Read almost any report on improving food or drink products or developing new ones such as plant-based meat and dairy alternatives and they will, quite rightly, tell you that getting the flavour right is vitally important.
Almost every company that I speak with are doing comparative taste tests with their product development samples against their existing or competitive products. “We must win, or at least have parity, in taste preference before we can launch.”
But are they asking the right question?
When launching a new or modified product, it is generally targeting a slightly different niche in the market. Zero sugar drinks are for soda drinkers that want to consume less sugar, plant-based meat and dairy alternatives for people who choose to eat less meat and dairy. Traditional research may tell us that consumers want these products to taste the same as the product that it is replacing, but that is just a reflection of how little consumers know about themselves and a major weakness of traditional research.
Coca-Cola or Pepsi Zero do not taste exactly like the classic versions and most original lovers will tell you they are not as good. But there are also many Zero lovers who will never return to the original.
Red Bull famously lost all its taste comparison tests before it was launched, but Matcschity launched it anyway.
Listerine is not the best tasting mouthwash, but millions of consumers around the world believe it to be the most effective.
Using psychology to get it right
When consumers say they like a product, what they mean is that they like the way it makes them feel. If you ask a consumer to compare a new or different product to a familiar one (a plant-based burger against a meat one for instance) they are likely to choose the original as it is familiar. However, there will always be a reason why consumers choose to move away from meat-based products or why they are choosing zero sugar drinks. There must be something in the consumption experience – in the taste and/or texture – that, consciously or unconsciously, reminds the consumer that this is a plant-based – or sugar free – product and confirms the choice that they have made.
The elements of the consumption experience that prompt this awareness may or may not be directly linked to the product modification. However, in the consumer’s mind, it endorses their decision. It makes them feel good about the choice they made.
Evolving paired association
When the consumer first tastes the new product, they may compare it unfavourably with the original – how did you feel the first time that you tasted your coffee or tea without sugar? – very quickly they learn to associate the new taste with the positive choice that they are making and very quickly they acquire the new taste and prefer it to the original.
The first time you tasted Red Bull you might not have liked it, but, if you chose it to give you a boost, you quickly become accustomed to, and even liked the flavour.
Zero sugar drinkers generally prefer the zero-sugar product to the original, even if they didn’t the first time they tried it.
Listerine users may find it challenging, but they soon learn to enjoy that challenge, and they love the clean fresh feeling that it leaves them with.
Flavour is important, but it is the holistic conscious and unconscious message that the consumer infers from the flavour that we need to understand. A simplistic preference test is asking the wrong question.
Understanding the psychology of the consumer experience helps us to create new and modified products that work for the consumer and ensure brand evolution and longevity.
Chris Lukehurst is a Consumer Psychologist and a Director at The Marketing Clinic:
Providing Clarity on the Psychological relationships between consumers and brands