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.

After conducting brain wave tests, a German scientist believes Starbucks charges too little for a small cup of coffee.

After conducting brain wave tests, a German scientist believes Starbucks charges too little for a small cup of coffee.

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."

Müller, a neurobiologist, isn't criticizing working conditions at the multinational purveyor of hot beverages. Instead, what he means is that the Seattle-based company gives away millions of dollars a year out of pure ignorance. The reason? Starbucks isn't charging enough for its coffee.

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.

Graphic: The Price Is Right

Graphic: The Price Is Right

Especially in the case of extreme offers, strong reactions appeared in the brain within milliseconds. Prices that were either too low or too high, such as 10 cents or €10 per cup, were unacceptable to the brain's control mechanism. "When the brain was expected to process unexpected and disproportionate prices, feelings of shock, doubt and astonishment manifested themselves," Müller reports.

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.

Several weeks and hundreds of hot beverages later, the average price for the popular Italian drink among the Munich students had leveled off at 95 cents. Then Müller went into the laboratory with a smaller subject population. Once again, the subjects were shown prices and their brain waves were measured. The astonishing result was that, on average, the brain signaled its consent at an average price of 95 cents -- apparent proof that the ideal price for a product can be determined without any polling whatsoever.

"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

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schm0e 10/11/2013
1. kapital
Guess you have Marx in your DNA, because your ideas of capitalism are warped. For example, Capitalism is not about " how to sell a relatively inexpensive product for a lot of money". In light of that, it's hard to see the premise as "the most subversive criticism of capitalism." It might be, however, the most subversive assault on the individual and his liberty. Anyway, after the title, it was all downhill for this rant.
spon-facebook-10000523851 10/11/2013
2. Stupidity
Amazing how people stand in line for 30 minutes or longer to purchase overpriced average quality coffee in a paper cup. Must be the same category camping out in front of an electronic store for 48 hours to buy a phone in gold color with an apple on it. Saddening to see how easily the masses can be "trained" to be obedient consumers. Well, they don't deserve any better than being ripped off on a daily basis.
movfaltin 10/11/2013
3. Study Design
What were participants asked to do? Just sit and watch? Or, more probably, answer price-related questions, hit buttons and the like? I cannot imagine how any such study may strongly hint at the acceptability of prices instead of expectation only.
spon-facebook-20012453 10/11/2013
4. Variables
The experiment needs to be refined. You're missing the variable of relative change in price. Sure you can measure brain activity showing "This cup is $X.XX and that cup is $Y.YY." Even though they're the same cup, I bet the brain is processing them as indepenent measurments. Now, my further hypothesis is, the brain activity will be greatly different when you show the change in price. So you show, "This cup cost $X a week ago and now it costs $Y today." That is a vastly different scenario and more closer to what people perceive in the real world: IE change in price. Of course, the above method is probablly best for new products coming to market rather than changing the prices of an existing product.
ninjacville 10/11/2013
5. agree with schmoe above
I agree with schm0e - capitalism is definitely not helped by companies being able to figure out how to price their goods. The companies will not use that to price goods fairly, they will use it to price them just at the edge of our acceptance, but before the product is ignored. Capitalism is about being able to sell your product for what it is worth to the person buying it, at that time in their lives, in that place. All those factors contribute to what someone will pay for a good or service, in addition to level of need, it's all very situational. Consumers refuse when they don't buy, and endorse when they do. Companies can also raise the costs of their goods or services until the point at which consumers start to balk. Free market economics.
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