photo: highstyllife.com
photo: highstyllife.com

We’ve all had that moment.

While on vacation you eat or drink something that is so transcendentally delicious, it instantly ranks among the best things you’ve ever had. The pleasure is so deep and complete it’s like your taste buds are hard-wired to your very soul. “Do I detect a hint of fresh mint, or is that MDMA? Either way, I want more.”

So you buy up as many cases as you can get through customs, or obsessively hunt down the recipe to recreate it a home. But, despite your best efforts, it’s never quite the same. Sure, it’s good, but it’s not as good as you remember it.

What’s going on here? A temporary insanity of the taste buds?

Well, sort of.

Consider this: In 2008, a group of neuroscientists in California conducted an experiment that shed new light onto how we taste. Twenty volunteers were strapped into an fMRI scanner and given samples of wine. Among them were tastes from a “$10” bottle and a “$90” bottle that, in reality, were the exact same wine. It should come as no shock that the subjects, being every bit as insecure and eager-to-impress as the rest of us, claimed to prefer the “more expensive” wine. What was interesting, however, is that they weren’t lying. Imaging from the fMRI showed the so-called $90 wine lighting up areas of the brain associated with pleasure that remained relatively dark for the same wine with a $10 price tag.

Imagine how that wine would have tasted if he wasn’t strapped to this damn machine.

What this study illuminates, is how our expectations shape our experiences. They don’t just set the mood, they alter our perceptions.

Those moments of gastronomic bliss we experience on vacation are the product of a series of expectations being set and delivered on, culminating with that one mouthful that seals the deal. Before anything passes your lips, you were primed by a symphony of sensorial and emotional factors working in happy harmony—the sun, the sand, the sound of the waves, your relaxed, up-for-whatever attitude. All of these elements are whetting your appetite for a bit of food or drink that, at this point, has to do very little to explode your pleasure receptors. Even if it was a beer that smelled of “sulfur, faint skunk, [and] mild overcooked veggies,” we wouldn’t mind, as long as it jived with the landscape. And a lime wouldn’t hurt.

But this lesson has legs way beyond boozing on the beach. It’s the telling distinction between a good product and great brand. The best brands transcend the transactional. They maintain a relationship with customers by continuously setting expectations and fulfilling them.

Take Apple for example (I know, I know, a brand guy referencing Apple—talk about not violating expectations): The in-store experience is a model of thoughtful simplicity. You take your iPhone or iWhatever home and open the packaging. Again—thoughtful simplicity. By the time you swipe your first screen, you’re so steeped in the gospel of thoughtful simplicity it feels less like piece of hardware and more like an extension of yourself. That feeling of delight that we get as a user isn’t the byproduct of that swipe alone, but of the overall experience. A chain reaction of expectations being teed up and knocked out of the park.

These days more and more people are appreciating the importance of brand experience. But many still treat it as a nice-to-have—some extra credit effort to encourage more enthusiasm from your customers.

A modern understanding of the brain, however, begs to differ. People don’t compartmentalize what you sell from the stories and experiences that surround it. Your products and services will be outfitted in their memory with the stain or gold star awarded by their overall experience.

Who knew you could learn so much from a drink on the beach?