Fighting perceived value

Travelers walking through an airport

Marketing assistant professor Kimberlee Weaver was sitting in a crowded airplane, awaiting take-off. After a two-hour wait, passengers had to disembark and switch aircraft. “Many were visibly irritated,” she said.

Seeking to make up for the inconvenience, the airline offered the following gift packet: a $35 discount coupon for future travel; an amenity coupon for a meal, premium beverage, or mileage bonus — and a 25-cent phone card.

The latter, amounting to about five minutes of free long-distance calling, “looked quite cheap,” Weaver recalled thinking at the time. “It may not even be enough time to arrange alternate transportation, given the two-hour delay.”

Weaver, whose research interests are in social cognition, social perception, and consumer welfare, couldn’t help contemplating the situation in terms of her occupational expertise.

Is it possible, she wondered, that the airline believed the 25-cent phone card would enhance customer evaluations of their damage-control efforts, but that it actually detracted from customer perceptions of the coupon package as a whole? “Could one of the world’s largest airlines be spending thousands of dollars each year on phone cards and inadvertently be hurting rather than helping their image?”

The phone card, she thought, was a good example of a research question that she and two other scholars were examining: Do companies or individuals presenting information correctly anticipate how the information will be combined in the minds of those who evaluate them? “It’s an important research question that previous studies have left open.”

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