Since the VW Beatle, “ugly” products have a long history in marketing, but food has been the exception — until now

The launch of Apple’s latest iMac has prompted the usual slew of reviews praising its design and commenting on the company’s single-minded focus on making its products beautiful, sometimes to the detriment of their functionality. The impact that great aesthetic qualities can have on a product is a well-worn path in business research. This is less the case for the opposite. The effect of ugliness on consumers is, perhaps understandably, not such a popular topic. Yet perhaps there is as much to be learned from what is unattractive to the eye as from its opposite. Indeed, a new paper from Canadian researchers Siddhanth (Sid) MookerjeeYann Cornil, and JoAndrea Hoegg supports this view with interesting and socially relevant results. The object of their analysis and subject of their experiments? Ugly produce.

While ugly produce may seem like an odd subject for business school professors to study, there is a real issue here. Because consumers now expect fruits and vegetables to look good all year round, farmers and retailers are forced to throw away an excessive amount of consumable product purely for cosmetic reasons (worth over $15B/year). As an industry group notes:

More than 82o million people go hungry every day, while the world as a whole wastes or loses 1/3 of what is produced. In the case of fruits and vegetables, almost half (45%) is wasted. In our world of increasing extreme weather events and changes in climate, saving ugly fruit isn’t only an issue of ethics, it is a question of resources. Valuable natural resources go into producing the food we throw away. It takes 13 litres of water to grow 1 tomato and 50 litres of water to produce one orange. It also takes seeds, soil, labour of farmers and even the fuel that goes into transporting the food. All of these resources are lost when the fruit (pun intended) of these labours is lost.

Food waste, the authors note, “also has damaging consequences for the environment: 96% of wasted food is left to decompose in landfills, resulting in the release of methane, a greenhouse gas that traps solar radiation and contributes to climate change.” In the bigger picture, food waste “leads to a waste of other valuable resources: 1.4 billion hectares of land and 25% of the world’s fresh water are used to grow produce that will be later thrown away.”

This situation, the authors believe, need not be so dire. They set out to find if a simple labeling strategy might change how consumers see imperfect produce and change buying behaviors. The team’s belief was no doubt based, in part, on the fact that there have been attempts by retailers to go down this road before. A well-known case was French retailer Intermarche which, in 2014, introduced ugly labeling to promote produce whose only flaws were cosmetic. Despite the success of the effort, most retailers did not follow their lead. As the authors note:

…we interviewed 52 grocery store managers across North America with an average of 12 years of experience, and asked them to indicate which of four labeling options (“ugly,” “imperfect,” “with personality,” or no specific label) they would use to promote unattractive produce sold at a discounted price. Of the 52 respondents, 46% stated that they would not use any label and that just the discount was enough, followed by 33% preferring “imperfect” labeling, 17% prefer ring “with personality” labeling, and only 4% preferring “ugly” labeling. We also asked them to select the worst option, and 75% mentioned “ugly” labeling.

The authors further note that:

In fact, major brick-and mortar retailers such as Whole Foods, Loblaws (in Canada), and Tesco (in England), as well as online retailers Imperfect Foods (imperfectfoods.com) and Perfectly Imperfect Produce (perfectlyimperfectproduce.com), have preferred to use a more understated label: “imperfect.” Retailers have also utilized labels that attempt to positively frame visual atypicality, such as “produce with personality” (Giant Eagle), “misfit” (Hy-Vee), or “pickuliar” (Koger).

It’s not that much of a stretch to understand the retailers’ reluctance to adopt the word ugly to label their produce. After all, extensive research has shown that consumers generally assign a “beauty premium” to attract people and impose a “beauty penalty” on their opposite. Nonetheless, the authors believed that Intermarche was on to something back in 2014, so they conducted a series of experiments to test their hypothesis that ugly labeling could increase produce sales.

The experiments themselves were designed to measure consumer reactions to three attributes:

  • Tastiness: hedonic multisensory qualities, i.e., not only its flavor but also its juiciness or crispiness 

  • Healthiness: nutritional value

  • Naturalness: the absence of chemicals (e.g., pesticides, preservatives), which is characteristic of organic produce 

The last bullet is especially relevant since “several studies suggest that consumers expect natural, organic, and/or pesticide-free produce to be less attractive”. In other words, the team wanted to see if ugliness could be a positive trait, given this general association in the minds of many consumers. 

