Apples, no fries: Marketing with social norms

[Translate to Englisch:] Pommes

If you go to a fast food restaurant these days, you can order more than just the classic hamburger with fries and a soft drink. Especially for children, restaurants now offer alternative side dishes and drinks, such as fruit or water and organic juices, but their share of sales has not yet reached that of classic side dishes. "Since many parents do not yet choose any of the alternative side dishes, we wanted to find out how they can be increasingly attracted to these healthier offerings from fast food restaurants", explains Prof. Dr. Jens Hogreve, who holds the Chair of Service Management at KU.

"Our starting point for a possible change is based on the insight that networks, in which parents move, strongly shape the discussions and decisions around and for their children – be it with regard to vaccinations or on the question of how much parents are involved in the school community", explains Hogreve. However, the influence of such networks on food choices has not been researched to date – although we know that parents have been shown to have a decisive influence on their children's future eating habits. Therefore, the aim was in particular to explore which characters and groups among parents are potentially receptive to such a change.

The idea for this project arose in discourse between Hogreve and his doctoral student Alexander Hettich, who is co-author of the study. Other researchers have already looked at various aspects in this field. It was shown, for example, that only a small percentage of customers find the calorie information on the products decisive for their order. Another large study from the U.S. illustrated that regardless of actual purchasing behavior, fast food restaurants are selected based on whether healthy alternatives are offered.

In a pilot study, the research team consisting of Hogreve, Hettich as well as Prof. Rebecca Walker Reczek (Ohio State University) and Prof. Dr. Shashi Matta (Chair of Innovation and Creativity, KU) first evaluated orders of children's menus in order to draw conclusions about the social norm. The results of this study were combined with a survey conducted among parents. "The results showed that choosing less healthy side dishes is perceived as the social norm", explains Professor Matta. The next step of the project was conducted in the restaurants of Alexander Hettich, who is a McDonald's franchisee. The Happy Meals for children also include healthy alternatives, such as a fruit puree with no added sugar or apple slices, apple juice with sparkling water or milk.

"Against this background in particular, I was of course especially interested to find out which external factors contribute to this trend, or whether there are any influences that could be indicative of why parents choose healthy or, indeed, less healthy alternatives accordingly when selecting products in the Happy Meal", says Hettich. In order to find out, parents were given a questionnaire about various character traits when visiting a McDonald's restaurant before they placed their order: Do they often compare their actions with those of other people? Do they try to figure out how others solve a problem? Do they think that individuals able to change their fundamental attitudes? The topic of nutrition was explicitly not addressed in the survey. In return for their participation, the respondents received a voucher for a children's menu, which they could then redeem when choosing their children’s meal. The order and the questionnaire were then summarized and evaluated. This showed that the choice of healthy side dishes by fathers and mothers is relatively constant, but the group of people who are strongly oriented towards their environment and who assume that a person's character can change, choose less healthy side dishes for their children significantly more often.

But how do such people decide when they are confronted with a different norm? The project team investigated this with a modified questionnaire in a field study conducted with over 300 parents. This study recorded general personality traits again, but also included a short newspaper article. The article stated that 75 percent of all parents would choose healthy side dishes for their children. This information was left out in the questionnaire of a comparison group. Again, the participants' selection behavior in a restaurant was measured. "The results show that people who tend to associate themselves more with other parents actually select 30% healthier side dishes after reading the article compared to the other group", Hogreve said. Adjusting the side dishes also resulted in up to 70% fewer calories in the menu composition.

This opens up specific prospects for "social norms marketing", for example by having authentic families act in advertising media or by making appropriate information material available in the restaurants. In addition, the companies could in turn address new customer groups through the parental networks who attach importance to healthy alternatives. According to Hogreve, future research could focus on the likes and dislikes of the children themselves, who were not surveyed in the study, as well as the eating habits of the parents in terms of their role model function.

The detailed English-language paper "How do social norms influence parents' food choices for their children? The role of social comparison and implicit self-theories" has been published in the "Journal of Retailing" and can be found as an open access publication free of charge at