Connecting subtle cues consumers use to judge the quality and taste of a food with the context in which they experience those cues can help companies more closely align their products with consumer expectations, new research shows.
Consumers are really good at telling you whether they like something. They are not so good at telling you why, Dave Lundahl, PhD, told his audience at the recent Food Evolution Summit held in Phoenix last week.
Focusing on the moment
Lundhal, the CEO of Corvallis, OR-based consumer research firm Insights Now, bases his research paradigm on the concept of “moments.” The “moment” is defined as the message a certain food attribute might convey—whether it’s bright or dull in color and what that might subconsciously communicate to a consumer in a given food matrix, for example—is influenced by the specific experiential context. A moment as it relates to food product consumption could be brief, such as an impulse buying decision driven by a point-of-purchase display, or protracted, such as for food products meant to be consumed in a leisurely setting. Connecting the dots for what cues work best for individual food products in given situations is tricky, and as been the focus of recent developments in the design of consumer research.
“There is an emerging trend. We are not the only ones doing this but we certainly have been on the forefront leading this in the consumer products research industry,” Lundahl told FoodNavigator-USA.
“That is a good thing in that other people recognize the value of this. Cues have been well known for some time as being the chief drivers of most of consumer behavior,” Lundahl said.
“The problem has been that the research methodologies haven’t figured out how to take advantage of that and incorporate it in some really practical ways for product development. This is the first true methodology I’ve seen that unlocks that key,” he said.
Lundahl presented a research case study on energy bars at the meeting, which was put on by Next Level Summits. The goal was to find out which specific attributes consumers were latching on to, and which ones were driving their purchase decisions or might figure into an avoidance decision.
Recreating the moment
This new research design shares some features with its cruder forebear, the focus group. Participants came to a common location, rather trying to capture information out in the field, which would be impractical. But to recreate the emotional state that pervades those real-world moments, Lundahl has participants write down how they were feeling when they, say, bought or consumed their last energy bar. Those statements are then read back to participants during the study to make the data gathering situation as equivalent from an emotional standpoint to the moments out in the field as possible.
“Underlying everything is how people feel about things. Emotions by definition motivate; they move us toward or away from experiences,” Lundahl said.
Lundahl’s group was able to construct a matrix of food cues as they related to the experience of purchasing and consuming energy bars. The research focused on a meal-replacement moment he dubbed “busy energizing,” in which consumers are looking to consume a product that will provide enough energy to last them to their next meal. Interestingly, he found taste was a secondary consideration for consumers in these moments; the expectation of product’s steady energy delivery was paramount.
Rough and dull carries the day
So what cues give the consumer the idea that a product can deliver on this sustained energy promise? Lundahl divided these up into five broad categories—sound, texture, taste, aroma and visual—each of which was broken up into three or four subcategories. As an example, the sound categories subparts were called snap, crunch and crinkle, while for the texture category these were heavy, rough, chewy and tingly. These attributes, or cues, were defined by the researchers to try to eliminate any confusion of what a consumer might mean if they said “rough” as a textural cue.
Lundahl had consumers tick off boxes of those cues that applied for a variety of real world products that included Clif Bars and Power Bars and score them for “liking” and “energizing.” His study yielded some surprising results.
Consumers associated rough texture and a physically heavy product with an expectation of sustained energy delivery. One ringer in the product lineup, something that is not really an energy bar, was a granola bar featuring fruit pieces. This product scored highest of all on the liking scale but lowest on the energizing scale. Participants did not believe this physically lighter product would last them to the next meal, and in particular they associated the product’s visible fruit pieces with a negative expectation of sustained energy release. In other words, what this product subconsciously said to study participants was: attractive, tasty, fun to eat, but gone in a moment as far as energy delivery is concerned.
Clif Bar was the clear winner, scoring highest of all the true energy bars on both liking and energizing. While the company has rolled out many line extensions over the years in the form of new flavors, the product’s appearance hasn’t changed much, meaning the initial formulation intrinsically delivered on a lot of the cues that Lundahl’s more recent research nailed down. Clif Bars are heavy, chewy and have a rough exterior appearance. In addition, they have dull colors and a protein flavor note reminiscent of whey or soy. Lundahl’s research showed all of these are important cues that help consumers decide that a given product is going to be energizing.
Matrix for success
The energy bar exercise is an example of what could be done for other products, Lundahl said. Less mass, bright colors and visible chunks of fruit, while negatives for energy bars, might be strong positives in a different matrix. The key is to try to affix some data, some certainty around these decisions that often are made on gut instinct on the part of product developers. Using the sort of matrix that Lundahl’s method can develop, developers can have some basis for deciding what attributes matter most, and which ones might be traded off to lessen cost or simplify supply chains.
“The packaged goods industry has had a record for low success rates in new product launches. There are billions of dollars at stake. There are products that launched and failed or products that did not last very long,” Lundahl said. “What we have been trying to do is to try to address that basic problem.”
For more on Next Level Summits and the company's series of food industry gatherings, click here .