As for the experiments themselves, they took different forms. In one study (of six in total), the team set up a stall at a farmer’s market and offered consumers both “normal” produce and cosmetically flawed produce. Every other hour, they labeled the latter ugly and measured sales. In this in-person setting, the authors found that “buyers were more likely to purchase unattractive produce (sold at a discounted price) over attractive produce when the unattractive produce was labeled “ugly,” compared with a control condition in which unattractive produce was not labeled in any specific way.” This finding, notes the paper, goes “against managers’ intuition that merely discounting unattractive produce, without using any specific label, should be more effective than using an ‘ugly’ label.”

The second study repeated the first one online, with similar results, while a subsequent experiment explored the issue of perceived tastiness. Here, the team found that “people judge unattractive produce less tasty than attractive produce, but not necessarily less healthy; thus, the effect of “ugly” labeling on choice is mediated to a larger extent by tastiness expectations than by healthiness expectations.”

Perhaps the most interesting finding from the research concerns the impact of pricing for ugly produce. In the fifth experiment, the researchers applied various discount levels to ugly produce offered alongside normal product. The team found that a 20% discount significantly increased sales. A 40% discount increased sales directionally but not significantly, and a 60% discount actually decreased sales. Although more affordable, the authors note, “produce with a 60% discount and an “ugly” label was expected to be less tasty and less healthy than produce with a 20% discount and an “ugly” label.” This finding, they add, “is in line with our contention that steep discounts send a signal conflicting with the “ugly” label regarding produce quality.”

Overall, whether in-person or online, the combination of ugly labeling with a reasonable price discount consistently increased the interest in (as measured by online advertising clicks) and sales of cosmetically flawed produce. Reflecting on their findings, the team theorized that ugly “labeling increases acceptance of unattractive produce because it corrects for consumers’ biased, negative expectations about unattractive produce.” As expected, ugly labeling also improved perceptions of tastiness and healthiness, though not for naturalness, which was not generally in question.

The findings themselves present an interesting lesson for produce makers and food retailers, but they also offer issues for wider consideration. For example, the authors note that “explicitly pointing out the source of biased attitudes—in this case, produce unattractiveness— motivates validity-driven corrections of attitudes.” In other words, signaling a bias to a consumer can be an effective mechanism to drive reflection and reconsideration of that bias when considering a purchase.

In addition, the research considers the role that any negative information plays in consumer decision-making. In this case, the only new information presented to consumers was negative, and yet it had a positive sales impact. This finding goes against past research that suggests new negative information should be balanced with positive messages — i.e., brands should present a two-sided argument. In explaining this potential conflict, the authors theorize that “two-sided arguments preempt counterarguments by explicitly addressing favorable and opposing views,” but ugly labeling draws “consumers’ attention to a nondiagnostic cue that was biasing their judgment.”

There is, of course, a long and proud history of using ugly to sell products. In the 1960s, VW did so brilliantly when they launched the Beatle. More recently, brands such as Ugg and Birkenstock have taken to accepting their lack of aesthetic appeal as somehow essential to their brand identity. Even products — think Pontiak Aztek and AMC pacer — once hated for their ugliness can find new fans decades after leaving the market. Food, though, has generally remained off-limits to this phenomenon. It’s one thing to wear something ugly, but it’s another thing to eat it seems to be the industry’s conventional wisdom. That may be true. On the other hand, as this new research shows, perhaps it’s time for food brands and retailers to revisit this issue more thoughtfully. More than increased sales, the social and environmental benefits of breaking through this perceptual barrier may well be worth the effort.

The Research

Mookerjee S (Sid), Cornil Y, Hoegg J. From Waste to Taste: How “Ugly” Labels Can Increase Purchase of Unattractive Produce. Journal of Marketing. 2021;85(3):62-77. doi:10.1177/0022242920988656

Posted by:Carlos Alvarenga