Emotional rescue: How tapping into food and mood can make or break a product

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

Ice cream often evokes strong memories from childhood. Image: Getty/puhimec
Ice cream often evokes strong memories from childhood. Image: Getty/puhimec

Related tags: Psychology, Flavor, sensory testing, Sensory panel, Emotion

A better understanding of the emotional impact of food can help manufacturers overcome the challenge of new products that fail, and also adapt to disruption in the industry.

Nathaniel Davis, a specialist flavour and fragrance lecturer based at the Université Côte d’Azur in world perfume capital Grasse, and whose training courses are now available online​, told FoodNavigator that the greater the emotion a product develops in consumers, the greater the chance the product has of being accepted by them.

Davis, also head of research consultancy Insight on Foods which specialises in the emotional messages from food consumption and which provides taste guidance to food and drink brands, states that food can drive significant emotions within us, which are usually formed in childhood.

A lime or tangerine flavour might suddenly whisk an adult back to happy memories of childhood, for example.  

"Certain tastes can trigger certain feelings,”​ said Davis. “It can often take people back to a very comforting time. Ice cream is a famously emotive food, for example, with a nurturing 'breast milk' kind of appeal to it. It triggers relaxation.”

Strong emotions linked to food are not necessarily always formed in childhood. A certain flavour might spark memories of falling in love, for example. Perhaps an exotic note will evoke far-flung places once visited.

Davis urges his students in the food industry to use this phenomenon “deftly and sensitively”​ to help their products gain acceptance.

Regression technique

Part of this involves teaching them ‘regression techniques’ to gain a better understanding of how flavours can trigger our emotions. The students can then use these techniques to discover more about their own target consumers.

Regression works by getting a person to talk about food and their relationship with it with the hope of discovering information that other techniques – such as surveys and questionnaires – may fail to uncover. Consumers, Davis contends, might not be able to verbalise why they do or don’t like something. 

Regression involves talking with consumers to take them back to their childhood memories to their first encounter with food and getting them to re-live it. This takes time. It may even seem mundane. But the detail can be invaluable, according to Davis.

“Say there was a taste that was well known in a childhood product which reminded people of childhood: of activity, of the outdoors. If discovering that certain flavour note would generate those sorts of feelings, you can apply that note in a product and in a sense borrow some of those emotions which have been generated by that well-known flavour note.”

Tapping regression techniques can also potentially invigorate a business, he believes.

"A big part of it is putting the consumer back at the centre of the business.”​ And learning how important food products can be in the daily lives of customers, and how much they enjoy them “can really re-energise a business”.

Why most products fail

Food brands often encounter the problem of a product succeeding in one marketplace yet failing in another. That’s because consumers based a different location, although they are tasting the same product, don't necessarily have the same emotional links to it, according to Davis.

Certain notes might even trigger unpleasant memories among a certain cohort, resulting in the product being rejected. Davis cited the example of a premium chocolate bar that was launched in China. The chocolate contained one flavour note which, although undetectable by most, reminded consumers of a certain age group of “cheap, generic government-provided baby milk”​ they were given as children. The product was then tweaked to remove this, for many, jarring note.

Adapting to generational shifts

All this is pertinent during a time when the food industry is witnessing huge disruption and a generational shift in consumer demand.

According to Davis, younger consumers, for a host of reasons, are increasingly shying away from the “guilty pleasure”​ items enjoyed by older shoppers.

Younger people want “less longer-lasting, guilt-inducing notes”​ for flavours that feel “more cleansing in the mouth”, ​he observed.

Consumers, he reckons, were once happy with either healthy food or great tasting food. Now they want both. “They are increasingly demanding,”​ he revealed. “They want sustainability, they want natural and clean label and less sugar.”

He added: “I think people have become more sensitive to what they're eating. They think if something tastes too good; it's too much guilt. And some mouthfeels can induce guilt, like if you have something which is very rich at the rear of mouth with a long melt. This can produce a lot of deep relaxation, which perhaps a generation ago would have been fine. Now a younger generation, only if they have a kind of cheat day would it be permissible.”

‘Consumer tastes change as their lifestyles do’

Flavourists, concluded Davis, "need to be aware of what exists in the mind of the market at that time. It's constantly shifting."

A better understanding of sensory marketing and the role of emotion in fragrance and flavour in NPD can help them better adapt to these shifts, he believes.  

"New products typically have 80-90% failure rates. Trying to reduce that figure is important, especially for new brands. And for people to get an emotional attachment to a brand, it's got to be as quick as possible. So if you can remove any hindrance, so much the better." 

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