08 Dec 2021

COLUMN: The truth behind food marketing...some of these things will shock you!

Laurann O'Reilly writing in this week's Nationalist

Six top nutrition tips for boosting your immune health with Laurann O'Reilly

Laurann O'Reilly

Have you ever gone to the supermarket with the best intentions of buying wholesome and healthy ingredients, but somehow you’ve managed to be mesmerised into buying foods that you don’t need or that weren’t on the carefully planned shopping list?

Then it may come as no surprise that approximately “50% of our shopping trolleys are things we never intended to buy in the first place” (Paco Underhill, environmental psychologist)

Here, nutritionist Laurann O’Reilly and owner of Nutrition By Laurann, explains the truth behind marketing psychology and some of the strategies that are used to influence our food choices.

Have The Trollies Increased In Size?

No, it’s not your imagination. According to Martin Linstrom (author of Brandstorm) by “doubling the size of our shopping trolley, we typically buy up to 40% more. He compares it to using bigger plates for our food, the larger, the more we tend to consume”.

1) Supermarket Layout: I’m sure you’ve often gone into the supermarket to pick up some staple foods and found yourself having to walk in almost what seems like a maze to find all that you need. This is an intentional design called the ‘Gruen Transfer’, created by the shop architect Victor Gruen and was created so customers see more products than originally planned (Visual Capitalist). This explains why you have to pass through the whole store just to get your essentials

2) Product Placement: They say you eat but you also shop with your eyes and this the supermarkets know well. It’s no wonder that they keep the items they want you to buy at eye level. You would think that these would be the most expensive products but according to Jeff Weidauer of Vestcom “they’re often the ones that generate the most profit for them”.
He describes how the “cheapest items are often placed on the bottom shelves, or stoop level”. The little ones aren’t safe from the marketing strategies either as the area in between eye-level and “stoop level” is the eye-level of children.

3) Colours: We’re probably all aware at this stage that colours can make us feel different emotions. HubSpot marketing company describes colour psychology as “an area of research that looks at how colour influences our behaviour and decision-making”. They also say that “when used in marketing, different colours can impact the way buyers perceive a brand, which may not be obvious, such as how certain hues can increase appetite”. Here are some of them:

- Green: Is associated with health, hope, freshness and nature. Often used by healthy brands and organic foods (HubSpot). Hart manufacturing states that “green is the perfect choice if you want to emphasize or make a claim about natural ingredients, or the health benefits associated”. Brands that use green include Kerrygold, Bachelors and Starbucks.

- Blue: Not only is blue a calming colour it’s also linked to trust and serenity. According to HubSpot “it’s the colour of strength and wisdom which is why it’s used so widely. Brands that use blue include Yorkie, Tayto, Ballygowan and Hellmans.
- Red: The colour red is associated with passion, power, energy, fearlessness and excitement. It also encourages appetite which is why it is commonly used in the fast food industry (HubSpot). Interestingly “studies have shown that men are more likely to buy products when the prices are displayed in red” (Visual Capitalist). Brands that use red include McDonalds, Eddie Rockets, CocaCola, Kelloggs, BirdsEye, Heinz and Insomnia.

- Orange: Is linked to courage, confidence, warmth, friendliness and energy.
It’s also associated with sunshine and gives the perception of being cheaper (Hubspot). Brands that use orange include Fanta and JustEat.

- Yellow: Is associated with warmth and happiness.
It also encourages positive emotions. Brands that use yellow include Hellmann’s, Cheerios, Maggi, HulaHoops, McDonalds, Subway and Flake.

4) Don’t Always Believe What You See: With an appreciation for food photography and wanting to inspire people that it’s possible to create food that’s healthy and delicious as well as being beautiful and visually appealing, I did a food styling photography course. It was here that I realised that many of the food images that we see on products and on menus aren’t quite what they seem. Unfortunately many ‘foods’ have been doctored with tools and artificial (often inedible) ingredients to give a false perception of what the finished product would be like, when in fact it’s nothing even close.

