The aesthetics of food packaging is as important as branding to pre-school children, according to a University of Calgary study.
It turns a 2007 Stanford study – which saw a lot of media attention for suggesting food wrapped in a branded McDonald’s wrapper tastes better to children – on its head.
Professor Charlene Elliott, University of Calgary, told FoodProductionDaily children prefer the taste of foods wrapped in decorative packaging, and aesthetics may play a stronger role than branding.
'Not about the branding'
“The Stanford research was stating it was the branding that was influencing children's taste preferences, and that obviously was not the case,” Elliott said. “It was not about the branding at all. It was the aesthetics.”
In Elliott’s study, 65 children aged 3-5 years old were asked to choose between food pairs which included McDonald’s packaging, food in plain white wrapping, non-branded coloured wrapping, and Starbucks packaging.
When children were given the option of carrots in McDonald’s wrapping or in colourful wrapping, children liked the “colourful” carrots more.
An equal percentage of children preferred McDonald’s burgers in Starbucks wrappings as in McDonald’s. For chicken nuggets, fries and carrots, most children said the two samples tasted the same. Those who did make a distinction chose Starbucks over McDonalds.
Packaging and food preferences
“The findings suggest the need to explore questions beyond commercial advertising - and brand promotion - on television and other media platforms,” said Elliott. “More attention should be directed at the important role of packaging in directing children’s food preferences.
“We did not study what part of the aesthetics was the most important, because this research was specifically designed to probe whether the Stanford study was valid or not.”
A separate research project shows older children “heavily rely” on packaging design to make choices, Elliott added.
“Children in grades 1-6 fell into consistent errors when trying to evaluate packaged foods, believing if there is green on the box, it's a healthy food,” said Elliott. “The packaging does have an influence.”
Elliott holds a Canada research chair (a Government of Canada research professorship) in food policy, marketing and children’s health at the University of Calgary.
Published Vol 104, No 5 (2013).
“Food Branding and Young Children’s Taste Preferences: A Reasesssment”
Authors: C. Elliott; R Hoed; M Conlon.