Why subtle Sensory Differences can make a very Big Difference to Performance.


I was asked the other day, “how can we differentiate one minty toothpaste from another?” My response was immediate, “By tracking the consumers’ emotional response to them.”

If you ask the consumer what it tastes like they will tell you that it is minty. If however you track their emotional response to the toothpaste you will get very different responses to different toothpastes – even when they  say that they taste the same.

So why is this?

Our emotional response to an experience is not a logical thought through response, it is an instinctive immediate reaction. Not to any specific part of the experience but to all aspects of the experience as a whole.

So, while the consumer tells you that the minty flavour makes it fresh, we can see that their emotional response is to the way that the mint flavour is delivered, the cooling effect in the mouth, the thickness and feel of the toothpaste, even its colour and viscosity when viewed on the brush.

Our brain automatically absorbs a huge spectrum of information and experiences and reacts to these as a whole in quite a complex way. If asked about our response we simplify both the experience and our response to it. We pick one or two of the stimuli and attribute our main emotional response to these. Also, with our desire to appear logical and not too stupid, we ignore anything in our emotional response that seems illogical or contradictory to the main story that we are telling.

However, when we decode and track the emotional journey that the product takes our consumer on and then connect this emotional journey back to their sensorial experiences, we get a very different story.

A sensory expert will tell you that each minty toothpaste delivers its mint flavour differently from another. Some will start gently and build, some start more aggressively and decline in intensity. They have different levels of sweetness and different cooling properties in the mouth.

They will tell you that the viscosity and texture of the toothpastes are subtly different and how their aromas affect the way that they taste.

It is the same for any food or drink, also moisturising and cleansing products. Even very similar products have subtly different sensorial properties.

When you track how consumers’ emotional journeys are affected by these subtle differences, you see that even very subtle sensorial differences can have quite significantly different emotional effects.

Small differences in flavour profile, in texture or mouthfeel, in aroma and appearance can have significant affects upon the consumer reaction.

Not only can we tell the difference between two minty toothpastes, or between any selection of similar products (or prototypes) we can also identify the key sensorial features that differentiate the products and how to leverage this differentiation in product development and in communications.

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

Providing Clarity on the Psychological relationships between consumers and brands