Calling Your Produce Ugly: Increase Profits and Mitigate Waste

Research Brief Publication Date: June 15, 2021
Last Updated: June 15, 2021
Researchers:

Siddanth Mookerjee, Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia

Dr. Yann Cornil, Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia

Dr. JoAndrea Hoegg, Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia

About This Brief

This research brief was prepared by the BC Food Web team, based on an article published in Journal of Marketing.

Introduction

Every year, both food producers and retailers throw away tons of perfectly edible produce based solely on physical appearance. Consumers’ beauty standards for produce are high, and a large amount of produce does not meet these standards, despite being perfectly healthy and edible. Researchers have estimated that farmers discard up to 30 percent of their crops due to cosmetic imperfections, and U.S. retailers throw away $15.4 billion of edible produce every year. This food waste results in financial losses not only for retailers, but also for producers. In addition, this wasted produce has significant and far-reaching environmental impacts. The large majority of this wasted produce ends up in landfills, which ultimately results in the release of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The production of the world’s produce also requires a large amount of land and water - it is estimated that as much as 25 percent of the world’s freshwater and up to 1.4 billion hectares of land are used in the production of produce that will later be thrown away.

Why do consumers reject produce with visual imperfections, even if there are no indications of damage or disease? An abnormal or “ugly” appearance can lead to an ‘ugliness penalty effect,’ where consumers believe that the produce is less tasty and less healthy. Retailers and producers have attempted to combat this penalty in the past by labelling produce in an attempt to emphasize that the flaw is merely aesthetic.

In this study, researchers examined why consumers are less likely to purchase aesthetically unattractive produce, and test a low-cost, easy to implement solution: emphasizing the produce’s aesthetic flaw through ‘ugly’ labeling.

Research Process

The researchers conducted seven different studies to test the effectiveness of the ugly labelling:

  1. Study 1: Tested the effectiveness of ‘ugly’ labeling at a Farmers’ market over four days. On the market stand there were four baskets: two baskets of unattractive produce and two baskets of attractive versions of the same produce. The baskets had labels attached to them and they manipulated the labels associated with the unattractive produce to include an ‘ugly’ label (i.e. “ugly potatoes”) and in the control, no label (i.e. “potatoes”). The attractive produce was always labeled without any modifiers (i.e. “potatoes”). The unattractive produce was sold at a discount of 25 percent. The number of people that chose to purchase unattractive over attractive produce and total revenue were compared across the conditions. 
  2. Study 2: Tested the effectiveness of ‘ugly’ labeling with produce boxes purchased online. Participants could either buy a box of unattractive produce, a box of attractive produce, or nothing at all. The researchers manipulated the label for the unattractive produce to be either ‘ugly’ or no modifier. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: either ‘ugly’ labeling or control (no modifier). Participants were then told they would be entered into a lottery to win $30 and if they won, they could decide to keep the $30, or use some of the money to purchase a box of fruits and veggies. Box 1 was attractive produce for the price of $20 and box 2 featured the same produce, but aesthetically unattractive for $15. Again, participants’ buying choices were compared across box and label conditions.
  3. Study 3: Tested whether consumers have negative expectations regarding the tastiness and healthiness of unattractive produce, and whether ‘ugly’ labeling can improve these expectations. Participants were shown photos of baskets of attractive and unattractive cucumbers, and the unattractive cucumbers were either labeled “Ugly Cucumbers” or “Cucumbers,” whereas the attractive cucumbers were always labeled “Cucumbers.” Participants’ buying intentions were measured on a 5-point scale. They were also asked questions about taste, health, and natural expectations of the produce. Finally, they measured alternative explanations for the ‘ugly’ label’s effectiveness by asking questions about self-perception, seller credibility, perceived ‘humanlike traits’ of the produce, and originality.
  4. Study 4: Tested if the effectiveness of ‘ugly’ labeling is due to improved taste or health expectations, and whether explicitly addressing those expectations would have the same effect as the ‘ugly’ label itself. Participants had to choose between purchasing attractive or unattractive cucumbers. The scenario, manipulation of ‘ugly’ labeling, prices, and measurement of choice likelihood were identical to study 3. However, in addition to the labeling manipulation, they also manipulated a message that half of the participants read prior to seeing the photos of the cucumbers which stated there are no differences between the cucumbers other than visual, and that they have similar nutritional qualities. Researchers measured expected taste and healthiness, and choice of the unattractive produce relative to the attractive produce. 
  5. Study 5: Tested whether the effectiveness of ‘ugly’ labeling was affected by the level of discount applied to unattractive produce, specifically whether a large discount may signal low quality. Participants were shown an ad for two produce boxes, one with attractive produce and the other with the same produce, but unattractive. The label used for the attractive produce was always “Fruits and Vegetables” whereas the unattractive produce was either labeled “Ugly Fruits and Vegetables” or “Fruits and Vegetables” (control condition). The unattractive produce was priced at 60, 40 or 20 percent off. Participants indicated which box they would rather purchase on a 5-point scale, and were asked about the attributes and choice of the unattractive produce compared to the attractive produce (i.e. tastiness, healthiness, naturalness, and sweetness). 
  6. Study 6a: Compared the effectiveness of the ‘ugly’ label with alternative labels of ‘imperfect’ and ‘with personality’ in an online study. Participants were shown attractive produce boxes for $18, while the unattractive produce was priced at $12 (with no discount tag), and was labelled as either ‘ugly,’ ‘imperfect,’ ‘with personality,’ or with no modifier. The questions posed to participants were the same as Study 5 (i.e. purchase preference, tastiness, healthiness, and naturalness).
  7. Study 6b: Compared the effectiveness of the ‘ugly’ label with alternative labels of ‘imperfect’ and ‘with personality’ in a ‘field’ study by measuring online advertising click throughs via Facebook ads. The study focused solely on ads with unattractive produce with specific labels (i.e. ‘ugly,’ ‘imperfect,’ and ‘with personality’). 

