Ugly but honest

Posted by Oliver Koll on Apr 27, 2021

Fresh food often falls short of the aesthetic expectations of consumers. Shoppers consider “ugly” food as less tasty and also as less healthy and therefore refrain from buying it. Because of this blemish producers have to throw away produce before it even arrives at supermarkets. As a consequence, many European retailers try to promote “ugly” food amongst shoppers through specific labels. A study assesses the effectiveness of such labels in a series of experiments. It finds that

  • Ugly labeling can significantly increase shoppers’ likelihood to purchase unattractive products (+20% compared to no labeling) and also has a significant impact on shoppers’ average spend (+50%). See figure.
  • Ugly labeling works best in combination with a moderate discount of 20% compared to a steep discount of 60%. A very high discount on unattractive food signals low quality and offsets the positive effect of the ugly label.
  • Ugly labels positively change shoppers’ expectations of imperfect food, especially with respect to taste and health. The label corrects for consumers’ negative biases against unattractive food and increases choice likelihood.
  • The word “ugly” is more effective compared to the word “imperfect”. While “imperfect” is currently a popular signifier for unattractive food, it is less effective than the word “ugly”.

Ugly labels represent a simple marketing strategy to signal that unattractive products do not have any deficiencies but their aesthetics. Retailers rarely label unattractive products but offer a steep discount instead, which hurts their bottom line. Ugly labels can be a major initiative to promote visually imperfect food amongst shoppers and to reduce food waste globally.

Siddhanth Mookerjee, Yann Cornil, & Jo Andrea Hoegg (2021). From Waste to Taste: How “Ugly” Labels Can Increase Purchase of Unattractive Produce. Journal of Marketing.