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Performance Brands Produce a Placebo Effect: Proof You Really Will Golf Better With a Nike Branded Club

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The placebo effect is as strong with Nike and 3M as it is with sugar pills.

Any golfer worth their snuff has, at some point in their life, spent way too much money on name-brand clubs, stepped up to the first tee feeling like a cross of Tiger Woods and Thor, and then promptly shanked their first ball into the forest.

But new research led by Frank Germann, of the Department of Marketing in the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business, finds that the halo effect of an elite performance brand can actually affect your athletic performance for the better.

Here's how the study was conducted. Over a series of studies, roughly 200 students were handed a putter and tasked with sinking putts from various spots on a green. Half were told it was a Nike putter—what they viewed as a strong performance brand, according to a poll—the other half were told that it was a Starter brand putter, which they viewed as a weak performance brand, or just a no-name generic putter.

And even though the putter itself was exactly the same in all circumstances, subjects took 20% less strokes to sink putts with the Nike than either the Starter or generic branded putter.

Germann has an important caveat to these findings, though. "Please note that we only looked at short-term effects," he says. "We don't know if these performance improvements would hold over time." Another thing researchers don’t know? Whether or not the effects might be cumulative. Because whereas Germann’s team was able to get similar results in another branding study, in which people testing fake "3M" earplugs thought they canceled out more sound than a generic brand, they haven’t tried, say, handed an athlete a Nike putter, a Titleist ball, and a Callaway driver to see if the placebo effect of each product could stack to lower someone's handicap even further.

But the study is fascinating all the same. Because whereas the skeptics among us see brand names as a meaningless markup bought by millions of dollars of marketing, this research seems to imply that paying a surplus for a brand name alone might be worth it, assuming you believe in its power.

If a person thinks the brand will help them, then more often than not it will. 

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