Results

Overall, the researchers were able to demonstrate that emphasizing the aesthetic flaw of unattractive produce via ‘ugly’ labelling increases purchase, choice, and click-throughs. The study also shows that ‘ugly’ labeling is more effective when the labels explicitly emphasize the aesthetic flaw (e.g., “ugly” or “misshapen” rather than “inferior” or “second rate”), allowing consumers to regard the produce as otherwise tasty and healthy. More specifically, they showed that labelling produce as ‘ugly’ was more effective than labelling it ‘imperfect,’ but labelling it ‘with personality’ was just as effective as the ‘ugly’ label. The ‘with personality’ label offers a humorous, indirect reflection of the attractiveness of the produce, while the ‘imperfect’ label is too vague and does not define the issue as singularly visual. The farmers’ market experiment showed that the ‘ugly’ label (vs. no specific label) increased purchase of unattractive rather than attractive produce. In addition, the researchers showed that ugly labelling alongside a moderate discount was just as effective as a steep discount, illustrating that the ugly label can mitigate profit losses caused by selling imperfect produce.

Implications

This study offers a simple, low-cost, and effective technique to sell unattractive produce. This simple labelling solution could help both large retailers and small-scale producers sell produce that would otherwise be thrown away, and may eventually change our cultural views of produce while mitigating the harmful environmental impacts of food waste.

About This Research

This brief is based on the following journal article:

Mookerjee, S., Cornil, Y., and Hoegg, J. (2021). From Waste to Taste: How “Ugly” Labels Can Increase Purchase of Unattractive Produce. Journal of Marketing, 85(3), 62-77. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022242920988656 

Key Findings

  • This study found that ‘ugly’ labelling increased purchase of unattractive produce. 
  • Price discounts moderate the effectiveness of ‘ugly’ labeling.
  • Labelling imperfect produce as ‘ugly’ is an effective tool to lessen the financial and environmental impacts of food waste.