New Approaches to Sensory & Consumer Research

Clearly in early 2020, like many industries, the market research industry was seriously challenged by the pandemic.  But now in 2021, here we are, and the industry is flourishing. At SAM we embraced new ways of connecting with consumers and investigated methods of collecting robust and reliable data and, many of these new ways of working are here to stay.

Key amongst these was running product tests in consumers’ homes.  Our ‘CLT at Home’ has steps in place to create a situation as close to a true Central Location Test as possible: close control on order of product assessment, timed breaks between samples for respondents to cleanse their palates, and time windows for completing the individual product questionnaire and survey overall.

Focus groups and in-depth interviews have also moved in-home and we have benefited from the depth of insight offered by consumers who are relaxed and comfortable at home.

The time also provided an opportunity to investigate new tools and for us, this meant voice technology.

The consumer experience of a product covers all aspects of its use, not just that of eating.  For a cheese for example, we might want to explore how it handles, the texture as it grates, consistency as it melts on toast, or the aromas released as it is stirred into a cheese sauce.

Collecting feedback from consumers whilst they are engaged in food preparation tasks is challenging.  Traditional methods require participants to use a product then stop to write or type responses, relying heavily on their willingness to pause the task at hand, and their recall of the experience. Furthermore, consumers can be wary of using their electronic devices for testing in steamy cooking environments where there is often water around and when fingers are sticky.

This is where voice technology comes in.  Our survey is programmed to a speaker, think Alexa, questions are asked by the device and the participant answers in a normal conversational style.

Responses can be numerical,
‘on a scale of 1 to 7 where 7 means like very much and 1 dislike very much how much do you like the aroma of this cheese as it melts?’
Or they can be descriptive,

‘tell me about the aroma of the cheese as it melts?’

Alternative laptop or phone-based applications allow a hybrid approach by interspersing voice response questions into a traditional keyboard entry questionnaire.

We apply emotional and sentiment analyses to the verbal responses.  These techniques evaluate tone of voice as well as the words to reveal the emotional connection with the products.  For example, strong emotions are triggered when volume and rate of speech are raised.

At SAM we are also investigating the use of voice technology in conjunction with trained sensory panels.  Sensory panels define and measure the individual sensory attributes that together create the overall product experience.  Using a technique called Descriptive Sensory Profiling they break down the experience into its component parts and measure the intensity of each. The aroma of a cheese may comprise lactic acid, milk, smoke, apple, and hazelnut notes.  Comparing the intensity of these notes across cheeses pinpoints their differences helping us understand the impact of process and recipe changes, or to interpret consumer choices.

Sensory panels traditionally focus on the eating experience working in standardized sensory laboratories and eating pre-prepared and pre-portioned product that is presented blind-coded.  But this doesn’t include any aspect of the product use experience. We know that consumer reaction to a product is about much more than just the eating.  It embraces reaction to the packaging, their impression of the uncooked product, and the preparation experience.  It follows therefore, that objective measures of the individual components of the holistic product experience can really add insight to the motivations behind purchase and repeat purchase.

To answer our question above – how does a cheese smell as it melts into sauce – it is essential that the panelists use their skills whilst they prepare cheese sauce at home in the normal way.  Voice allows us to collect these data in this environment.  To refine the approach, we are investigating a new approach to traditional sensory profiling.  This Double-Faced Applicability method capitalises on a natural conversational style by using word based responses rather than numbers.
All clouds have silver linings and for Sensory and Consumer Research, the rewards of being forced to work differently over the past 18 months have been enormous. By forcing us to embrace context, especially in-home, it has brought our approaches even more in line with the real and complete consumer product experience which has optimised the nature and relevance of the insights we deliver to our clients.