Capturing consumer interest with sensory food innovation and sensory appeal

Seamless texture with spices and herbs

Changing demands and perceptions of food and beverage have created a more adventurous consumer with an appetite for foods that go beyond taste.

Avinash Lal, market research and consumer insights director at Kerry Asia- Pacific, Middle East and Africa, discusses how appearance, texture, sound, fragrance and flavour work together to win over today’s consumer.

If all the sensorial conditions are right, the multi-sensory appeal of food can evoke the feeling of hunger even if one is not really hungry. Going beyond taste to focus on specific senses such as visual, olfactory and mouthfeel can enhance a food product’s appeal, and this can be done using foods or ingredients that double up as colour enhancers, new types of garnishing, aroma builders, and textural integrity.

An experiment conducted by Alícia Foundation in Spain showed visual impact at work. Participants rated a pinkish strawberry mousse as tasting 7% sweeter, 13% more flavourful, and 9% more enjoyable when it was served on a white plate as compared to a black plate.

Consumer purchasing decisions are increasingly being fuelled by emotional returns and psychological benefits, and less for rational reasons. In food and beverage, we see this in consumers looking for a multi-sensory experience associated with a meal or product. This journey includes peer-to-peer sharing, story culture, experience design, product journeys and stories, and augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) enhancements.

In the age of social media, the rise of ‘Instagram’ foods is satisfying a growing desire to view beautiful images of food, which, in turn, triggers actual appetite. This changes the game for foodservice providers to take their food aesthetics up a notch – how menus, meals and meal kits photograph can have great impact on product awareness and consumption, as well as quality perception.

Food and beverage choices have moved far from being one-dimensional as consumers attach more significance to their food choices, prioritising personalisation and adventure, as well as wellness and environmental sustainability. This is especially true of younger millennials and Generation Z consumers.

Foods that previously resonated with all generations of mainstream consumers, such as a white bread sandwich, boxed macaroni and cheese, and canned fruit cocktail, hold no allure for contemporary foodies. And with the power of social media, younger consumer groups are exposed to different types of foods, including different textures and appearances, creating interest and demand. They are eager to try novel cuisines and beverage as well as unique ingredient combinations, and share their discoveries with others.

Food and beverage players can benefit from the sensory food trend by capturing consumer senses through key elements such as visual appeal, auditory experiences, textural integrity, and nostalgia.

Visual appeal is key
Consumers ‘eat with their eyes’. They focus on the appearance of food as that is what would create Instagram-worthy images. With so many consumers snapping food photos and posting them on social media, enticing food presentation has never been more crucial for food and beverage products.

The importance of sound
Breakfast cereal manufacturers have long recognised the importance of sound in suggesting quality and evoking pleasure from consumers. Kellogg’s “Snap, Crackle, and Pop” ads for Rice Krispies have received numerous iterations since it debuted in the 1930s. Research also suggests that consumers equate the fizzy sound of a just-opened carbonate beverage and the crispy crunch of snack chips with freshness.

Yet as Charles Spence, a psychology professor at the University of Oxford and expert on sensory perception, has noted, sound has been underappreciated and under-researched in the food industry and academia, indicating that there is much room for growth when it comes to auditory experiences in food.

Building on textural integrity
When it comes to texture, what consumers look for is mouthfeel. It’s what helps them determine whether it’s tough or tender; chewy, mushy or flaky; hard or soft; crispy, crunchy or soggy; cohesive or crumbly; viscous or watery; cool or warm.
Texture is a critical factor between acceptance or rejection. A product may have the most elegant flavour, but if the texture is grainy or less than desirable, the flavour perception can be skewed based on dislike of the texture.

Together with other sensorial factors, texture can inspire an emotional connection between consumers and brands. The multi-sensory experience created from that product is what makes a brand stand out from the rest, driving not just purchase intent but repeat purchase.

Tap into nostalgia or situational experiences
Whether restaurants are offering homely, hearty meals that spark memories of moments with family, or serving up traditional Japanese cuisine that remind customers of their travels, their presentation will drive the customer back to these memories and stimulate their purchase behaviour.

The growing appetite for experiencing the context and culture of world foods is also evolving alongside technological innovation. Apps are being developed to complement and add entertainment to food experiences. Through AR and VR, consumers can dine under the sea, at a rural hillside in Italy, or sip Californian wine at the vineyard it was made in – all in the comfort of their homes.

For instance, Le Petit Chef Asia uses 3D mapping to give diners an immersive culinary journey. With exciting background music, a host narrates each course while a light show is projected onto the table as their dishes are served, creating a multi-sensory experience that is part theatre and part dining. The dining experience is currently available in selected hotels in the region in cities like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Jakarta, and Hanoi.

Sensory innovation can also help enhance existing products to cater to consumers looking for functional and healthier alternatives. For example, older consumers who have difficulty swallowing can benefit from innovation that presents the same food in a format which makes swallowing easier and more palatable, meeting the demand for a food product that has elements of health, wellness, texture and mouthfeel.

There are also many ingredients such as beetroot, matcha, saffron, and mint cardamom that can add to a sensorial journey, and have associated health benefits.

Sensory appeal and innovation are critical in accelerating new product development and new categories. It is possible to apply sensory innovation to plant-based alternatives for instance, but manufacturers face the challenge of presenting healthy and sustainable alternatives that do not compromise on taste and texture. If customer loyalty is to flourish, overall quality and sensorial elements need to match their expectations.

This article was published in Food & Beverage Asia April/May 2021 issue.