Writing in the journal Flavour, the scientists explain that consumers reliably match a variety of tastes, flavours and oral-somatosensory attributes – such as carbonation, oral texture, and mouth-feel – to abstract shapes varying in angularity.
“For example, they typically match more rounded forms such as circles with sweet tastes and more angular shapes such as triangles and stars with bitter and/or carbonated foods and beverages,” they said.
Led by Dr Charles Spence from the University of Oxford, UK, the researchers suggested that such shape symbolic associations could be – and in some cases already are being – incorporated into the labelling and packaging of food and beverage products “in order to sub-consciously set-up specific sensory expectations in the minds of consumers.”
“We believe that the targeted use of such shape symbolism may provide a means for companies to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace,” said Spence and his colleagues.
“The shapes a consumer sees on the label and even the shape of the packaging in which the product is served can all impact on a consumer's sensory-discriminative and hedonic responses to food and beverage products.”
“We believe that the appropriate utilization of shape symbolism in the marketplace may have a number of advantages when compared to other more traditional marketing techniques.
They suggested that shape symbolism effects are more likely to work in a global industry, like the food industry – since they are typically unaffected by language. However the use of shape symbolism on product packaging also seems to have the advantage that it can set up sensory expectations in the mind of the consumer whether or not they happen to be paying attention to the meaning of the shapes that they are exposed to, said Spence and his colleagues.
“One could [also] imagine using shape symbolism in order to enhance sweetness or saltiness, say, when the actual formulation of various popular brands has been modified in order to meet the latest health targets,” suggested the researchers.
The researchers noted that the effect of capitalizing on such correspondences between shape and taste/flavour for commercial applications “definitely needs longer-term follow-up studies in order to demonstrate the potential implications of shape symbolism to marketing in the food and beverage sector.”
For example, it will also be crucial to demonstrate that the use of such shape symbolism impacts on consumers’ choice between products in more realistic environments – such as the supermarket aisle – they said.
“It will also be interesting to investigate whether any shape symbolic expectations can be maximized by making sure that, where possible, the shape symbolic associations of the shape of the packaging, label, and even logo convey a congruent message,” they said.
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1186/2044-7248-1-12
“Assessing the shape symbolism of the taste, flavour, and texture of foods and beverages”
Authors: C. Spence, M.K. Ngo