UBC study reveals the ‘ugly’ truth about fruits and veggies

Researchers dig in to perceptions of unattractive produce and why ‘ugly’ labelling works

Calling it like it is worked for Buckley’s cough syrup—“It tastes awful. And it works.” Why not ugly fruit and veggies?

A new study from UBC Sauder School of Business examined the efficacy of “ugly” labelling. The idea for the study stemmed from the growing food waste problem and retail campaigns to address it. The researchers note that in 2014, French grocer Intermarché made headlines for marketing misshapen produce as “ugly.” Since then, food retailers globally have launched campaigns to sell “imperfect produce” or “produce with personality.”

The researchers wanted to find out if “ugly” labelling actually works and if it does work, why?

“It seemed counter-intuitive that you would emphasize something that people use as a way to reject the produce in the first place—its appearance,” says UBC Sauder PhD student Siddhanth Mookerjee, who co-authored the new study, From Waste to Taste: How “Ugly” Labels Can Increase Purchase of Unattractive Produce, along with UBC Sauder assistant professor Yann Cornil and UBC Sauder associate professor JoAndrea Hoegg.

The researchers conducted seven studies in the field and in the lab, by having participants buy produce at a farmer’s market and online, and by examining people’s preconceptions about imperfect produce.

The study found that people are more likely to purchase produce when it’s labelled “ugly” and they spend more money on unattractive produce that is labelled “ugly” versus not labelled.

Specifically, when the unattractive produce was not labelled “ugly,” 62.5% of buyers purchased unattractive produce, and 56% purchased attractive produce. But when unattractive produce was labelled “ugly,” 81.6% of people bought unattractive produce and 26.5% bought attractive produce.

In addition, buyers spent an average of $2.36 on unlabelled unattractive produce and $3.35 on attractive produce. When the produce was labelled “ugly,” they spent $3.41 on unattractive produce and $1.78 on attractive produce.

In terms of why “ugly” labelling works, the researchers found that people have negative expectations regarding the taste and, to a smaller extent, the healthiness of unattractive produce compared to attractive produce, says Mookerjee.

But when it’s actually labelled “ugly,” consumer hesitancy disappears, as it signals to consumers that the only difference between items is aesthetic. That makes them aware of their bias and significantly increases their willingness to buy less attractive produce. “Ugly labelling essentially de-biases the consumers because it corrects for these negative expectations regarding taste and health,” says Mookerjee.

The researchers also interviewed 52 grocery store owners and managers, and found they prefer using the “imperfect” label rather than “ugly.” However, the researchers found that “ugly” labelling was more effective than “imperfect” labelling at driving purchases and generating click-throughs in online ads.

Mookerjee says the reason is “imperfect” labelling doesn’t point out the aesthetic flaw to the same extent that “ugly” labelling does. “However, we’re not saying the ‘ugly’ label is the only way to market this produce,” he says. “Any label that emphasizes the aesthetic flaw should be effective.”

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