Believe it or Not: The Placebo Effect & Marketing Purposeful Products

The Institute for Placebo Studies published a fascinating study about placebo drug effects on patients with Parkinson’s disease. Patients performed significantly better if they believed that the experimental drug cost $1,500 instead of $100.

While this study is clearly of interest to medical practitioners, I think it raises an important question for marketers too: if this is how our brains work — if we can believe things into being — what does that tell us about how to position our products?

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Willing to Pay a Premium

My local farmers’ market is way out of my price range, but it’s always mobbed by people who believe that the vegetables are fresher and uber organic and super nutritious. They’re more than willing to pay the premium, and I can only assume it’s because they believe that the products are superior. Trust also plays a part – conscious shoppers probably find it easier to trust produce when they buy directly from the people who grow it.

While I love to see local farmers doing well, it is jarring to see the produce cost so much more than the produce at my local organic market. I wonder if it’s the higher cost of the products in the farmers’ market that makes these shoppers believe their quality is correspondingly higher.

According to theories of cognitive dissonance, people experience mental stress or discomfort when they hold contradictory beliefs and are naturally prone to try to lessen the dissonance to reduce the stress.

It is uncomfortable to simultaneously believe “I just paid twice as much for this product” and “it has the same value as a product that costs less” because that would mean you made a poor decision from a cost-benefit point of view. To combat any regrets or uneasiness, we believe “it is a superior product” to justify and re-affirm our choices.

When we actually use the product, we probably believe the experience is superior too, regardless of whether it is. This helps us keep our whole network of thoughts in accordance so we can be comfortable with our decision to pay more.

The Danger of the Placebo Effect

When we move into the space of products created by for-benefit companies, B Corps and other kinds of social enterprises, the placebo effect and our natural aversion to cognitive dissonance become important factors to consider.

According to the study Do Green Products Make Us Better People?, consumers feel better about themselves when they choose products that are good for the world because it boosts their moral self-image. They make these purchases for a variety of reasons, some of which may be altruistic, but they also enjoy the positive feelings they themselves experience.

Based on the findings regarding the placebo effect, I imagine that if a consumer believes that a product benefits others or is good for the world, it doesn’t matter whether it does or not – that consumer will experience the boost in self-image, just like a patient feels better after receiving a placebo.

Awareness Is The Answer

As marketers, we have to put information out there to help people see which products really have a positive impact. If we don’t differentiate, a well-intentioned shopper can easily get their kicks from choosing products that really don’t do much good at all.

I know that B Corps are better companies. They are better because they make products with less environmental impact, compensate workers fairly, insist on safe factories or offices and source raw materials at a fair price. Does my belief that B Corp companies are better influence my experience with B Corp products?

I do believe B Corp products are better, and occasionally I even pay more for them. But are they really better? Would they outperform competitors on an unbiased measure of superiority? I don’t know and like many consumers, I’m not going to take the time to investigate. My belief that these companies are better probably makes my experience with the products better.

In your marketing, are you really showing consumers that your company is better? Are you proving that your pricing, if it comes at a premium, is actually worth it? Are you delivering a product that can be believable as superior? Most importantly, are you helping your customers feel better about buying from you? If not, you could be losing business to the fakers, and your customers won’t even know the difference.


As RoundPeg’s partner and creative director, Polina has over 20 years experience turning complex concepts into compelling visual communications. She also knows how to speak Russian and make delicious sauerkraut! Polina enjoys knitting despite her fear of pointy objects and loves nothing better than curling up with a good book and a cup of tea. See more posts by Polina..

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