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The value of doubt

Marketing professor sees opportunity in uncertainty


Creating doubt in consumers' minds doesn't sound like a branding opportunity. But research by Kyoungmi Lee, an assistant professor of marketing, suggests that consumers are less likely to hold onto existing ideas about a brand if they're made to feel a sense of difficulty thinking about it, especially when time-pressured.

Kyoungmi LeeLee said it's the same thing that happens at a busy fast-food restaurant.

If you feel pressure to make a decision because of the huge line behind you, anything that makes you feel that you don't understand the brand -- a new menu or logo or a change in packaging -- may prompt you to choose your meal based on whatever information you have, including in-store advertising telling you the menu item is "new" or "fresh."

Lee's research was conducted with Sharon Shavitt, a professor in business administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The two studied consumer perceptions about the healthfulness of foods offered at McDonald's. Their research appears in the Journal of Marketing Research.

"McDonald's is not perceived as being healthy, but they're trying hard to change that perception," Lee said.

Lee set out to study how brands like McDonald's that have an established identity can motivate consumers to listen to new information. She hypothesized that consumers don't listen to marketing claims because they think they already know the brand.

"I hypothesized that if I made them doubt their level of understanding, they'd be more motivated to listen to new information," Lee said.

Lee had consumers take a survey that included a question about how likely they would be to order from the "wide variety" available at McDonald's. Some of the consumers who took the survey were given one with blurry print, to create doubt about their understanding of McDonald's.

"When working with blurry print, or especially when they felt time pressure, people are more motivated to have some closure," Lee said. "They try to seize on any information, like ‘wide variety.' In a normal, familiar setting, they don't pay attention to marketing."


Photo: Kyoungmi Lee and her intentionally hard-to-read survey (on the left).