McDonald’s are set to trial a premium burger. The Signature burger range, designed by chefs from Michelin starred restaurants, comes with a thicker patty and a brioche bun, and will be priced at £4.69.
If its trial in 28 restaurants in London, the South and Manchester, is successful then the burgers will be sold nationally.
But how will consumers react? Psychological experiments suggest that regardless of any change to the recipe, consumers will rate the burgers as better.
The higher price and the Michelin pedigree will improve customers’ expectations, which in turn will lead to an improved taste. The fact that our preconceptions determine our experience of a brand is known as expectation assimilation.
One of the most authoritative experiments in this field was conducted in 2008 by Antonio Ragel, an economics professor from CalTech. He served students a range of wines and as they were sampling them he told them the price of each bottle.
While they were savouring the drinks they had to rate the appeal of each one. However, unbeknown to the students the wines, which supposedly cost $90 and $10, were exactly the same.
Despite this the participants reported they liked the more expensive wine significantly more.
In an interesting follow-up, Ragel conducted brain scans while the participants were drinking. When the higher priced wines were sampled there was much higher activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex.
This showed that the taste differences weren’t just self-reported – people were having a genuinely different experience.
It’s not just price that affects our perception of a brand. By building a link with Michelin starred chefs, McDonald’s will prime diners to prefer the burgers.
Brian Wansink, a Cornell University professor, demonstrated this with another ingenious wine experiment. He asked 49 students to rate how much they liked a wine. Half of the students were told it was from California, while the other half were told it was from North Dakota, a state better known for its oil fields than its vineyards.
The wine was rated as 85% better when it supposedly came from California.
These experiments show that the very taste of a drink or meal is determined by expectation. If you think you’re going to have a great meal it increases the chance you will.
McDonald’s, by cleverly tapping into our assumptions about more expensive and Michelin inspired goods, will improve the taste of their burgers. This is likely to have important brand consequences. The biggest benefit for them won’t be the sale of the "Signature" burgers, but the boost in quality perception for the brand as a whole.
Richard Shotton (@rshotton) is head of insight at ZenithOptimedia
McDonald's food development director Duncan Cruttenden and head of food marketing Steve Howells explain why now is the right time to go premium.