Most people in the food industry know what sensory evaluation is – or at least have heard of it, even if they aren’t completely sure what it involves. Something to do with taste tests and finding out if people like our products, right? Absolutely – that’s one, rather useful part. But sensory science and the related field of consumer research has a lot more to offer – things that can make the work you do every day easier, faster, and more productive whether you’re in R&D, manufacturing, marketing, sales, or other areas.
Sensory science involves measuring and analyzing people’s perceptions to products. There are certainly more technical definitions but the basic concept is that we use the highly specialized human brain and the associated senses (taste, smell, touch, sight, sound, etc.) to tell us about products and the consumption experience. Combined with the attitudes, behaviors, and emotions captured by consumer science, you have an extremely powerful tool that can be put to seemingly endless uses:
- Testing the acceptability of/preference for existing products and new prototypes: this is what most people think of when they think of sensory work. Useful during product development and as confirmation of product quality, it is also a great way for sales and marketing to showcase their products to retailers.
- Providing diagnostic information on products/prototype formulations: answer questions about new or existing products and receive directional guidance for adjusting prototype formulations. This kind of information makes product development more efficient and reduces time to launch. Examples of questions answered: does this product have enough flavor? Is the aftertaste too strong…and is it the aftertaste or something else that affects how much people like it? What kind of “strawberry” do people want – jammy, candy-like, natural? How is the new liner in our packaging affecting perceptions of the product inside?
This can provide incredibly useful findings. In a test my business conducted on yogurt-covered raisins, we not only provided direction for the addition of new ingredients but also found that the original, beloved product had more yogurt than consumers wanted. The company was ecstatic to learn it could make a well-liked product even better – and save money by reducing the coating at the same time.
- Assessing product usage/performance: determine whether your product, packaging, or other aspect is performing as expected. Spreadable cream cheese kind of loses its charm if people can’t spread it.
- Optimizing ingredients/raw materials: assess ingredients/materials sourced from potential new suppliers or reduced cost substitutions. Can your customers tell the difference – and if they can, is it a large enough difference to be meaningful?
- Benchmarking and category appraisals: compare products to your past formulations, gold standards, and competitors. Are your new formulations moving too far away from what your customers expect? This is also effective for retailers to compare products from different manufacturers when making decisions on products to offer.
- Determining sensory shelf life: for many products, color changes, off-flavors, off-odors and other attributes are the first indicators of quality issues or defects. Gauging perceptions over time can help ensure your product will be of acceptable quality when the consumer takes it home.
- Profiling products: describe characteristics, similarities and differences among sets of products using trained panels, informed consumers, and/or rapid profiling techniques. This is a useful means to assess consistency in manufacturing, storage, and transport of your products.
- Innovations work and concept development: use consumers to investigate new innovations and concepts to provide early-stage guidance to marketers and developers.
- Uncovering consumer attitudes and behavior: determine how consumers think, feel, act, and experience products and food issues important to them. Can be used to provide direction and understand what issues to pursue as a business strategy (ex: sustainability, genetic modification, natural ingredients, etc.), as well increase brand awareness and loyalty.
- Lexicon development: generate a common language related to your products for all functional areas within your company to improve communication and efficiencies among business units, customers, and consumers.
As you can see, conducting sensory and consumer research has benefits beyond just determining consumer preferences and can be applied to numerous areas in your business efforts. But doing this kind of work often requires a mix of analysis techniques, sound research principles, knowledge of social psychological and other academic principles, technical science skills, and a strong grasp of statistics – things for which good sensory/consumer researchers are trained. Speak with a sensory professional about your R&D/marketing needs; they will work with you to ensure that your efforts are more effective, efficient, and advantageous.
Dr. Rena Shifren owns and operates ProSense Consumer Research Center, a full-service sensory and consumer research facility in Tucson, Arizona. She is an unabashed sensory geek with more than two decades of experience in the consumer insights arena and personally manages every project at the ProSense facility.
For more information or questions, email Rena at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her office at 520-881-0441.