When ‘science-based’ backfires
Science-based messaging doesn’t work well for products bought for fun and pleasure - it can make people 30% less likely to choose your product
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Have you ever seen an ad for ice cream explaining the chemistry behind how it’s made?
Or a sign at a flower shop telling you about the fertilizers used to grow your roses?
You probably haven’t - and it’s not by chance. While science-focused messaging works well for many products, for others it backfires.
P.S.: When it comes to ways to improve your business, nothing beats ‘science-based’. You and 16,932 other Ariyh readers know that.
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Science-based messaging backfires for products that are bought for fun and pleasure
Channels: Messaging | Ads | Copywriting | Content | Brand positioning
Research date: May 2022
If people buy your product mainly for fun or pleasure (a dessert, a sports car) avoid science in your messaging, it comes across as cold and hurts sales.
If people buy your product mainly for its functionality or its effectiveness at something specific (e.g. a moisturizer, a camera), science-based messaging helps you appear more competent.
For products bought for emotional reasons, science-based messages make people less likely to choose the product. If products are being bought for functionality or specific uses, scientific messaging can work effectively.
As part of a series of 5 studies, researchers found that people:
Were 30.48% less likely to choose a cookie when a science-based message was used to describe it (“scientifically developed to have a luscious chocolatey taste” vs “luscious chocolatey taste”)
Said they were 12% less likely to buy a smoothie when it was introduced as having a “rigorous scientific development process”
The effect weakens or disappears:
If the messaging focuses on how science helps with the utility or effectiveness of the product.
When it’s clear why science was important for the product’s development
For ‘science-lovers’ (e.g. people who don’t consider science to be ‘cold’, trust scientists, or work in STEM)
🧠 Why it works
When there’s a mismatch between a product’s messaging and how we perceive a product, it turns us off from the product.
For example, adding an organic label to unhealthy foods can cause them to lose value, because of the mismatch of healthy ingredients in a “treat”.
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The experiments focused on items like cookies where science is not naturally very relevant to people - the effect doesn’t apply to products where science-based innovation is relevant.
The effect may be stronger or weaker in different cultures based on how people perceive science (see science as more positive = effect is weaker).
🏢 Companies using this
Many brands emphasize scientific messaging when talking about the product’s utility, while focusing on one’s senses when discussing feelings.
Products like body washes, creams, and makeup either focus on practical benefits or emotional appeals, but rarely mix the two.
In the food industry, a distinction appears with:
Science-based messaging used to highlight health or taste benefits.
Emotional messaging used to highlight the feelings or senses of the taste and experience of the food.
Nivea correctly uses scientific messaging when talking about the benefits of its Hyaluronic Acid Serum.
⚡ Steps to implement
Link your messaging to people’s motivations for buying from you - is it for fun or because you’re competent?
If people use your product because of how it makes them feel or because it’s fun, focus your messaging on that.
If your product is used for its effectiveness at something particular, focus your messaging on that.
If you must use science-based messaging for fun products, try to make the science relevant. For example focus on:
The feelings the product gives people (e.g. if you’re selling a sports car, talk about how it’s engineered for better acceleration to give a more thrilling ride)
The use of your product, positioning it away from a purchase for fun or pleasure alone (e.g. highlight a specific chemical’s role in combating bacteria in a body wash).
🔍 Study type
Lab and online experiments.
Get Your Science Out of Here: When Does Invoking Science in the Marketing of Consumer Products Backfire?. Journal of Consumer Research (May 2022).
Aviva Philipp-Muller. Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University
John P. Costello. Mendoza College of Business, University of Notre Dame
Rebecca Walker Reczek. Fisher College of Business, Ohio State University
Remember: This is a scientific discovery. In the future it will probably be better understood and could even be proven wrong (that’s how science works). It may also not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.
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