Would a Chip of Another Crunch Taste as Fresh?

It may come as no surprise to marketers of consumer packaged goods that there’s a whole field of research dedicated to studying perceptions of the sounds and shapes of products—the crispy crunch of a chip and “ktsch-h-h-h-h-h” of an aerosol underarm spray. How do you feel when you hear the fizzy (or flat?) crack of a can of soda? Does a yellower hue of a can of 7UP lead you to experience a more lemony flavor?

An article in The New Yorker, “Accounting for Taste, dishes the details of this highly scientific enterprise into how curved shapes augment consumer perception of sweetness and other “sensation transferences,” as marketers call them. The goal in all of this is to help producers benefit from multi-sensory perception of products—from their color, the shape of their packaging, the sounds they emit, and the feelings (touch and emotional) they give us—in order to evoke an appealing impression of the brand.

The article is packed with fascinating findings, but the most compelling aspect is that the products are all completely identical within sensory perception studies; participants in one such seminal study by experimental psychologist Charles Spence of Oxford University listened to themselves (via headphones) eating nearly two hundred “thin, homogeneous, stackable parabaloid” Pringles!

The sound of the chip was manipulated by boosting or muffling certain frequencies and loudness and this dictated whether people judged the chips as fresh (louder, higher-pitched) or not (muffled). Auditory and visual cues alone influence how we literally experience food and other products.

So what does this all mean? It means packaging—and not just superficial appearance—can mean a lot when it comes to how consumers experience your products. Want your soups to taste saltier (so you can use less actual salt in your recipe)? The can should be blue. Are you targeting men? Well, the loudness of your deodorant spray better convey masculinity. Things can go wrong if you don’t take the multimodality of product perception into account. For example, Cadbury unwittingly made a faux-pas when it dubbed its supposedly sweet milk-chocolate truffles, “Koko.” The “K” sound inappropriately conveys bitterness to consumers. This is what linguists call “sound symbolism,” and, amazingly, much of it is universal among speakers of the world’s languages.

Similarly, the myriad perceptual cues nested in your products’ names, appearances, and sounds will reliably communicate a consistent message to your consumers who conveniently share perceptual physiologies. The trick is understanding the messages you are sending and making sure you are sending the right ones! When you do, this provides you with the perfect leverage point to take advantage of the subliminal messages of your brand and products, but when you don’t—as in the unfortunate Cadbury example—it can do your brand great harm.

Lesson here?  Do your research to better understand what will (and won’t) work to communicate the right multi-sensory perceptions of your products. Let us know…we’re here to help!