As a self-proclaimed impulse buyer, I am all too familiar with the trials, tribulations and joys attached to being a consumer. Many of us develop brand preferences and remain loyal to said brands for years. When you’re subconsciously reaching for that specific cereal on a routine grocery trip, do you ever stop to ask yourself what exactly it is about that brand that you enjoy so much? If you do, I’m impressed. If not, well . . . neither do I.
Despite most of us hardly ever pausing to consider the mechanics behind the products we know and love, there are some who specialize in it. One of these brand experts is Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University. Spence studies the sensory interaction that is responsible for creating our consumer experiences. His research in the field of consumer psychology and multisensory perception has made him an asset to many major brands.
Spence’s experiments inspire both awe and disbelief regarding consumers’ tendencies to be influenced by surrounding stimuli when interacting with a product. In an experiment that gained him recognition, he analyzed whether a potato chip would taste different if the sound of its crunch were altered. All test subjects were fed chips that did not vary much in terms of shape and texture—Pringles were chosen as the chip of choice due to their uniformity. Situated in front of a microphone inside a soundproof booth, the subjects could hear every bite they took through a set of headphones. From outside of the booth, Spence tweaked the crunch sound they were hearing by means of an amplifier and equalizer. Nearly all of the volunteers reported that the chips were different.
Further studies by Spence and other researchers have revealed additional fascinating consumer insights. Lab studies have shown that the color red suggests sweetness, that names with “k” sounds can be associated with a bitter taste and that curved shapes (be it the shape of the food or the plate it is served on) enhance the sweetness that the consumer experiences.
Spence believes these findings can explain certain product failures. Coca Cola’s special edition white cans failed due to consumer confusion with Diet Coke cans and complaints of a different taste from the usual red cans. Cadbury had a similar experience—when they changed the shape of their milk chocolate from square to curved, customers thought it was too sweet. The candy company also had little luck with a product that included “KOKO” in its name.
Although they may seem quirky, these discoveries may improve the quality of many consumer experiences. Heston Blumenthal, a notable chef Spence has been working with for over twelve years, combines food and music to heighten taste for diners at his restaurant. One of his dishes comes with an MP3 player programmed with beach sounds to accentuate the taste of the food.
Next time you sit down to eat, remember, it’s not just taste that is influencing your experience. That’s just the way the chip crunches.
Did You Know?
Charles Spence won an Ig Nobel Nutrition Prize for his potato chip study. The Ig Nobel Prizes “honor achievements that make people laugh, and then think.”