Brian Wansink doesn’t have much regard for your palate and his methods for showing why are an entertaining mix of award-winning research and prankish humor. The applied economics and management professor, who heads the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, explained as much in his keynote address at the Fall 2013 Terry Master of Marketing Research Advisory Board Meeting at the Terry Executive Education Center in Atlanta. According to Wansink, that the names given to food, its presentation, and its placement in a restaurant or cafeteria all have a greater impact on what you eat than your sense of taste.
“Even if people know this about their nature it doesn’t matter, we are much less taste sensitive than we think,” says Wansink, who told the audience of 50 market researchers, Terry faculty, and alumni how he increased positive customer feedback at a restaurant without changing anything but the names of the food. Bad food, according to the customers who panned it before, but praised it after Wansink re-christened the items.
According to Wansink the “same dried-up fish stick as before” was renamed the “Succulent Italian Fish Filet,” and the chocolate cake became “Belgian Black Forest Double Chocolate Cake.” The author of the best-seller “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think,” joked that it didn’t take long for customers eating the dessert to opine about their summers in Antwerp despite never having set foot across the Atlantic.
“It didn’t matter that the Black Forest isn’t even in Belgium, they liked the cake better,” says Wansink, whose presentation “Slim By Design: Behavior Economic Solutions to Eating Better," had the audience of professionals and academics laughing at the foibles of our human nature. “There were better ratings for the food overall and they even labeled the restaurant as ‘trendy’. We even had someone comment that the food was better because the chef had more years of European culinary training – and this was the same cook who had been fired from Arby’s a month ago.”
It doesn’t hurt that Wansink delivers his findings with a hint of devilish glee that with his defined jawline, prominent forehead, and strawberry blond coif parted to the side makes the professor’s slight resemblance to late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien become more pronounced. Watch this three-minute excerpt from an episode of ABC’s 20/20 where he tricks interns into believing that they ate strawberry yogurt. The students were so convinced that they tasted strawberries that they think the real prank is happening when Wansink and ABC’s John Stoessel confess to the group that Wansink fed them vanilla yogurt mixed with chocolate sauce.
It’s a presentation that adds to the celebrity of the professor’s press guide: Best-selling author, ABC World News Person of the Week, and appearances on CNN, 60 Minutes, and even Penn and Teller’s original documentary series on Showtime.
However, behind the funny stories and television appearances is an insight that holds tremendous power: When it comes to eating habits, not only do people have no idea what they like to eat, but they also have no idea why they make the decisions they do.
Wansink, who earned a Presidential appointment as Executive Director of the USA’s Center for Nutritional Policy and Promotion (2007-2009), is taking the work he’s done at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and experiments at other eateries, buffets, and cafeterias to help people change their eating habits for the better, including the introduction of smaller “100 calorie packs” to prevent overeating, the use of taller glasses in bars to prevent the over-pouring of alcohol, and the creation of smarter lunchroom designs.
“The first thing you see in a school lunch room is a garbage can, which is a symbol of how much work we have to do,” says Wansink, who disagrees with the typical knee-jerk response of public policy administrators to ban items like ice cream, chocolate milk, or pizza in school cafeterias as the solution to the problem. By simply changing the logistics of a school lunchroom, Wansink generated a dramatic increase in the consumption of fruits and vegetables without the drops in attendance that typically comes from banning foods.
“We asked the schools to put fruit in a nice bowl under a nice light and place it near the cash register,” says Wansink about an experiment he conducted with a district in upstate New York that was offering grants to the schools that could increase fruit consumption by 5 percent. Wansink’s simple changes yielded a 100 percent increase in all but one school that tried his approach. “That one school didn’t have a nice light – just a desk lamp they got from a supply closet – and they had an 187 percent increase.”
The professor also notes that his research not only helps individuals trying to maintain a healthy weight, but it also aids restaurants seeking a more efficient, cost-effective management of its resources. Even the military has taken notice; Wansink’s appearance at Terry came on the heels of a consultation at Fort Bragg.
“Brian is one of the few academics in marketing that has changed the world,” says marketing department head Charlotte Mason.