Siddhanth Mookerjee and his colleagues at the University of British Columbia conducted a series of studies exploring the impact of labeling visually atypical produce “ugly.” They found that despite managers’ and store owners’ reluctance to use that language, it generated more customer purchases than euphemisms such as “imperfect” or simple discounts without a stated reason. The conclusion: To sell an ugly product, just call it that.
Mr. Mookerjee, defend your research.
Mookerjee: Each year in the United States alone, retailers throw away more than $15 billion worth of edible produce, and farmers discard almost a third of their crops because of purely cosmetic imperfections. It’s clear that food waste is a huge issue—both for the environment and for sellers’ bottom lines—but what’s less clear is what we can do to make consumers more willing to buy these visually unattractive fruits and vegetables. For example, we found that 96% of managers think that the best way to market them is to underplay or shift the focus away from their appearance. But our field studies and lab experiments that looked at labeling strategies consistently found that consumers were most likely to purchase atypical produce when it was labeled “ugly.”
HBR: Why do you think that is?
There’s an established psychological phenomenon known as the ugliness penalty, in which people tend to ascribe negative characteristics to unattractive objects. In the context of buying groceries, we found, people did indeed assume that ugly produce would be less tasty and less healthful, and those perceptions drove their purchasing decisions. But when you explicitly acknowledge that produce is ugly, you emphasize the fact that its appearance is the only thing that’s wrong with it—essentially interrupting and counteracting the bias against visually imperfect food.
Are any other factors at play here?
Our research indicates that the main mechanism driving the effectiveness of “ugly” labels is this bias-correction effect. But we did look into a few other drivers.
First, when sellers use honest, straightforward labels like “ugly,” it may make them seem more trustworthy, and prior research suggests that such perceptions can impact buyers’ decisions. We also explored whether these labels led buyers to anthropomorphize the produce—that is, if you call a cucumber ugly, does that make people feel bad for it on some level? Or conversely, does it make people feel bad about themselves when they buy something labeled “ugly,” as if that purchasing choice reflects on their self-worth? Research suggests that in other contexts both kinds of considerations could apply, but we found that neither was a significant factor in our studies.
We did identify one important caveat: It’s important to pair “ugly” labels with the right pricing. Managers often sell unattractive produce at steep discounts, but we found that too steep a discount can send the message that there really is something wrong with the produce beyond its appearance. This essentially counteracts the effect of the “ugly” label, since it triggers people’s biases that large discounts imply low quality. We found that a moderate 20% discount actually led to more purchases than a steep discount of 40% or 60%.
It sounds as if “ugly” labels are pretty effective—so why are they used so rarely?
Most of us instinctively believe that people don’t like unattractive things, so we assume that the best way to promote something with aesthetic flaws is to deemphasize or make light of those flaws. That’s why you see brands like Imperfect Foods and descriptions like “misfit” or “produce with personality.” The issue with this approach is that deemphasizing the problem doesn’t stop people from seeing it. On the contrary, a vague label like “imperfect” doesn’t specify what exactly is wrong with the product, leaving it up to the consumer’s conscious and subconscious to fill in the blanks.
If the issue is that people assume ugly produce is less tasty and less healthful, couldn’t you just tell customers directly that that isn’t true?
You could, but the “ugly” label essentially serves as a shortcut. Especially when they’re shopping for food, people have limited attention and a lot of quick buying decisions to make. If you’re selling luxury cars, a detailed sales pitch might be appropriate, but it’s hard to communicate a lot of nuanced information in the time it takes for a person to decide which tomato to buy. We did run a study to test the impact of displaying a disclaimer noting that visual differences in produce did not correspond to any difference in taste or healthfulness and found that that approach was as effective as “ugly” labeling. But the latter is a lot easier! And in many real-world shopping contexts, it just wouldn’t be feasible to communicate the extra level of information to customers.
Your studies looked at farmers’ markets and produce delivery services. Might the average grocery-store shopper respond differently?
We did our best to account for basic demographic factors like age and gender, but certainly there could be other cultural factors at play, such as socioeconomic status and political views—in particular, interest in environmentalism and food waste. That said, a large body of research suggests that bias against unattractive products applies in a wide variety of contexts regardless of your subcultural group, and it stands to reason that a marketing strategy designed to counteract that bias would be broadly effective as well.
We also looked at international acceptance of “ugly” labels and found that both online and brick-and-mortar stores around the world were consistently reluctant to use those labels. While folks from different cultures and backgrounds might have varying degrees of tolerance for unattractive produce, I’d guess that the underlying bias against it—and thus the effectiveness of identifying and interrupting that bias—would be fairly universal.
OK, so does this mean companies should put “ugly” labels on any unattractive product?
Not necessarily. While we found that this is an effective way to sell produce, we can’t guarantee that a similar strategy would work as well for other kinds of products. There are certainly some well-known examples where it does seem to apply, such as ugly sweaters, but for purchasing decisions with higher stakes and longer decision-making processes, that labeling approach might not be your best bet.
I guess that means we can’t design a similar intervention to counteract lookism or other insidious forms of bias against certain people in broader society?
The ugliness penalty is extremely widespread. You can see it in how people consume content, favor certain businesses, and interact with one another. For example, there’s extensive research on the tendency to see unattractive people as less competent and less sociable.
Studies do suggest that identifying your biases can be an effective way to start counteracting them, in the same way that an “ugly” label implicitly calls out the antipathy toward unattractive produce. But with people our perceptions and interactions are a lot more complex than they are with food.
It’s easier to address bias against a carrot than bias against a person.
Exactly. Especially when it comes to prejudices based on race, gender, and the like, a lot more factors are involved. For example, research that has examined success rates for salespeople relative to their looks has found that while attractive people are more likely to sell some types of products, unattractive people are more likely to sell others. And of course, the inferences we draw about people based on their appearance are hugely context-dependent, as we can reach different conclusions if we’re considering someone as a potential colleague, romantic partner, buyer, or seller. Our biases about people tend to be a lot harder to untangle than the ones we have about produce.