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Do Descriptive Menu Labels Influence Customers?

Insalata di Rucola
Insalata di Rucola

The use of descriptive labels such as Jack Daniel’s Chicken, Psychedelic Sorbet, or the Blooming Onion is a continued trend in the hospitality industry. But does simply changing the menu labels from generic, straightforward names to descriptive names impact sales or make a customer actually believe the food tastes better?


In my book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (Bantam, 2006), we describe a restaurant experiment where we simply made the names of menu items more creatively descriptive (for example, Seafood Filet became Succulent Italian Seafood Filet and Grilled Chicken became Tender Grilled Chicken).
Did descriptive labels influence one’s taste? Definitely. They increased sales by 27 percent over the plain-labeled menu items. In addition, the menu items were viewed as more appealing and tastier, and the restaurant as being trendier and more up to date.
Why? Descriptive labeling allows consumers to concentrate more on the feelings and taste aspects of the products instead of focusing only on the functional or utilitarian properties. For instance, when asked to comment on their entree or dessert, people who were given a descriptively labeled product directed 84.5 percent of their comments to factors related to the taste and sensory nature of the product. In contrast, those who ate the less descriptively labeled products focused only 42.6 percent on these sensory aspects and reserved their remaining comments (such as “good,” “filling,” or “reasonable”) for the more utilitarian or functional characteristics of the foods.

Categories That Connect

How do you generate descriptive or suggestive labels? We analyzed 342 menus and found that most of these descriptive labels can be categorized in one of four ways:

Geographic. Labels that claim to reproduce the same flavors that are specifically found in geographic areas have proven successful. The key is in deciding which region your spices or products fit into and then choosing which adjectives create that image or ideology. Examples are Southwestern Tex-Mex Salad, London Fish and Chips, “Real” Carolina Barbeque, Country Peach Tart.

Nostalgic. Alluding to past time periods can trigger happy memories of family, tradition, and nationalism. Customers sometimes like the feeling of tasting something wholesome and traditional because “they sure don’t make ’em like they used to.” Examples are Classic Old World Italian, Legendary Chocolate Mousse Pie, Ye Old Potato Bread, Nana’s Favorite Chicken Soup.

Sensory. If labels accurately describe the taste, smell, and mouth-feel of the menu item, then customers will be more able to picture themselves eating it. Ice cream shops accomplish this masterfully—note names like “Chocolate Velvet”—but menus of all types can benefit from creative sensory labels. Examples are Hearty Wholesome Steaks, Snappy Seasonal Carrots, Buttery Plump Pasta.

Brand. A cross-promotion with a related brand that carries its own important associations makes the menu item more attractive. The idea of cross-promotions is not new, but it is catching on reasonably fast in the chain and franchise restaurant world. One drawback of brand labels is that the legal costs and licensing costs can be too expensive for single-unit restaurants. The use of brands says to consumers, “If you love the brand, you’ll love this menu item.” Examples are Black Angus Beef Burgers, Jack Daniel’s BBQ Ribs, Butterfinger Blizzard.

Name Game

One method to generate ideas for descriptive labels is to sit down with a pencil and think of food-related associations that tie in to relevant places, memories, or descriptive adjectives. A second means for jump-starting your descriptive labeling talent is to take a pen and paper and to physically note the variety of descriptive labels used at different restaurants. Two excellent places to start are theme restaurants and ice cream stores.
Of course, using descriptive labels can raise consumer expectations, which must be met by delivering a quality product. It’s a bad idea to label yesterday’s goulash as today’s “Royal Hungarian Top Sirloin Blend.” It might generate first-time sales, but those covers may also be the last.

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