Making portion downsizing commercially acceptable

Wednesday, 01 February, 2017

Make something bigger and everyone hugely underestimates the increase; make something smaller and everyone notices — and if it’s food they are not happy.

Late last year Mondelez in the UK reduced the weight of its Toblerone bars — the 400 g bars were reduced to 360 g and the 170 g bars to 150 g. This size reduction was achieved by increasing the size of the gap between the triangles of chocolate so the pack dimensions were not changed. Even though Mondelez was up front about the change, quoting increasing ingredient prices as a driving factor, consumers were far from impressed. Complaints were rampant across social media and the mainstream global media outlets ran the story.

The message was very clear — consumers do not like downsizing.

What is somewhat surprising is how accurately consumers recognise and quantify downsizing, especially as they are much less able to recognise and quantify upsizing.

In a recent article, The accuracy of less: Natural bounds explain why quantity decreases are estimated more accurately than quantity increases, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, INSEAD Professor of Marketing Pierre Chandon and Nailya Ordabayeva, Assistant Professor of Marketing at Boston College, establish the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ behind consumers’ reactions to downsizing.

They found that when a portion size is halved consumers estimate it to be 53% of its original size, but when portion size is doubled it is judged to be 172% larger rather than 200%.

Apparently this has a lot to do with ‘boundaries’ — when size is reduced zero is the final size possible — ie, there is a finite boundary, but with increases there is no finite boundary.

The researchers also found that consumers were less averse to size decreases when they were estimating the proportion decrease rather than the absolute size change.

As downsizing portions is, in many instances, going to result in healthier diets for consumers, it is important that this downsizing is presented in a way that is acceptable to consumers. It looks like Chandon and Ordabayeva have some insight into how this can be achieved.

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