Is Your Coffee too Cheap? Using Brainwaves to Test Prices
A German scientist is developing a new way of testing prices by measuring brain waves. Some marketing critics are horrified by the idea of feel-good pricing, but others argue it could make products more successful.
The most subversive criticism of capitalism at the moment comes from the small town of Aspach, in the Swabian-Franconian Forest, a region of southern Germany known for its industrious and energetic inhabitants. Kai-Markus Müller is sitting in his office in a nondescript building, thinking about the coffee-roasting company Starbucks. "Everyone thinks that they've truly figured out how to sell a relatively inexpensive product for a lot of money," he says. "But the odd thing is that even this company doesn't understand it."
It's an almost obscene observation. Müller is convinced that customers would in fact be willing to dig even more deeply into their pockets for products for which Starbucks already charges upmarket prices.
'Classic Market Research Doesn't Work Correctly'
The brain researcher is also a sales professional. Müller used to work for Simon, Kucher and Partners, a leading international consulting firm that helps companies find suitable prices for their products. But he soon lost interest in the job when he recognized that "classic market research doesn't work correctly." From the scientist's perspective, research subjects have only limited credibility when they are asked to honestly state how much money they would spend for a product.
Instead, Müller is searching for "neuronal mechanisms," deeply buried in the human brain, "that we can't just deliberately switch off." In fact, there is a center in our gray matter that monitors proportionality independently of reason. This brain region functions according to simple rules. For instance, coffee and cake makes sense, while coffee and mustard triggers an alarm. Experts recognize the unconscious defensive reaction on the basis of certain waves that become visible with the help of electroencephalography (EEG). Do these graphs also reveal something about consumers' willingness to pay for products?
Using the example of a small cup of coffee, for which Starbucks charged 1.80 ($2.45) in Stuttgart, Müller tried to get to the bottom of the question. He showed subjects the same pot of coffee on a screen several times, but with different prices in each instance. At the same time, an EEG plotted the subjects' brain activity.
Is Starbucks Missing Out on Profits?
According to the study results, the subjects would be willing to pay between 2.10 and 2.40 for a cup of coffee, which is significantly more than Starbucks actually charges. "In other words, the company is missing out on millions in profits, because it is not fully exploiting consumers' willingness to pay money," Müller concludes.
Together with scientists from the Munich University of Applied Sciences, Müller took the experiment a step further. The team of researchers had a vending machine installed in front of the university dining hall, where students could buy coffee for 70 cents and cappuccino for 80 cents. There was no fixed price for a latte macchiato. Instead, students were given the chance to decide for themselves how much to pay for the beverage.
"A study like this has never been done before, even though scientists have been studying brain waves for decades," says Müller. However, some consumers are likely to be horrified by what supporters of so-called neuro pricing are already calling a revolution in marketing: the determination of a feel-good price on the basis of brain testing in the laboratory.
From the perspective of the neuroscientist, however, the fear of the transparent customer is unfounded. "Everyone wins with this method," says Müller. He cites as evidence the tremendously large number of flops in the consumer economy. About 80 percent of all new products disappear from shelves after a short time, never to be seen again.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Stay informed with our free news services:
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2013
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH
Click on the links below for more information about DER SPIEGEL's history, how to subscribe or purchase the latest issue of the German-language edition in print or digital form or how to obtain rights to reprint SPIEGEL articles.
- Frequently Asked Questions: Everything You Need to Know about DER SPIEGEL
- Six Decades of Quality Journalism: The History of DER SPIEGEL
- A New Home in HafenCity: SPIEGEL's New Hamburg HQ
- Reprints: How To License SPIEGEL Articles
Corriere della Sera
MORE FROM SPIEGEL INTERNATIONAL
German PoliticsMerkel's Moves: Power Struggles in Berlin
World War IITruth and Reconciliation: Why the War Still Haunts Europe
EnergyGreen Power: The Future of Energy
European UnionUnited Europe: A Continental Project
Climate ChangeGlobal Warming: Curbing Carbon Before It's Too Late