of the young Taiwanese consumers tested in one study expected a transparent blue drink to the taste of mint, whereas young British consumers expected a raspberry-flavored drink instead” (as cited in Spence, 2019). But with the rise of coconutty blue spirulina lattes, perhaps the next generation will expect blue drinks to taste like coconut.
Rather than change the food business owners serve based on whether or not the color exudes certain associations, this body of research implies color does have a substantial non-conscious impact on consumer perception.
Service: For high-end restaurants, service quality directly affects both customer satisfaction and brand image (Erkman & Hancer, 2019). Consistent with previous literature, a positive brand image leads to brand trust, which affects brand preference where customers choose you over similar alternatives (2019). The study was done in fine dining restaurants, defined as where people pay a premium price for fine food, and where there’s a “high level of employee-customer contact” (2019). The context of the study suggests “high-touch” businesses where staff frequently interact with customers need to be more vigilant to their service quality and how their employees express the brand compared to “lower-touch” businesses.
Another service study in a restaurant environment is Chen and Peng’s 2015 paper, which focuses on customer loyalty in full-service restaurants whose environment and products are “carefully prepared and presented, unique, superior in quality and conspicuous.” The researchers examine the effects of intangible stimuli like service quality and atmospherics on diner’s emotions and subsequent consumer loyalty. Loyalty is defined as the intent to return and willingness to recommend the establishment to others.
As previous research on luxury consumption relates to tangible goods rather than services, this study wants to see if existing theories on luxury consumption should be adjusted for intangible service-based products. The researchers found that food quality, service quality, atmospherics, and other customers (the stimuli) significantly influences customers’ positive and negative emotions (organism), which affects their subsequent loyalty (response). Whether consumer expectations are low or high moderates the relationship between stimuli and emotions. If diners have high levels of expectation, low service quality triggers negative emotions. In other words, if consumers have high expectations and you meet them, it won’t significantly increase positive emotions; you will, however, trigger negative emotions, by failing to meet their expectations. If diners have low expectations, atmospherics influence positive emotions; exceeding their expectations for ambiance makes them happy and therefore more likely to be loyal to your brand. Another paper in Cornell Hospitality Quarterly (Hyun, 2010) validates the hypothesis that food quality, service quality, price, location, and environment all influence customer satisfaction and therefore loyalty. Satisfaction and service quality are positively linked with trust, and subsequently brand loyalty (Hyun, 2010).
Fits and Fakes: Brand Alliances & Hypocrisy
We view brands as schemas in memory, or concept maps of associations. Two brands are perceived as having brand fit if their schemas share commonalities. These commonalities usually align along the types of benefits brands deliver - functional, experiential, or symbolic (Samuelsen et al, 2014), or their positioning - essentially, why two brands would be “friends” with each other. The more commonalities there are between brands, the higher the brand fit.
Lin (2012) showed that brand fit positively influences the success of co-branding strategies in a hotel context, and mediates the relationship between brand familiarity and purchase intention. Ashton & Scott (2011) also demonstrated that brand fit is positively associated with purchase intention restaurant context (as cited in Lin, 2012). A higher degree of perceived fit leads to greater acceptance of a brand alliance. However, it seems too simple to just say to brands, “find a good fit and you’re set.” In addition to having value alignment, businesses who want to engage in co-branding must convince their audience that the alliance delivers value in ways each individual business cannot.
The elaboration likelihood model (ELM) can explain how consumers judge the fit of a potential brand alliance. It states we process incoming information using either a central path or a peripheral path, depending on our motivation, ability, and interest in elaborating on a message as well as our attentional capacity (Cacioppo & Petty, 1984). While we use both paths to make decisions, one may take precedence depending on whether we have a low or high elaboration likelihood (1984). If elaboration likelihood is high, we engage the central path and dedicate greater cognitive resources to the contents of the message, cognitively assessing the validity of its arguments. This leads to deeper processing and longer-lasting attitude (and relevant behavioral) change (1984). However, when elaboration likelihood and attention are low (eg. when we are distracted or have to expend cognitive resources on another task), we process information along the peripheral route. Instead of assessing contents and argument strength, we perform more superficial processing of peripheral cues, which leads to temporary attitude change (1984). Samuelsen et al. propose that a customer’s situational involvement mediates their perception of brand fit by influencing whether they engage the central or peripheral route.
“Situational involvement” refers to consumers’ perception of the brand alliance’s relevance to their needs, goals, and desires (Samuelsen et al., 2014). It’s reasonable to assume that a brand’s core audience has high situational involvement, while non-core-audience consumers have lower situational involvement. Consumers with high situational involvement are more likely to be persuaded using a central argument and elaboration - eg. the benefits of Brand A fit with the benefits of Brand B, so the benefits of the two combined are more valuable or meaningful than A or B independently (2014).
Customers who are less involved are more likely to engage the peripheral route; they acknowledge that the benefits of Brand A fit with the benefits of Brand B, but may not elaborate on the argument; for example, if someone using the peripheral route likes both brand A and B, they’ll like the new A+B (Samuelsen et al, 2014). After all, a message’s source is more salient than its content under the peripheral route (Cacioppo & Petty, 1984).
