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Focus on research: Golf performance is tied to placebo power of brands

Lisa Bolton
Lisa Bolton

Spring is here! If you’re a gardener like me, you’re counting the days until the tulips appear. If you’re a golfer, you may be counting down to the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga., while organizing your gear for a trip out to the local golf course.

Hoping to improve your game this year? If so, Nike is there for you with “peak performance engineered into every polo, designed to bring out the best in every golfer.” And that’s just a shirt — imagine what one of their golf clubs might do for your game.

Putting performance

Can a better brand of golf club really improve your game? And what about running shoes, soccer cleats, a baseball glove ... perhaps you or your children could benefit from a little investment in their athletic careers?

My colleagues and I decided to “putt” the golf club to the test. Setting aside the bad pun, we wondered whether a better brand of club would really improve golf performance. But more than that, we wanted to know: Does the brand of golf club improve performance, or does belief in the brand provide the boost?

The experiment

So we bought a putter. (Yes, we paid for it — we received no commercial funding for this research.) And then we put a label on the putter: one version of the label said Nike; another version said Starter; and a control group saw no label. Then we rounded up some participants and gave them one of the three versions of the putter. We asked them to sink putts from different distances, and a research assistant counted the number of strokes taken.

What did we find? Our participants needed fewer strokes to sink the putts with the Nike putter than with the other versions. Keep in mind, it was the same putter — all we did was change the label. That is, the Nike label alone was sufficient to boost performance — by 20 percent.

We call this boost the “performance brand placebo,” and we have observed it in both athletic and cognitive performance. For example, participants who received sample training from a test preparation service did better on a subsequent test (math questions drawn from the GMAT) when they were told the training was from a higher-performance brand name like Kaplan.

The explanation

But what is behind this placebo effect? Our findings suggest a performance brand enhances our self-esteem — it makes us feel better about ourselves. In turn, we experience less anxiety and can perform better — hence, we need fewer strokes to sink the putts.

But, before you go out and buy that new golf club (or invest in test preparation), the placebo effect doesn’t occur with just any brand or any person. There are some limitations.

First, you need to believe that the brand can deliver high performance. Nike, for example, has high brand equity, and people view it as a performance brand. In contrast, Gucci has high brand equity but the luxury brand is instead associated with prestige. Because Gucci isn’t linked to performance, a Gucci putter doesn’t boost your performance.

Second, you need to experience anxiety in the task. If you’re an expert golfer, then sinking a few putts may not give rise to much anxiety and so you won’t see the kind of performance boost that a novice does.

Third, you need to believe that stress is debilitating and harms performance. It turns out that the majority of us do — in which case, a performance brand can help performance because it reduces anxiety. For people who instead believe that stress is enhancing (it keeps you on your toes, etc.), then a brand like Nike could actually backfire and undermine performance.

The placebo

We earlier used the term “placebo” to describe our findings. The term comes from a character in “The Canterbury Tales”: Placebo is a shameless flatterer who bolsters and strengthens the confidence of the vain Januarie.

In medicine, the notion of a placebo has been around for nearly a century. A classic example of a placebo effect occurs when patients who are given a sugar pill report feeling less pain than a control group. In a large review of studies of this nature, placebo effects were found to work for subjective outcomes (like feelings of anxiety or pain) but not for objective outcomes (like blood pressure).

The mind is powerful: If we believe in a treatment, it can help us feel better.

Our work is consistent with this idea: If we believe in a brand, it can help us feel better. But our results take it one step further — if we feel better, we can actually perform better.

Marketing and the placebo

Marketers, of course, are well aware of the connection between beliefs and experience.

In one study, consumers were asked to judge meat that was labeled either as 75 percent fat-free or 25 percent fat. The meat was the same, yet consumers who saw the 75 percent fat-free label said the meat tasted better. In another study, consumers experienced more pleasure from consuming a wine when they believed that the wine was higher priced.

Of course, brands frequently do differ in ways that affect quality or experience. For example, a Nike club may have superior design and materials that improves performance over a competitor’s brand. But sometimes it’s difficult to judge and, in that case, marketing kicks in.

A spring in your step?

So where does that leave us as consumers this spring?

On the one hand, you could go out and leverage the brand placebo in your personal and professional life. Selectively invest in performance brands, such as a new Nike golf shirt or club. These performance brands can help fulfill Nike’s promise to “take your game to the next level” — as long as you believe in them. (Note that’s the next level — no one said anything about Masters Tournament level.)

On the other hand, you could tell yourself that it’s really the power of the mind at work. Why waste money if brands work like sugar pills to enhance performance? Or better yet, maybe performance isn’t the end goal ... instead stop and smell the tulips (some varieties, anyway). After all, it’s spring!

Lisa E. Bolton is a professor of marketing in the Penn State Smeal College of Business.