Making Sense of Sensory #1: Go beyond liking, towards meaning

By Andrew Wardlaw & Caroline Withers

In the first of three articles with a sensory theme, we explore the benefits of taking a sensory led approach to brand, pack and product development. We question whether ‘Liking’ and ‘Overall Opinion’ can survive as primary action standards in light of the high number of product failures.

What is Sensory?

Why do consumers really like the products they like?  On the face of it a simple question, but in reality one of the hardest questions for product research to answer with confidence. ‘Sensory Science’ allows the untrained professional to really understand what is going on when consumers experience products. Through a detailed evaluation of product attributes, research can guide product development and improvement in a clear and detailed way, all with the overarching objective of creating the most optimum product experience.

Accessing the Non-conscious

Consumers know what they like and they don’t struggle to tell us. Whilst we might be able to expand on our reasons for liking (or not), our initial reaction is always instinctive – and true.

Such reactions (fast, intuitive, emotion based) are ‘System 1’ thinking. When we’re asked to consider the reasons why we feel a particular way about a product, a more considered and deliberate ‘System 2’ thought process takes over.

Capturing true responses from research participants poses an interesting challenge. Measurement of ‘gut’ non-conscious reactions and their triggers are desirable. However, they are often beyond the reach of traditional approaches.

Sensory Led, Not Sensory

Most organisations will be using sensory techniques in product development and testing. For example, ‘Just About Right’ (J.A.R) and ‘Liking’ scores are commonly used to guide developers towards a better outcome. However, some organisations are discovering a more fundamental role for sensory across innovation, renovation and reformulation.

With a sensory led approach, a brand team is committing to understanding the role and influence of non-conscious sensory cues. It’s no longer all about liking – rather it is about the subtleties that drive the meaning consumers attach to brand, pack or product. By doing so, the team is getting closer to basic human instinct – unlocking the deeper meaning we attach to every touch, taste, smell, sight and sound we encounter. Much of this interaction is fleeting and occurs without us being consciously aware.

By taking a sensory led approach, the team also accepts that consumers don’t make a clear delineation between brand, pack and product. They accept that each component has the opportunity to influence the other.

So what’s the aspiration for a sensory led project? To create seamless alignment across all touchpoints – with the consumer experience realising the same conceptual cues in store (pack) and during consumption (product) – triggered & reinforced by the brand meaning overall.

For example, let’s look at household brand Cillit Bang. Over the years, it has commanded a series of associations akin to ‘Powerful’, ‘Bold’, ‘Brash’, ‘Lively’ and ‘Aggressive’. These functional and emotional descriptors were initially generated by memorable advertising, but were very effectively carried through into the packaging and the product. For anyone who has ever cleaned their shower with ‘Cillit Bang’, watching the cleaning foam at work could very likely elicit the same set of associations – albeit non-consciously. This brand, we believe is a great example of sensory led innovation – where all touchpoints are aligned and feed off of each other. The total is greater than the sum of its parts, one might say. It goes without saying that ‘Cillit Bang’ is not only still around, but continues to lead the category.

Overcoming Failure

We think many products fail because not enough attention is paid to creating a truly seamless experience. In most organisations, the brand, the pack and the product have separate teams and work streams. We know of several innovations where packs tested well and (separately) products tested well, but the in-market results did not live up to expectations. Our own post mortems often detect ‘disconnect’ between the emotional and functional associations elicited by pack – and that which is delivered by product. In other words, despite being ‘Liked’, brands were promising one thing and delivering another.

A sensory led approach, without labouring the finer details, helps brand owners understand how to physically embed key emotional and functional equities.  So, the skincare brand that seeks to be ‘caring’ and ‘nurturing’ will know exactly what colour palate, substrate and structures best deliver the desired equities. The product teams will know exactly what colour, viscosity, aromas and so forth will continue to deliver at the (instinctive) moment of truth.  More to the point, a sensory approach will have ensured that the brand experience has been more immersive: without dissonance.

Tapping into Science

It’s worth noting that a full sensory led approach will tap into the expertise of a sensory science panel. Panellists demonstrate high levels of sensory acuity and articulacy, and can map the physical sensory attributes exhibited by packs and/or products (and the intensity therein). Panel observations are then matched with implicit consumer data which captures the real world meaning ordinary folk decode from these physical attributes. This combination of panel observation and consumer data is hugely powerful because it informs brand owners which combinations of sensory cues best amplify the desired brand message.

The Opportunity to Change

With brands under pressure to deliver margin enhancing NPD, there is every reason for brand owners to explore if a sensory led approach could underpin pack and product initiatives.

For your next project, try thinking beyond the obvious ‘Overall Opinion’ and direct ‘Purchase Intent’ metrics. These are not wrong in themselves, but make a case to go deeper – to capture the non-conscious meaning that consumers take from the encounter (say of pack, or product). Is such meaning aligned? Is it desirable?

In our next article, we’re going to explore the impact of ‘millennials’ on in store decision making and make the case for harnessing sensory techniques that communicate on the non-conscious level.  Until then, we welcome comments and questions.

Co-authored by Andrew Wardlaw, Director of Insight & Dr Caroline Withers, Associate Director of Sensory & Innovation – MMR Research Worldwide.