Perception often matters more than reality. We don’t eat in restaurants with a dirty floor. We leave stores with unhelpful staff. We pay less for hotels with outdated furniture. Rather than spend the time and energy to verify the underlying quality of a product, we use visual cues as a shortcut. How you do one thing is how you do everything – quality is fractal – which is why you can reliably predict customer satisfaction with a restaurant by the thickness of the napkins. It’s not the napkins that improve reviews. It’s that businesses that obsess over every small detail are likely to get the big things right too. So high quality napkins are correlated with high quality food. As chef Gordon Ramsay says in his autobiography. “It doesn’t matter how amazing the steak is, if it’s served on a cold plate it’s crap. If it’s served with a dull knife it’s crap. If the gravy isn’t piping hot, it’s crap. If you’re eating it on an uncomfortable chair, it’s crap. If it’s served by an ugly waiter who just came in from a cigarette break, it’s crap. Because I care about the steak, I have to care about everything around it.”
Because we learn from experience that caring about small details is a reliable indicator of overall quality, we regularly impute the qualities of a product based on its surrounding environment. We do judge a book by its cover. As Steve Jobs’ mentor Mike Markkula wrote: “We may have the best product, the highest quality, the most useful software etc.; if we present them in a slipshod manner, they will be perceived as slipshod; if we present them in a creative, professional manner, we will impute the desired qualities”. When Apple released the original Macintosh, Steve Jobs made sure the boxes they were delivered in were printed in full colour. Despite the expense, he insisted it was important to signal that this would be an ‘object of delight’. To this day, unboxing an Apple product like the iPhone is commonly described as a ‘magical’ experience.
Thankfully perceptions are relatively malleable. A dirty restaurant with good food can do is sweep the floor. Hiring friendlier staff can increase sales in retail stores. Hotels can increase prices by filling their lobbies with trendy furniture. Our perceptions are ‘leaky’ as Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland puts it: our imputation of quality can be hacked. Small changes often cause big changes in behavior. Speed signs with smiley faces are twice as effective. We feel our car drives better after a car wash. People litter more in neighbourhoods with broken windows. Playing French music in a supermarket sells more French wine. Pricier wine actually tastes better. Drinks taste better when you poor them from a heavier bottle. Chocolate tastes sweeter when it’s square or angular. Branded painkillers literally relieve more pain than unbranded ones. Ideas presented with longer descriptions are perceived as more creative than shorter ones. Which incidentally, I’m writing this as a book, not a blog post.