I am currently undertaking a Masters in Gastronomy at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, and for one assignment, I had the opportunity to explore some really fascinating psychological and neuroscientific research about people’s perceptions of taste and flavour. This burgeoning field of study is known as “neurogastronomy”, and it offers some pretty interesting insights for food marketers. Below, I have pulled out four top tips from the experimental evidence I read, to help food brands enhance the sensory qualities of their products – simply through their marketing techniques.
But first, here’s the science.
Taste versus flavour – what’s the difference?
In everyday language, the words “taste” and “flavour” are often used interchangeably, and will be in this article too. However, technically, “taste” is only sensory information detected by your taste buds, whilst “flavour” is the complex accumulation of multi-sensory information (from your tongue, nose, touch, ears and eyes) to determine a flavour “profile” of the food as a whole. Think about how a child pinches their nose and screws up their eyes when eating something they dislike; this limits the flavour input from the smell and sight of the offending foodstuff. This is a fundamental point to remember: we eat with all our senses.
Another theory gaining traction in the academic world is that certain functions of the brain, especially memory and expectation, play a key role in discerning flavour too. Therefore, what we think affects how we process flavour. I like this quote from Montanari (2004):
The organ of taste is not the tongue, but the brain, a culturally (and therefore historically) determined organ through which are transmitted and learned the criteria for evaluations.
So, what does this mean for marketers? Let’s explore some of the research…
Marketing tips for food brands
- Invest in branding
Allison and Uhl (1964) were the first to demonstrate the power of branding over taste perception. They showed that experienced beer drinkers were not able to discern their favourite product in a blind tasting, however, when evaluating beers with their labels on, the drinkers reported better ratings across all quality measures for their preferred brand. More recently, Hoegg and Alba (2007) showed a similar result for orange juice. Despite being unable to distinguish which cup truly contained Tropicana, 67% of participants reported a taste preference for it.
This shows how important it is for food brands to invest in their branding and build brand awareness. A brand is a promise; it sets an expectation that is seemingly difficult to override.
- Deliver what you promise
On a related note, scientists have found that products that deliver on their promise and satisfy a consumer’s expectation are more likely to elicit positive responses. Whilst modernist cuisine successfully disrupts people’s expectations to surprise and delight, outside of a Michelin Star context, incongruence between expectation and reality can backfire on a food brand.
To illustrate this phenomenon, Heston Blumenthal co-designed a study, conducted in a food lab, which tested eater’s reactions to a unique frozen dish made of puréed smoked salmon (Yeomans et al. 2008). To half the participants, they introduced it as “ice cream” and to the others, they called it “savoury frozen mousse”. The product was pink, so it could easily be misinterpreted via visual cues as tasting fruity. When participants sampled the dish, those who were told it was ice cream, and thus experienced sensory incongruence, deeply disliked it; meanwhile, those who expected savouriness rated it much better. Moreover, those in the ice cream condition described the flavour as saltier and stronger, suggesting the taste qualities were perceived differently because of the surprise element.
- Choose colours wisely
As with the pink ice cream above, there are lots of experiments that test whether the colour of a food product, or its packaging, has an impact on taste perception. My favourite study used M&Ms. Shankar et al. (2009) investigated whether the labels and colours of M&Ms affected the consumer’s perception of chocolatiness. All the sweets were exactly the same, but some were labelled “milk”, others “dark”; some had brown shells whilst others had green shells. They discovered that, not only do the labels and colours affect people’s reports of flavour intensity separately, but that there was also a cumulative effect: the M&Ms with brown shells and labelled “dark” were considered the most chocolatey.
It’s important to note, however, that colour psychology is not an exact science and highly dependent on context and cultural norms. For instance, red has been shown to enhance the perception of spiciness in one experiment and fruitiness in another.
- Write expressive copy
Labelling and advertising copy have attracted particular scrutiny from researchers, suggesting that language is essential to flavour perception. Wansink et al. (2005) found that evocative naming of dishes resulted in higher pleasure ratings than standard labels in a university cafeteria. Similarly, Elder and Krishna (2010) discovered that print advertising copy, and even three-word slogans, can enhance a person’s taste perceptions. They demonstrated that when text appealed to multiple senses, rather than just “taste”, crisps, chewing gum and popcorn were rated as better quality and more delicious.
Language can induce flavour expectations when it is not even a familiar word. Ngo et al. (2011) tested participants’ perceptions of milk versus dark chocolate cocoa content in relation to divergent nonsense words and shapes. They found that a higher cocoa content was associated with angular shapes and sharp, front vowel sounds, whilst a lower cocoa content was associated with smooth shapes and round, back vowel sounds. This offers marketers food-for-thought when considering the logo, brand name and graphic design for their products.
I’ve only been able to touch on some of the exciting, emerging research into taste perception. There are also studies which show pointy packaging can make yoghurt taste sharper, restaurant music can make a dish taste spicier and louder crunching noises can make crisps taste fresher!
The evidence suggests that food brand marketers have a lot of psychological tools at their disposal to help their product get noticed, build brand loyalty and offer an enhanced sensory experience.
ALLISON, R.I. and UHL, K.P., 1964. Influence of beer brand identification on taste perception. Journal of Marketing Research. August, vol. 1, pp. 36-39.
HOEGG, J. and ALBA, J.W., 2007. Taste perception: more than meets the tongue. Journal of Consumer Research. March, vol. 33, pp. 490-498.
MONTANARI, M., 2004. Food is culture. New York: Colombia University Press.
NGO, M.K., MISRA, R. and SPENCE, C., 2011. Assessing the shapes and speech sounds that people associate with chocolate samples varying in cocoa content. Food Quality and Preference. vol. 22, pp. 567-572.
SHANKAR, M.U., LEVITAN, C.A., PRESCOTT, J.B. and SPENCE, C., 2009. The influence of color and label information on flavor perception. Chemosensory Perception. June, vol. 2, no. 2, pp 53-58.
WANSINK, B., VAN ITTERSUM, K. and PAINTER, J.E., 2005. How descriptive food names bias sensory perceptions in restaurants. Food Quality and Preference. vol. 16, pp. 393-400.
YEOMANS, M.R., CHAMBERS, L., BLUMENTHAL, H. and BLAKE, A., 2008. The role of expectancy in sensory and hedonic evaluation: the case of smoked salmon ice-cream. Food Quality and Preference. March, vol. 19, pp. 565-573. 9 \