Conference looks at faculty research on food brand choices

Fun associations with certain food brands can lead to unhealthy choices.

Consumer loyalty to brands can go as far as permanent body art renditions of logos.

Coca-Cola and Google are among the top five brands consumers from around the world tattoo on their bodies, according to Martin Lindstrom, author of Clicks, Bricks and Brands, in a video shown at the Branding Beyond Borders Conference.

The University Food Industry Center held the second-annual spring conference Thursday, where faculty members presented research findings behind consumer choices of popular brands.

People tend to be more loyal to brands that have a story with them, said Jean Kinsey, applied economics professor and The Food Industry Center director.

“We buy it because of its name identification and our history of liking it,” Kinsey said.

The professors also found cultural orientation and individual values signal consumer choice of food brands.

In his research, marketing professor Carlos Torelli surveyed consumers in six countries, including China and the United States.

Consumers were given Cheerios as a brand name and about 45 different values to choose to associate with it.

“We asked them to imagine that Cheerios is a person,” he said.

More people in the United States associated Cheerios with values such as status, power, independence and achievement, he found. On the other hand, Chinese consumers were more likely to care for others and the environment as a whole in a collective society based on the values chosen for the cereal.

But Torelli emphasized the research was based on each individual consumer’s values, not those of the entire culture.

The reason for associating Cheerios with power, high status and independence can vary based on how long the brand has been around to the way it’s advertised, Torelli said.

“In the U.S., you emphasize how independent a baby can be by eating Cheerios,” he said. “You create the association that Cheerios creates some independence. Maybe in China, General Mills doesn’t do that.”

He added that consumer loyalties to expensive brands conveying high-status values may include things like wines and sushi.

While some eat sushi because it’s healthy, others may want to show their higher status, he said.

“I particularly don’t find it good at all, but it may be because I’m not sophisticated enough,” Torelli said.

Consumers can also associate a brand with a childhood experience or a social gathering, which influences their choices.

One reason for choosing high-calorie foods is because they’re tied back to fun experiences, food science professor Zata Vickers said.

“When you have your friends come over for your birthday party, you probably didn’t serve them cooked carrots and mashed potatoes,” she said. “We’re heavily socialized into unhealthy foods.”