Connecting sensory and behavioural science : A cheesy story


A good sensory analysis of a product will tell you the exact consumer experience. It will spot subtle differences and monitor any changes in the way that the product delivers with changes in season or as you change the recipe or production methods.

Behavioural Science will start to explain how the consumer interacts with the category, why they choose your product and how they respond to it.

Unfortunately, the two are rarely linked together in a truly explanative cause and effect way.

How does the consumer’s previous experience and expectations of the category and of the brand affect their expectations of the product and then how do the individual aspects of the consumer’s sensorial journey deliver – or fail to deliver – to those expectations?

Precisely which aspects of their consumption experience – their sensorial journey – affect their response to the brand, how and why?

When you can really connect these two disciplines you start to look at your brand differently. You start to understand which aspects of your sensorial delivery are important to which parts of your consumer behaviour. You start to think about communication messages and product development quite differently.

We were working for a major UK dairy company who had a Cheddar Cheese brand that was doing very well taking increasing share from branded competitors and retailer own brands. They had secured significant shelf space in all the major retailers. However, there was a limit to how much more share they could take and, if they were to continue to grow the brand, they needed to expand it into different products and maybe even beyond cheddar.

They knew from their own sensory panels and from consumer research and comments that their cheese had a ‘smoother’ taste than competitors’ cheeses and communicating this had been an important part of their success. But what did this “smoother taste” really mean and how did they take it into brand extensions?

We profiled the cheese alongside its competitors, understanding their sensory delivery and detailing how this delivered the consumers’ emotional journey. We understood exactly how the sensorial journey produced the consumers’ emotional journey, exactly which features prompted what responses and why. The order and intensity of the emotional responses and how the story came together to produce the consumers’ overall reaction to the cheese.

By understanding and connecting both the sensorial and emotional journeys of the product we could describe exactly what consumers mean when they said that it has a “smoother taste”. What it was about the sensorial journey that created this and why that was important to the consumer and their emotional response to the product.

The product is a mature cheddar cheese. Once we understood what it was about the cheese that was positively differentiating it for consumers and why, it was clear to us that the brand extension opportunities were in the direction of mild cheddars and children’s products. We started to prepare our report explaining why this was the case.

This, however, left us with one outstanding issue: The client already had an extra mature brand extension. Knowing what we now knew, this made little sense. We would never have recommended it, but it was out there on the shelves, and I had no idea how well it was selling.

So, I took our client through our findings with the intention of discussing the logic and performance of the Extra Mature brand extension.

However, as I explained the emotional journey that their consumers experienced and how and why this was prompted by the specific features of the product, the Marketing Director piped up; “So that is why the Extra Mature product is not doing very well, we need to move towards the mild products don’t we”.

The client had a great sensory understanding of their product, and they had good consumer research into how their consumers responded to their product. But it was only when we provided a clear link between how and why the consumers responded to each part of the sensory journey that they understood this clearly.

They now have a very strong range of mild and children’s cheese products that have taken the brand into its next growth phase.

Chris Lukehurst is a Consumer Psychologist and a Director at The Marketing Clinic:

Providing Clarity on the Psychological relationships between consumers and brands