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Multisensory - the interaction of the senses - has developed into an important buzzword in sensory and consumer research. But what exactly does it mean?
We've all been exposed to multisensory branding at some point or another. Let me take you on a short trip to a sensory conference that took place in Iceland in 2015 to give you a simple example. At the conference, sensory researchers, including Sven Henneberg, Senior Manager at isi, are testing some new beer creations. The testers concentrate on their test cups; with the first sip they react with smiles of satisfaction or disapproving winces. The beer tastes ... bitter, lemony, spicy. On the taste questionnaires, the beers do not fare well. Most testers mark the "dislike" box.
A short time later, the Icelandic hosts present the beers again, but this time they show the bottles too. Specially designed, trendy bottles that match the flavours inside: oats, orange peel, coriander. The testers start sipping again, this time with the bottles in full view. Up go the acceptance levels! The beer tastes o.k., some even like it a lot. The shift in perception demonstrates nicely how important the interplay of all the senses is to the way we form our impressions of taste.
There's nothing new to manufacturers about the importance of the senses to their products' acceptability. What is new is that they are putting this body of knowledge more and more to use in their product development processes. The result is products and brands that have real character and give consumers more than ever before, which is what makes them more popular than ever before. A product needs plenty of support before it can make that claim. That's where multisensory branding comes in. Robert Möslein, Managing Director at isi, talks about how multisensory branding works at isi.
"Multisensory branding helps a company establish products that are unique in their product category," says the Göttingen-based sensory research expert. Up to now, classical sensory research has been primarily concerned with investigating which sensory properties in a category - such as ice cream, juice, beer - are particularly appealing to consumers and can be defined as "drivers". This kind of search process is technically known as category appraisal. A test of variants of vanilla ice cream will determine, for example, that consumers prefer a creamy product with a certain level of sweetness. The problem is that every manufacturer in the sector then starts to develop vanilla ice cream that will meet this profile; they all go for the common denominator, so to speak. The result being that there's hardly any difference between the various vanilla ice cream offerings on the market.
The ironic thing about this trend is that consumers like having choice. That's why Magnum lovers want to hear that distinct crack when they bite into their chocolate ice cream, why Fisherman's Friends are looking for that special menthol kick, and why Ben & Jerry's fans just have to have thick chunks in their ice cream. All highly successful brands in their own right. Mostly unconsciously, consumers have internalized that no matter which individual product they eat, they will always have the particular brand's distinctive mark, the unique crack, the special kick or the inimitable chunk. "We call this the sensory cue, the sensory key," explains Robert Möslein. "It doesn't have to be the taste, it can be a fragrance, a kind of packaging, a texture, a shape, a sound, basically anything that appeals to our senses.
"So how do we find the sensory key? "To define the key, we need to move away from pure blind tasting towards a more holistic brand perception approach," says Robert Möslein. isi doesn't just ask what tastes best for consumers in a particular product category, but rather, What do people like about a brand, what do they expect from the brand and how can their expectations be best met? In a blind tasting, Schweppes would probably underperform, because most people like their lemonade sweet. But that's what Schweppes drinkers love most, that first strange twang moment when your taste buds are jolted into action.
In its sensory branding, isi doesn't just examine the category level, but goes deeper into the brand level to do a brand assessment ("brand appraisal"). For example, what is the special feature in a group of barbecue sauces that makes them unique to the consumer? "We look for the characteristic 'face' in a brand family," says Robert Möslein.
To do this, you have to ask different questions in the consumer tests to what used to be standard. The focus is on the associations the product triggers. Consumers will expect a certain bitterness from a North German beer that uses images of rough coastlines in its advertising, even if they previously preferred sweeter beers in a sensory blind test. The fit to the brand is more important than how much testers like a product. So why don't we just ask people: Do you think the beer fits the brand? The trouble is, we're not always aware of whether and why we like something. That's why isi makes use of implicit methods instead. These are methods that get an automatic response from consumers that they cannot control. The outlay for tests of this kind is comparable to traditional consumer tests, but they are more sophisticated.
isi has developed a proprietary test approach, isi ImplicitTesting, that determines spontaneous, less cognitively controlled associations and can be easily integrated into classic consumer tests.
The approach can be well illustrated in the example of a sensory consumer test for pils beer. A tester tastes one of the beers and sees at the same time various terms on a screen such as mild, bitter, gentle, sweet, tangy. If the product tester finds that the term 'tangy' fits the sample, s/he presses the Yes button, otherwise the No button. For analysis of the response, the answer the participant decides on is one factor, but the length of time needed for the response is also important.
The idea is that we tend unintentionally and almost free of our systematic thinking processes to click faster, if the sample and the term fit better together. Using the response times, isi researchers can extract a differentiated description of the associations that the product triggers in consumers. One quick look at the data shows isi employees and the customer whether these associations match those that the brand stands for. "In strategy dialogues with our clients, we depict their brand's core drivers and show how far the recipes they use cover these or not," says Robert Möslein. "These drivers should not be touched. On the contrary, they can be used to better align the product or a whole series of products to customer expectations. "We give our clients an analysis that allows them to optimize their recipes to meet the requirements of the product category and of the brand itself.
A beer brand that is defined in its essence by terms such as tangy, angular and edgy shouldn't change the recipe to be more fruity or less austere. The very reverse is true. It is vital that that special tangy touch, the sensory cue, is in all the beers of that brand, and that this quality is experienced through the other senses too. That is achieved with a brisk pop when opening the bottle, by a darker colour of the beer or a more angular shaped bottle. We know from multisensory research that various different perceptions interact to enhance product properties. Beer from a bulbous glass tastes fruitier, chocolates in red packaging sweeter.
Manufacturers who disregard the brand dimension and focus exclusively on the category when developing their product run a high risk of making their product indistinguishable and losing valuable custom in their public. Strong brands are aware of their potential.
1. Objective Description
A group of trained testers (descriptive panel) focuses on a particular product or product range and answers the following questions: What sets the product apart from the competition? What connects all products of this brand?
2. Subjective Measuring
Untrained consumers test a variety of different products that include brand products and competitive articles. This is where "isi ImplicitTesting" comes in. In this way, the spontaneous associations connected with all samples are measured.
Our statisticians at isi take the results of the tests to analyze the key attributes of the brand and its drivers. These are visually illustrated on a sensory map.
isi managers use the sensory map to support customers in their strategic planning. This helps them optimize their recipes to ensure an even better match between brand expectations and product experience.
Manufacturers know their brands inside out. Sometimes, however, there is a gap between the world the brand represents and what consumers actually experience. isi Sensory Branding builds a bridge between the two worlds. "We support the experts in marketing and product development. They get to know the desires consumers have even better and are therefore in a better position to develop actionable recommendations that translate the new knowledge into new recipes. "
Dr. Fabienne Hübener is a freelance science journalist specializing in the senses and sensory research. She has been writing for our blog since 2017.