Why Taste is Always #1 (and why it doesn't work the way you might think it does)

We are not rational beings, and we're certainly not rational eaters. If we’re told that a food is healthy, we automatically lower our taste expectations. But studies consistently show that taste is paramount. So getting your taste profile right at the start of your food journey is mandatory. Unfortunately, many marketers don't understand how taste actually works.

The act of eating is an experience. We enjoy food on a multisensory level that marketers can influence. Our senses don't operate independently but instead get integrated by our brains; they need to work together, or else you create dissonance.

Making Sense of How We Experience Food

The Roman epicurean Apicius reputedly said, “We eat first with our eyes” some 2000 years ago. He was on to something; it’s estimated that 80% of the information our brain processes is received through our eyes. So, for example, if the colour of our food isn't right, we reject it. If the colour is too convincing, we think it looks artificial. If the colour doesn't make sense based on our experience, we spurn it — like purple Heinz Ketchup and transparent Crystal Pepsi and Tab Clear.

Taste and smell, the most primal of our senses, can be even more powerful than sight in determining why we buy. And you can't decouple them; scientists estimate that 80% of taste is actually smell. Need proof? Try plugging your nose and tasting something. That's why you aren't hungry when you have a cold.

Research suggests people can distinguish between 10,000 different smells but only five flavour qualities through our taste buds. (And sorry guys, but women do indeed have a more acute sense of smell than men.) Moreover, smell and memory are closely linked. Think how a scent can instantly transport you back in time to your Grandma's kitchen when you were eight years old.

Of course, we don't eat in a sensory vacuum; acoustic inputs also affect appetite and taste. The brain is constantly scanning, so you need to give it the right audio cues. For example, for many categories, like apples and potato chips, the sound of a crunch equals “fresh” in our minds.

Test Results Are Only as Accurate as the Test Allows

When we conduct taste tests at Nourish, we thoroughly screen participants to reduce outside sensory influences as much as possible. Perfumes or other scents are not allowed. We make sure they have eaten less than two hot or spicy meals in the past week, as more can kill taste buds. We provide as neutral an environment as possible to eliminate bias, including serving on white plates and forgoing background music. And, we check for "sensory congruence" — smell, taste, and packaging visuals all need to match. The product must taste good on a blind basis as well as on a branded basis.

Even the biggest F&B companies in the world get this wrong sometimes. To use another cola example, consumers are "drinking" the marketing, branding, and packaging all at the same time. When you disconnect all that, it doesn't work.

The Pepsi Challenge showed that consumers preferred the sweeter taste profile of Pepsi over Coke when they tasted the two colas unlabelled in transparent cups. But, consumers don't just drink or experience a brand with their mouths. Coke learned that the hard way, after putting lots of time and money into research for a new "better tasting" product formulation. But they decoupled the sensory experience when they tested New Coke on a blind basis and then changed the formulation in 1985 without a test market. New Coke infamously fizzled out and was replaced by Coke Classic just 79 days later.

As I wrote this blog post, I read that Coca-Cola is reformulating Coke Zero (now Coca-Cola Zero Sugar) for the third time, as well as updating its packaging to more closely match “the real thing.” This time, they tested it in a lead market.

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