Harmonising flavours across markets


Most global brands adjust their products to suit local markets. A McDonald’s burger in China is very different from one in the Philippines, or in the US or the UK. Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Nescafé all tailor their products to better suit local taste palates.

If you want to be the leader in every market in which you operate this makes sense, but it also has cost issues, further complicating the business with different recipes and specific production runs or even different production facilities for different markets.

Post-pandemic, with renewed focus on supply chain, production efficiencies and costs, many companies are looking to rationalise their recipes reduce complexity and find more recipes that work across more markets. There was, however, good reason to offer different flavours across different markets where cultures, food histories and consequently tastes often differ considerably.

The world is getting smaller, we are sharing an increasing number of global cultural references, people travel more, experience – and enjoy – a wider range of food cultures and flavours, and even seek these out in their own markets back home. But culture, and particularly food culture, is deep rooted.

It starts even before we are born, as we experience the flavours of our mother’s food in the amniotic fluid that surrounds us in the womb. After birth, we assimilate the aromas and flavours that we experience a babies, toddlers and throughout childhood. Our culture is expressed in the meals we eat every day, at home, at school, at parties and celebrations, when we get together with friends and family.

It is not conscious, and in the vast majority of cases it is not purposely engineered, but our culture shapes the foods, beverages, flavours that we grow up with and shapes our likes and preferences as adults. So not only do China and America have different tastes so do Texas and Illinois, Germany and the Netherlands, London and Newcastle.

If you are to harmonise your flavours across markets, you have two options:

1.     Pick the flavour that is most popular with most people across the different markets.

2.     Find a flavour that delivers across the cultural differences and satisfies taste preferences in each of the markets.

Number 1 will inevitably mean that the preference of the biggest market overrides those of the smaller markets. There are examples where this works for certain brands, but it opens global companies to accusations of ignoring local cultural differences. It also creates opportunities for local competitors to out-manoeuvre you, to take a greater market share.

Option 2, finding a flavour that works across the different markets, a flavour that delivers across the cultural differences, can be difficult.

However, when you focus upon the emotional requirements for each culture and how your product meets these requirements it becomes a little easier.

Stop asking yourself what might be the best flavour across the markets and start to think about how you can match the emotional requirements of each market.

When consumers say that they like your product, what they mean is that they like the way that it makes them feel. Flavour and texture are the tools that you are using to deliver that feeling. When you focus upon the consumers’ feelings – the emotional delivery of your product – and think about flavour and texture as the tools that you are using to deliver that feeing – rather than as an end in themselves – getting a product that can deliver across different markets becomes much more achievable.

Nescafé had a very similar problem in the Philippines. They actually had just one recipe across the 7,000+ islands but different competitors were taking share in different regions of the archipelago. Nestlé were planning to change their recipe and offer different versions of Nescafé in different regions on order to maintain market leadership.

They asked us to look at how best to achieve this.

Very broadly we found two very different coffee cultures across the islands. In the coffee growing regions there was a culture based on the locally grown Robusta coffee for strong stimulating coffee, while in the fruit growing regions coffee had historically been made milder and was drunk more socially and to relax with.

Once we understood the emotional requirements in each region, we then identified how these emotions were delivered by the coffees in each market (Nescafé and its competitors). Having identified how the consumption experience of each coffee delivered the required emotions in each market we devised a taste curve for a single coffee recipe that would deliver stimulating in the coffee regions and relaxing in the fruit growing regions.

The Nescafé team were understandably sceptical having identified the very different properties of the competitors taking share in the different regions they were sure that they needed different recipes. However, they developed and tested our recommendation.

The new coffee not only proved to be better than the current recipe in every region, it also outperformed each competitor in each region.

If you want to harmonise recipes across different markets and different cultures, you can just opt for the flavour that is liked by most consumers. Alternatively, match consumers’ emotional requirements and you’ll soon discover a recipe that actually works brilliantly across the different food cultures.

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

Providing Clarity on the Psychological relationships between consumers and brand