Don’t dis the cheese!

A few years ago, I was having dinner in a lovely Italian restaurant in Shanghai. Had been there many times, service and food always good, and a lovely riverside location. The decor was lovely too, one of those places with an open kitchen – amazing smells and atmosphere, plus you could see traditionally made pizzas etc. coming straight from the oven.

This particular evening, however, my table was positioned so I had a view of the side of the kitchen area. I’d ordered ice cream as a dessert and was rather surprised to see a guy take a large tub of Walmart ice cream out of the freezer, serve me three scoops and bring it over to the table. It was absolutely fine, but I was conscious I’d just been charged about £18 for that! I laughed it off at the time, the rest of the evening had been great, but I did frequent that establishment a little less on future visits to Shanghai and I always tended to avoid desserts from then on.

If that story seems familiar, you’ve probably seen the item that reminded me of it in the news this week. A woman in Bristol complained that she had been charged about £13 for a Camembert sharing platter in a restaurant, only to find at the end of the meal that the cheese in question was Asda own-label retailing at about £1.15. At least I’d had my ice cream scooped into a fancy glass dish – this unfortunate customer found the cheese was still in its Asda packaging! I’ll leave aside the rights and wrongs of that, it’s something we probably all have a particular view on. Is £12 or so a reasonable mark-up for the service, restaurant environment, ambience, etc.? That’s one for the individual paying the bill to decide, really.

The thing that interested me about this case was the fact that the customer had enjoyed the cheese up to the point that she noticed its source, describing it as “really nice”. It was the Asda label that suddenly changed her perception and the culinary bubble was burst. So what’s going on here?

On one level, we could say that this is an example of a marketing placebo effect. People served coffee in nice cups typically rate the taste as better than when the exact same coffee is served in a paper takeaway cup. Similarly, add an extra zero to the price of a sofa in furniture store and customers rate it as significantly more comfortable than those who tried the same sofa priced accurately. We see/touch/taste/smell/feel what we are expecting to touch/see/etc. A placebo effect.

This case is probably a little more complex than that, however, as the effect and its emotional value suddenly changed in response to the Asda packaging. What we are seeing here, I think, is an effect known as cognitive dissonance, first described by the social psychologist Leon Festinger sixty years ago. Dissonance is a sort of anxiety or discomfort we experience either when we hold two conflicting beliefs simultaneously or, more commonly, when we behave in a way that we think is consistent with our own beliefs and values, only to be confronted by a new piece of information that contradicts that. A simple example might be drinking Fairtrade coffee and enjoying it, only to find we’ve bought the wrong jar and it’s regular coffee, or perhaps when we try really really hard to stick to a vegetarian diet but succumb to that oh-so-tempting bacon sandwich!

Our Bristol diner shows all the classic signs of experiencing cognitive dissonance, which is perhaps quite understandable in the situation described. She’s enjoyed the cheese and, indeed, the Camembert from Asda is really nice in my view. The problem here is simply that she has assumed from the price and surroundings that it is something quite different, so dissonance sets in at the point she experiences the unfortunate “big reveal”.

Luckily for the restaurant, our disappointed diner has accepted the invitation to return to the establishment to give them a chance to make amends. One very good dining experience will more than likely help get rid of any lingering dissonance once and for all. That’s why effective service recovery strategies are so very important!