Shakespeare was wrong. He assured us that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. One reason that is such a beloved line is its comforting message that intrinsic quality, rather than external labels, is what really counts. But recent research from a Harvard Business School professor suggests that, at least when it comes to the written word, labels matter quite a lot.
That is one of the conclusions of not-yet-published work by Bharat Anand, the professor at Harvard, and Alexsander Rosinski, a former visiting researcher there. The two wanted to figure out two things: whether brands influence our perceptions of quality, and whether adjacent advertising does.
It has become conventional wisdom to believe that information has been commodified. Google is the great leveller, with algorithms that can promote content-farm stories ahead of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigations. But it turns out that, to readers, provenance still matters a lot.
The two researchers took a story about Greek public finances that appeared online on the Huffington Post and showed it to a test group of 700 readers in three forms: as an unlabeled piece published online, as an online piece published by the Huffington Post and as an online piece published by The Economist.
The scent of this rose depended very much on its name: When respondents believed they were reading an Economist story, they rated its quality at 6.9 on a scale of 10; when the same piece was attributed to the Huffington Post, it drew a score of 6.1; and when it had no label, it scored just 5.4.