5) Music To Your Ears: Similar to colours, music can help to affect emotions, moods and often behaviours too.
For this reason, it can be extremely valuable and influential on your shopping behaviours. Research carried out at the University of Leicester found that “classical music makes people spend more money, because it makes them feel wealthier”.
The pace and volume can also have an influence, for example “if the sound level is kept within the range of 70-90 dB, sales of refreshing beverages will go up”, whilst “quiet, calm and slow music encourages customers to spend more time in the store” (Visual Capitalist). It’s so effective that a study by Professor Ronald E. Milliman, found that “grocery stores that played slow music increased their sales by nearly 40%”

6) Smell: Doesn’t the smell of freshly baked bread just make you want to make you pick up a loaf or two. Yes, they’ve figured that one out too, this is called ‘olfactory marketing’.
One strategy is controlling the olfactory ‘smellscape’ in and around chain restaurants and food/beverage outlets and stores (Flavour Journal). Definitely one to be aware of!

7) Pricing Strategies: Did you know that pricing can play tricks with our brains too?
This is because our brain encodes numbers in a certain way. For example, if the last digit of the price is 9 (such as in “9.99”), then you will probably think you’re getting a good price.
Whilst “prices in the middle (such as 9.95) are ‘friendlier,’ as they create the illusion of better quality for a good price” (Visual Capitalist).

8) Special Offers: We all love a special offer, how can we resist? Of course it’s all well and good when they are offered healthy and delicious meal deals but this isn’t always the case.

- Buy One Get One Free: This strategy has taken the place of the 50% off offer. In this case “the price of the product is usually high enough to cover the price of the ‘free’ item” (Visual Capitalist). So you may end up buying too much or simply buying things that you don’t need.
Shoppers react more positively to offers where they receive something free than when they get something cheaper.
- Urgency: Deals and discounts work on one main principle: urgency for example, if they fail to act upon this opportunity now, they will have missed your chance to save money, get free shipping, or get something extra.
Alternatively, if they don’t buy it now, they will end up spending more money later.
As promotions work best when they are available for a short time only, the sense of urgency encourages shoppers to make the purchase to avoid the pain of missing out (Selz Marketing)

9) Positive Associations: Doesn’t hearing positive words like ‘love’ and ‘happy’ just make you feel good.
Where have you heard these before?
That’s right, “I’m loving it” and “Happy meal” have been carefully chosen to make you feel just that.
It’s worth keeping an eye out for similar positive associations when doing your shopping too.

10) Cartoon Characters: Research has proven what we’ve known all along: Kids respond to marketing that includes their favourite characters. This is because “children develop emotional bonds with brand mascots and media characters as if they were their personal friends,” (PMA). Please be aware that these foods aren’t always healthy. For example many yogurts with well-known children’s cartoon characters are often high in sugar.

11) Understanding Sugar Claims: It’s important to understand the terminology of sugar too such, with this guide from the INDI as:
1) Sugar Free (no added or naturally occurring sugar)
2) No Added Sugar (no extra sugar added)
3) Reduced Sugar (at least 25% less sugar than standard product).

What Can You Do?
Aside from putting the blinkers on, here are some helpful tools to avoid the marketing trance:

- The Shopping List: Not only is the shopping list a useful tool to help you plan your meals and snacks for the week, but it is also extremely valuable in helping to avoid those impulse buys

- Avoid Shop When Hungry: This is an obvious one, but with busy lives we may not always get a chance to have a proper meal before hitting the supermarket shelves.

Even if it’s a piece of fruit or a rice cake, this will help avoid the temptation of high sugar convenience food purchases.

About Laurann: Laurann O’Reilly is qualified and experienced nutritionist with a BSc. Degree in Human Nutrition from University of Nottingham and a Master’s in Public Health Nutrition from University College Dublin.

For more information see or contact Laurann at 

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