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Battle of the Brands:
Consumer Research Challenges Tastebuds

Hey - it's lunchtime! How many calories do you suppose you're eating when you split a chicken nuggets meal with a friend? What if you eat the whole serving yourself? Have any idea how many calories are in that submarine sandwich and potato chips?

These and other burning questions about food were the subject of the 2004 Battle of the Brands, an annual study conducted under the auspices of the Food and Brand Lab in the College of Business. Brian Wansink, professor of business administration and director of the lab, offers students the opportunity to design and implement their own consumer studies as part of an independent study class in the lab.

Members of the Graduate Marketing Association (GMA) helped Wansink coordinate the logistics. "We provided the advertising and manpower and tried to get people involved," said Beth Jones, the president of the chapter. A second-year MBA student with a particular interest in marketing research and pricing, Jones said the Battle of the Brands is a great learning experience for anyone in her field.

Jones said the projects were "cool and relevant," citing one study designed to determine what type of person is predisposed to gain the infamous "freshman 15" - the additional pounds frequently put on when students start college. Other projects investigated situational overeating, sensory evaluations, packaging, and how mood impacts food choices.

One of the stations displayed four different portion sizes of two different lunch meals: a chicken nuggets and French fry combo called the "hearty" meal and a sub sandwich and chips plate dubbed the "healthy" meal. Participants had to compare the calories between the four portions and put the calorie difference on their survey forms. A series of personality questions followed. Wansink said that, in general, people overestimate the calories in the smaller portions but tend to underestimate on larger portions.

Real consumption in the name of market research took place at several of the stations. At one, participants were asked to sample several individually wrapped, randomly selected candies. All came from sources outside the US and proved that not all cultures agree on what constitutes a "candy" treat. After sampling their delicacies, participants were asked to rank their experience. The underlying research question being answered was how people think about what they eat. Does one bad sensory experience in a meal cause someone to consider the whole meal bad?

Garlic jelly beans were available at another table along with more traditional flavors like lemon and cherry. Participants were asked to consume the flavors they thought they would like the most and the least. And the flavor that fell at the midpoint of their list was also sampled. This sensory evalutation project in part looked at the order of consumption -- would you save your favorite flavor until last or would you eat it first?

The Battle of the Brands is in its seventh year. Results are available on the Food and Brands Lab website.

Scoping out portion size.

Jelly beans. Some are tasty. Some aren't.

The Battle of the Brands thrives on data.

Samples of "candy" were available at one station.