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sensory research: the basics

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Baffled or bored by the science-y connotations of the term 'sensory research'? We get it. That's why we're diving into the subject in classic PLAY style, to fill you in on:

  • What the heck sensory research is
  • Why you should bother with it
  • Pure sensory and its evolution into in-home product testing today

Whether you're testing the waters with a new product, or you're making a risky change to something consumers already know and love; you will want to consider sensory research - it's an undeniably powerful string to your proverbial research bow. Let's break it down...

What the heck is sensory research?

Sensory research is essentially a science which is used to evaluate consumer products based on the sensory experience (taste, smell, sight, touch... you get the picture).

At its most technical, this kind of research is used by scientists and R&D teams with trained tasting panels. It is also carried out with consumers by insights specialists working alongside marketing departments (generally at large consumer goods companies).

Food (and drink) choice, consumption and repeat purchase is largely decided by the sensory experience and characteristics of a product. At the end of the day, if your food smells bad, looks gross or tastes foul; it's game over in the consumer's eyes.

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Why bother?

There are many reasons why sensory research is an essential part of your product strategy.

  • For starters, whilst great marketing and enticing pricing might get you initial trial; the consumption experience is what gets you that sweet, sweet repeat
  • Before you release a product into the market, it makes great sense to do somewhat of a ‘trial-run’. Product testing also enables you to make any necessary amendments or modifications before a product has been rolled out

  • Then there's the small matter of proving that an idea really works for consumers in practice! The proof is in those real-world tests.... does the product actually do the job?

  • Has the product been shipped over from a successful market in another country? Unfortunately, it's not always as easy as dishing it straight out. Palate preferences vary drastically around the world. Just because it worked overseas does not mean it will work locally

  • Still need convincing? It's worth considering who you are appealing to as well. What is the opportunity? Perhaps your product doesn't have mass appeal but it could still win you a profitable niche with certain consumers.

    In many categories, sensory research can reveal that consumers aren't actually that happy with what is currently on offer to them and many would be open to some change. In this case, product testing allows brands to push the boundaries and discover untapped opportunities (new formulations, textures, flavours, and more).
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Pure sensory

In its purest form, sensory research is a science aimed at understanding how we interpret the world around us. It is very useful in early stage development or in circumstances where there is a high risk reformulation or ingredient substitution, for example.

Consumer sensory is grounded in this science, but makes allowances for the fact that people are typically good at telling us how much they like something and not so good at picking up on subtle differences between products. (This can however, give us a good indication of what is 'consumer discernible' in a product profile.)

Pure sensory allows for layers of control to be added via central location facilities with controlled lighting, air flow, plain booths, etc. All of these control elements can help consumers focus purely on the product experience. However, they also add extra time, cost and complexity so it's important to ask yourself the question: "Which approach is necessary for what I'm trying to achieve?"

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Evolving sensory

Although it is often important to know what is driving liking, as well as directions for product improvement; the strict level of control you need can vary.

If product development is in the early stages and you need a more technical outcome, then a controlled, formal central location test can be helpful. You can rope in the help of a trained panel (expert tasters!) to do this effectively.

However, often we are focusing on product renovation, cost reduction or a new product close to launch. In these situations, a more relaxed approach to sensory evaluation can be taken instead.

Depending on the product and packaging, a central location may still be necessary (you might need to control the preparation and serving, for example). However, a more informal arrangement with flexible facilities and locations can help to keep costs down and build in time efficiencies.

This scenario also helps the testing feel less clinical and more comfortable for the respondent. If a consumer feels relaxed and the situation feels natural, results will often be more representative of an authentic, real product experience. And that's what you want, right?

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In-home product testing

In-home testing can provide your critical read of performance in real life. At PLAY, we like to call it the "life test". In circumstances where products are easily shipped to households and packaging is suitable for individual portions to be dished out, in-home product tests are your pal.

This kind of testing is especially useful when you're looking at products that people know and love, or those at the final proposition stage.

In-home testing allows consumers to taste a product in a natural setting, at an appropriate time (e.g. cereal or coffee at breakfast time... who wants to be downing caffeine at 6pm!?). This makes a lot of sense.

Before the control freak in you says it - yes, with more complex formulations (e.g. recipe bases and ingredients... things that people need to add to) people might naturally embellish a recipe - but that's life! The product needs to be able to stand up to variability across the average household.

Sensory diagnostic may be slightly variable, but in this context, any critical deficits can still be identified (if optimisation is required). P.S. Feel like the sensory component doesn't get you quite the whole picture? You could be onto something - check out our holistic approach to product testing (called ABC Testing) HERE.

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Over to you

Both pure sensory research and in-home product testing have their place, and both are capable of delivering awesome results for R&D teams, marketers and insights managers.

It is always worth working with an agency who will adapt their approach to your unique situation, objectives, product type, budget, timeframes, etc.

So, are you interested in learning more about in-home usage testing? Hit the button below to find out why an IHUT could be your ideal product testing solution. We cover: 

  • What is an IHUT and how does it work?
  • Which products work best with an IHUT?
  • What are the key benefits of an IHUT (vs. a CLT)?
  • 3 crucial considerations

Download the IHUT Guide

At PLAY, we have tested thousands of products for leading manufacturers, both here in Australia and overseas. Our platform makes the entire process easy and seamless. We can test a wide variety of products, including grocery and household items, alcohol, technology, toys, clothing and more.

Check out our Product Testing solutions HERE.


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The risks of poor packaging design are huge, and customer alienation can lead to severe losses in sales.

 

Do you understand the mind of your shopper, and what leads them to purchase? Packaging research is the essential first step in the pack design (or redesign) process.

 

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