Sunday, 6 January 2013

Consumer perception: A tool without instructions?

'Pick yours' by esti
under a CC license
My belated, yet warmest, wishes for a Happy New Year to us all!!!

Holidays is a good thing. It gives you time to relax, spend more time with the people you like and love (OK, sometimes it also forces you to spend time with people you don't like so much :-) and change your focus altogether for a little bit.

Lately, there is the story in the news about researchers from Valencia (Spain) and Oxford (UK) on "The Influence of the color of the cup on consumers' perception of a hot beverage". The paper has published back in August 2012 in the Journal of Sensory Studies and during the last few days has been featured in major blogs and news sites such as POPSCI, Discovery News, etc.

In the study, the researchers offered a panel of 57 volunteers cups of a hot chocolate beverage and asked them to rate them against - amongst others - flavour and sweetness. Cups were plastic and coloured red, orange, white and dark cream on the outside (white inside). The results indicated that the testers rated the beverage of higher chocolate flavour when they drank from the orange or dark cream cups. Sweetness and chocolate aroma were less influenced by the colour of the cup, but still the dark cream ones got a better score than the others. As the authors pointed out, that can help catering professionals tune the aesthetics of the plateware or packaging (or possibly dining environment, altogether) in order to enhance consumer experience.

That is not the first time it is shown that factors beyond the sensory aspects of a foodstuff affect consumer perception. A strawberry mousse, for instance, tastes better when server on a white dish. And, as Betina Piqueras-Fiszman from the Polytechnic University of València has demonstrated, the weight of a dish, where a meal is served on, has an impact on the expected food density and expected satiety from the consumer.

Clearly, appearance is a tool for achieving or boosting consumer acceptance. But is it also a tool to be used in achieving a better diet, that is, eating less and/or eating healthier? Possibly, yes. Hot chocolate served in an orange cup, for instance, may require less added sugar to become acceptable. Make that an orange coloured clay mug, which is much heavier than a plastic cup, and it may give the consumer the feeling of a denser drink. In that way one may achieve better consumer satisfaction while keeping the impact on the total daily calorific intake under better control. Still though, a cup of chocolate will always be a cup of chocolate, will always have more calories than a cup of unsweetened tea, etc.

Such an approach may be worth considering, especially in cases where a good and balanced nutrition is a target, e.g., in school meals. There, plateware of the right weight and colour could have a diet-support function, on top of making the life of pupils more colourful. After all, kids have demonstrated that they do have an opinion on what they eat! (I'm referring to Martha Payne, a 10-year-old girl from Scotland, who had a blog with comments on her school meals). The same goes to canteens, often found in or around busy workplaces (and they are not always cool). If you think about it, the associated cost should not be out of reach and the impact on the environment should be lower. Adding colour to plastic dishes/ cups/ etc. adds a few cents more in a recurring way, while switching to normal ones adds an initial purchasing cost plus the cost of washing them to be re-used.

One thing that bothers me, however, is whether the effect of the eating environment, plateware included, is absolute or relative. In other words, does the feeling of enhanced sweetness appears only to consumers that make the switch to cups of different colour or does it fade over the time one uses the same cup? There is certainly something there but there may be also, a lot more to learn.

That certainly reminds me that the safest and most time-proof way to a balanced diet is to train oneself to the "right tastes" so that the appealing food would need to have an excess of sugar or salt and it would include fruits, vegetables and wholemeal products.

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