High brand fit increases the likelihood that consumers will use the central route of processing, thereby increasing the audience’s sensitivity to the brand alliance message (Samuelsen et al, 2014). Consumers accept that A and B can have a shared message, and become curious about what that is. Samuelsen et al. hypothesize that under low situational involvement, higher brand fit will lead to more positive alliance attitudes, and with “increasing situational involvement, fit obtains more informational value in its own right, producing increased argument quality sensitivity” (2014). The more situationally involved the audience is, the more sensitive they are to the arguments brands make about why the alliance is beneficial, having positive feelings toward the alliance if it has both high fit and strong arguments. The ELM supports this assertion; an engaged audience attends to the contents (arguments) of a message more, compared to less engaged recipients who attend to mostly peripheral cues. The implication for brands is that for your core audience, you need both brand fit and strong arguments; fit alone is insufficient to guarantee alliance success.
For more involved consumers, higher fit “could not negate the negative impact of weak message arguments” (Samuelsen et al, 2014) - brands also need a convincing message. The authors advise against selecting alliances based solely on fit, as even if involved customers find the alliance to be personally relevant, fit alone is insufficient without strong arguments of relevance for the target market (2014). Brands can consider lower-fitting alliances backed with strong arguments if they can repeatedly expose the target audience to their alliance message (2014).
Well-chosen alliances produce brand synergy; the allied brand is seen as more desirable or perceived to have stronger credibility in comparison to each individual brand. Blackett and Russell define co-branding as when two or more brands with significant customer recognition cooperate in a partnership, for the purpose of delivering additional value to their customers (1999). Co-branding strategies foster an alignment of brand values (Blackett & Russell, 1999); value endorsement (eg. the UK’s Royal Insurance sponsoring shows at the Royal Shakespeare Company) transfers values associated with one brand to another and ingredient branding - emphasizing a strongly branded ingredient within a product like PCs with Intel chips - reinforces a brand image through association.
While effective alliances boost credibility, forming value-incongruent and non-aligned partnerships demonstrates brand hypocrisy. Brands perceived as being hypocritical lead to brand avoidance, where consumers reject the brand and keeping the brand at a distance to avoid undesirable associations (Guèvremont, 2019). Four common types of brand hypocrisy are: failing to deliver on your promises put words into action (image hypocrisy), not acknowledging your negative impact on society or consumer well-being (mission hypocrisy), supporting social responsibility initiatives insincerely (social hypocrisy) (Guèvremont, 2019). McDonald’s and Budweiser are two examples of companies accused of corporate hypocrisy for pushing incongruous messages - the former for sponsoring the Olympics while being linked to the obesity epidemic and the latter for mocking craft breweries in advertising despite owning microbreweries (2019). Image, mission, and message hypocrisy also correlated with negative word-of-mouth (2019).
Self-determination theory (SDT) can explain why consumers have a distaste for brand hypocrisy. From the perspective of SDT, humans are intrinsically motivated to perform certain behaviors due to their underlying psychological need for autonomy, relatedness, and/or competence (Ryan & Deci, 2000). By willingly supporting a brand they previously perceived to be value-aligned, they are exercising autonomy in asserting their self-image. That autonomy is threatened when the brand’s image proves to be incongruent with the consumer’s self-image. By supporting a hypocritical brand, customers are performing an action that is inauthentic to their self-conception. This causes a negative sense of wellbeing (Ryan et al., 2005) as customers have trouble reconciling their self-perception with the action.
The act of buying from brands one likes and perceives as authentic also contributes to a sense of self-realization; “a brand reflects and realizes a consumer’s actual self-congruence" by being authentic (Fritz & Schoenmueller, as cited in Jian et al, 2019). Off-brand actions are perceived as inauthentic and cause people to distance themselves from the brand, as engaging with an inauthentic brand prompts internal conflict that detracts from customers’ sense of wellbeing (Ryan et al., 2005). Customers don't want to perform actions that contradict their self-perception, such as supporting a brand that is behaving inauthentically.
Another driver of behavior under self-determination theory is relatedness; people are more willing to engage in behaviors that cause them to feel connected to something, be that a family, peer group, or other entity (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Brands that facilitate a sense of belonging are better at motivating behaviors from consumers as they help their audience internalize the reason for doing something - to express membership in or connection with a brand identity. It’s possible that hypocrisy is also jarring because it refutes the sense of relatedness consumers previously experienced through identification with a brand community.
Authentic brand communities, on the other hand, can fiercely motivate action by appealing to consumers’ sense of self as well as their desire for relatedness. Fritz and Schoenmueller found that behavioral consequences of brand authenticity actually include increased consumer willingness to forgive missteps, along with brand loyalty, purchase intention, intent to recommend (2017). Authentic brands - brands perceived as genuine - uphold properties of continuity, originality, reliability, and naturalness (Fritz & Schoenmueller, 2017). Fritz and Schoenmueller indicate the desire for authenticity is particularly strong in times of uncertainty and change - this statement is highly resonant in the midst of a global pandemic and political turmoil. With increasing market transparency and homogenization of the marketplace, “authenticity serves as evidence of quality and differentiation for consumers” (2017).
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