Engineering sensory experiences

Humans are multi-sensory organisms! We navigate the world around us through five senses all working in parallel, deriving not only practical information about our surroundings, but also emotional and social meaning.  In milliseconds we unconsciously make decisions that keep us alive, shape our day, define our preferences and ultimately drive our choices.

As we are exposed to new sensory experiences, we develop deep seated cognitive constructs that in turn further influence our decision-making – perhaps the illusive sixth sense!

Our perceptions of flavour and fragrance in our food and drink is one of the most hard-wired responses.  Initially designed to help the human species survive and reproduce by finding things safe to consume, after the more recent industrialisation of food it has become an opportunity to engineer the parameters that influence preference, liking and consumption.

Today an entire industry has grown up around flavours and fragrances; sensory sciences came of age as a discipline to help objectively understand, parameterise, and engineer the specific attributes that impact on our choices. Sensory Panels, expert groups of individuals, carefully trained to objectively parameterise different formulations are core to the development of new product specifications; from defining our favourite toothpaste mouth tingle, to building corporate confidence in the transition to a sugar substitute in a $bn snack brand (our team have worked on both!), it is likely that a sensory expert will have been involved along the way! 

But is this, in many ways standardised approach, limiting us? Are opportunities being missed to leverage this scientific rigour and usefully blend it with subjective consumer perception? How should sensory science engage with global trends, omni-channel product experiences, the circular economy, declining brand loyalty and steady growth of e-commerce?

At CDP we are working in a number of ways (two of which we’ve outlined below) to make product specifications more commercially effective, and more sensorially affective, and we had the chance to display some of our work at the Pangborn Sensory Science Symposium last year.

1. Look beyond flavour, fragrance and mouth-feel!

Online grocery shopping is growing rapidly, and yet the physical pack interaction experience has always been central to in-store decision-making.  While traditional sensory sciences often bias us towards flavour and fragrance, the old proverb reminds us that the first bite is with the eye, and CDP’s team believe that other senses can be leveraged through intelligent packaging design to amplify under-utilised sensory cues.  Our Front End Innovation team have developed a methodology to effectively translate formulation attributes into packaging parameters to help reinforce the anticipation of consumption at the first moment of truth. We have worked closely with the makers of some of the most famous mayonnaise and spreads brands in the world to, for example, elicit, create and reinforce positive haptic cues in the jar lid, giving confidence in the seal and re-seal experience, and to premiumize the acoustic signature of the thin-walled pack-lid on repeat opening. Even the maker of dry, powdered soups and bouillons was able to leverage packaging parameters that positioned the product closer to more desirable attributes of naturalness and freshness. Our team includes scientists and engineers, which means we can provide a rigorous quantitative technical specification for that enhanced, consumer-validated pack experience!

2. Involve the consumer!

Involve them precisely because they are not trained panellists; involve them in Sprints, and co-creation and in-home sensory research, as well as more traditional central location or lab testing! It can be extremely illuminating to involve consumers in exploratory formative research, rather than just for validation of what a sensory panel have advised or specified. Involving them early on can lead to serendipitous moments where new connections are made – leading to new value propositions, and opportunities for brand extension. It can also lead to surprising revelations that highlight some limitations of objective sensory science methods, when a consumer responds to small, almost imperceptible changes to a pack design in an unexpected way.

In many industries, the manufacturing and regulatory lead times and consumer loyalties associated with changing formulations can be far more restrictive than changing pack design; our work has demonstrated time and again that we can influence consumer perception of key formulation attributes such as efficacy, healthiness, freshness, and strength, even prior to first use, by making changes solely to the packaging look, feel, and sound. 

New products and experiences are coming onstream all the time, and for some of these a sensory panel base line or ‘normal’ specification does not yet exist; we have recently been working on an entirely new category of product which demanded a new sensory protocol to be created, and which at the heart of it considered how the device and formulation had to work in harmony to create the consumption experience. We were excited to pioneer a collaboration between our team and affective methodologies, with those of a more traditional flavours and fragrance partner, and the result is an optimised, category transforming product-formulation experience.

As a sensory industry, we need to re-imagine the relationship between the formulation and the devices or packaging containing and dispensing it; it is a closer and more mutually symbiotic relationship than past practice gives credit to. Through this insight we have more opportunity than ever before to positively engineer a multi-sensorial consumer experience that truly delights.

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Ben Strutt

Partner and Head of Front End Innovation