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April 14, 2011

Originally I had one monolithic (H.P. Lovecraft might have even called it cyclopean) post building on the subject of using psychology in menu design, specifically using price presentation to influence consumer spending. But in the interest of not assaulting you with yet another wall of text, I’ve decided to split it up into two tightly intertwined topics. Today we’re going to get into some of the psychology end of it, tomorrow we’ll be looking at the results of some studies putting all of this stuff into a practical context. But first, let’s talk about…

Menu Price Presentation

Not the best example of menu design


Semantic salience stems from the field of semiotics, which my dictionary—and by “dictionary” I mean “the dictionary app on my phone”—defines as “a philosophical theory of the functions of signs and symbols.” Which, as someone who somehow took a philosophy class in college but also somehow managed to never go, sounds absolutely terrifying. Hang on tight, though, and we’ll get through this together.

In semiotics, semantics refers to the relationship between signs and symbols and their meaning(s); this is pretty much the same way the word semantics works in regards to written/verbal language.

Salience is the relative conspicuousness of something in a given situation. So when we’re talking about semantic salience, we’re referring to how noticeable (and potentially important) a symbol’s meaning is to a specific situation or decision-making process.

Now that we’ve gotten the definitions out of the way, let’s apply this idea to the topic at hand: menu design. And, specifically, pricing. Not menu pricing, but price presentation. As an example of semantic salience, here are three ways of communicating the same thing:

  • $14.00
  • 14
  • fourteen dollars

All three of those are completely equal in meaning, but differ in saliency due to the baggage that such an explicit reference to money carries. I mean, for better or worse is there a more potent icon in our culture than the dollar sign? Within a commercial transaction (which eating out at a restaurant qualifies as), a dollar sign tends to be associated with having to pay, and having to pay tends to be associated with being a total drag. Which leads us to…


My dictionary app (note to self: buy an actual dictionary so you can feel smug while looking stuff up) says that priming is “the act of making something ready.” In psychological terms, it’s being exposed to a stimulus that influences a response to a later stimulus.

Let’s go back to our dollar sign and its presence all over our menu. It’s repetition increases its saliency, and its connotation for having to pay for stuff (and the buzzkill that goes along with that) can subconsciously prime people for that negative feeling when seeing it on our menu. Which, I might add, you don’t want associated with your menu at all, let alone when someone is trying to make a purchasing decision.

It can also trigger what’s known as “the pain of paying.” This is a phenomenon where someone (often subconsciously) anticipates having to pay for something (like a meal!) and in the ensuing bummer becomes more price conscious. As a result, they spend less money than they otherwise might have. That, obviously, isn’t good for you.


The takeaway here is that you don’t want people to be ordering from your menu based on price. You want to reduce the salience of the commerce involved and shift the focus to what matters most for both you and the customer: the food. Be sure to tune in to the thrilling conclusion tomorrow when we look at several studies that directly deal with these concepts and see how they can affect both your guests’ perspective and your bottom line! You’ll be shocked and amazed!

Until then, feel free to get in touch and see how Vanee Foods can help you!

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