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Utilizing smart naming to right-size portions

Today we’re talking with Sophia Hua, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Sophia recently published a paper that highlighted how describing the smaller of two menu sizes as the “standard” size or “just right” increases the probability that consumers will choose the smaller portion, even when using non-linear pricing. If you’re a brand looking to better understand how to right size your portions, or help consumers choose a smaller, more profitable portion this may be for you. Also, many brands have overall goals on calorie options so this could be a good approach to achieve that by offering choice for those looking to manage calories but still have their favorite dishes. Full disclosure, I was a co-author on this study!

Jeff: Congratulations on the publication of your research! Can you tell us about why you got into the field of public health and what drove you to choose this as your research topic?

Sophia: Thank you! I became interested in nutrition and public health in high school when the diet-related chronic diseases that I now study started affecting my own family. I did a lot of baking growing up, and I didn’t understand why my parents suddenly couldn’t eat my cookies and cupcakes anymore. That led me to research online what nutrition actually was, and now that’s what I study.

My interest in portion sizes stems from my travels to other countries. One of the first things I noticed while traveling is how much larger portion sizes are in the U.S. compared to other countries. I know not only from the published literature but also from personal experience that larger portions promote overconsumption. I wanted to find a way to prompt people to choose smaller portions when dining out while still maintaining the freedom to choose the larger size if that’s what people wanted.

Jeff: What is the number one takeaway from the results of the survey?

Sophia: The biggest takeaway from this online experiment is that naming matters—calling the smaller of two portion sizes “standard” or “just right” does meaningfully increase the probability that consumers will choose the smaller size. We tested these descriptions using online menus styled after a fast-casual restaurant menu and a full-service restaurant menu, and we found that the effect held true for both settings. This effect held even when we used non-linear pricing. In this case, the smaller size was half the size of the larger, but the cost was 70% of the larger.

Jeff: What surprised you the most in terms of the results?

Sophia: We tested not only the impact different portion descriptors would have on choice, but also the impact different pricing schemes would have on choice. What we found was that in the fast-casual setting, there was an increase in probability that participants would select the reduced portion in the non-linear pricing scheme compared to the linear pricing scheme. What that means is that they were willing to pay more per-ounce for a smaller size. We don’t really know why we see that—perhaps consumers were using price as a proxy for size, so when they saw the price was only slightly lower, they thought the size was only slightly smaller. But again, we don’t really know why, and it’s worth looking into further. However, I do want to note that this finding is actually a win-win for us and the restaurant industry since it demonstrates the feasibility of implementing this menu design while maintaining non-linear pricing schemes that are the industry norm.

Jeff: What do you say to restaurant brands that might look at these results and say - “we don’t want customers to trade down”?

Sophia: I see the results of this study as a huge opportunity for the restaurant industry. First, it’s a way for restaurants to expand their customer base to people who want to eat out with friends and family without overindulging. It’s a way to reduce food waste. It’s a way for restaurants to meet their nutrition goals without changing the menu. It’s a way to offer false variety since each item will be offered twice. And it’s a way to bring those calorie labels down. All of these points together paint a picture of restaurants ultimately benefitting from the implementation of “standard” or “just right” sizes.

Jeff: How do you think the average restaurant chain could use this information?

Sophia: There are chains that already offer two sizes for entrees, so merely changing the descriptor of the smaller size should be easy to implement. For chains that do not have two sizes, offering that option might ultimately be more profitable than not.

Jeff: Where can our readers find the full text? How can individuals looking for more information or to test this proposition reach out to you?

Sophia: Readers can find the full text here, though if they’re having trouble accessing it, they should feel free to reach out to me to get a PDF copy. Similarly, those who would like to chat about this study or talk about testing this menu design in their restaurants should reach out as well. My email is: I look forward to hearing from people!

Thank you to Sophia for all her amazing insights and I encourage anyone interested in learning more to reach out to her to solve some of these challenges. I know she is already working with large organizations to implement this approach.

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