Blindfolds, coffee beans, headphones, label-less dishes of different foods, blank tins of face creams: These are some of the many ways sensory research is conducted in pop culture. Marketers and advertisers use sensory research to improve product performance, find new markets for products, and make advertising claims about a product’s performance against competitors. MMR Strategy Group performs sensory research for brands looking to make claims that communicate a message about a product’s sensory characteristics. Want to make the claim that your brand tastes, smells, sounds, or looks better or worse than a competitor brand? You likely need sensory research to back it up.
Sensory Claims Refresher
As defined by ASTM International, an organization that sets global standards for testing and research, a sensory claim “highlights [a product’s] advantages, sensory or perceptual attributes, or product changes or differences compared to other products in order to enhance its marketability.” Sensory claims offer consumers information that helps them understand which product best fits their preferences. From a product marketer’s perspective, conducting sensory research can also help identify perceptual characteristics that can then be used to capture a new market. Sensory research and food science, for example, have changed the trajectories of how the industrialized food chains operate.
Standards for Sensory Research and Best Practices
Conducting sensory research that is flawed, or that do not measure whether there is support for the advertiser’s intended claims, might be a waste of valuable resources. When conducting research regarding sensory advertising claims, the research design must be dictated by the claim, and market research must adhere to the standards and best practices. These are outlined in our recent white paper, A Taste for Claims: An Overview of Sensory Claim Substantiation Surveys, which reviews the basics of sensory research.
Prior to designing your research for claim substantiation, define your claim. Your methods and research should be designed for a specific claim or set of claims unless you are conducting preliminary sensory research to determine which claims to make. In either event, sensory research should meet standards set forth by the ASTM, and results should be able to withstand a challenge by a competitor or regulator.
Identifying Sensory Research Objectives
Your goal should determine what sensory data you require, which in turn informs the methodology, the survey questions, and the group of people to be interviewed. When properly designed, a survey may be able to substantiate one or more claims. Additionally, if a claim does
not center around consumer perception or preference, a trained panel may be useful for determining the sensory characteristics of the product.
Who to Ask
When interviewing consumers, the survey respondents typically must be users or potential users of the products being tested. This is another instance where your respondent universe must be chosen in a way that supports your claim. A trained panel could not be used to test certain claims about consumer preference or acceptability; in the same way, untrained consumers may not be used to test certain other types of claims that are more analytical and nuanced. Elements like gender, geography, and age may factor into these test choices and data collection methods. For example, minors under 21 years old would not be included as subjects when taste-testing alcohol. (For more details about testing alcoholic beverages, see our white paper, Conducting Advertising Claim Substantiation Surveys for Alcoholic Beverages.)
It’s About Time
Researchers should qualify customers by whether they consume or purchase a product within a timeframe that’s relevant to the product and the claim. For example, most consumers buy staple foods like bread much more often than they buy durable goods like headphones. You can determine the relevant timeframe by examining existing product usage and purchase frequency data.
There are two main methods of data collection in sensory research: central location testing (CLT), which takes place in a location dedicated to the test, or home use testing (HUT), which takes place in a consumer’s home. A test pitting the flavors of two products against one another could be conducted in a central location, whereas a product that may have a cumulative effect over time, like a skin cream, may require a home use test. A CLT can be useful when some aspect of serving requires special care, such as checking respondents’ ages for an alcohol test or serving a beverage at a specific temperature. In a HUT, the products are evaluated in the consumer’s home, so there is less control over product preparation and evaluation.
Product Sampling, Preparation, and Serving
In sensory research, the researchers must replicate, as closely as possible, the manner in which the products are served, applied, or prepared in the real world. If possible, products should be purchased in a local store, as a consumer would, and prepared according to any directions on the package. If the test involves more than one product from the same product category, the products should have similar expiration or best-by dates, if possible, and be purchased in similar sizes and forms. Researchers should handle the products in a similar way, follow preparation instructions in a similar way, and in general imitate the typical supply chain protocol for those products. In sensory tests for certain products that may have an aftertaste or cause problems when swallowed, researchers may use a palate cleanser or invite the respondents to expectorate.
Two Test Methodologies
There are two test designs used in the majority of sensory studies: sequential monadic design and comparative test design. Each design carries important implications for claims, and if research is conducted using a research design that doesn’t fit the situation, it may not lead to results that fit the intended advertising claims.
In a sequential monadic design, products are evaluated one at a time, with the respondent completing the evaluation of one product before moving on to the next product. Important considerations in this method are balancing for “first order bias” (a bias toward the first product tested), “carryover bias” (a bias caused when the experience from one product affects the experience from the next product), and “task fatigue” (which negatively affects the results for the later-tested products). This research design can support claims about product liking or preference, or claims about the amount or intensity of an attribute, such as saltiness or crunchiness.
In a comparative test design, respondents evaluate all products to be tested at the same time. This is useful in tests that ask respondents for an overall preference between products or a preference for specific attributes of products. However, preference questions in comparative test designs cannot provide information about how much any one product is liked or how intense a certain attribute is. In addition, this test design may not be the best choice for measuring more than two products, because it cannot control for interactions between products the way that sequential monadic design can.
When conducting sensory claim substantiation research, you should make your questions as clear as possible and your surveys as simple as possible. The ASTM has guidance on question positioning. For example, questions that are not relevant to the claims should be limited and positioned last in the questionnaire, because they do not matter to the claim and may bias responses to later questions that do affect the claim.
Types of questions that may be asked in sensory research include:
● Preference: whether consumers prefer one product or another
● Ranking: how consumers rank multiple products in overall preference or according to specific attributes
● Acceptance: whether consumers like the product(s)
● Attribute acceptance: whether consumers like a specific attribute of the product(s)
● Attribute diagnostic: whether consumers believe a specific attribute is at a satisfactory level
● Attribute intensity: how strong a particular sensory attribute is
As with all survey questionnaires, questions should not be worded in a way that suggests there is a correct or desired outcome.
MMR Sensory Research and Sensory Claim Capabilities
These are just some of the best practices and standards for conducting sensory research for sensory claim substantiation and sensory market research. The survey experts at MMR Strategy Group conduct reliable consumer sensory research for advertising claim substantiation, litigation, and marketing research. We also offer sensory training and development for corporate teams, on topics ranging from how to select the appropriate sensory test for your objective to proper sensory questionnaire design to how sensory perception works. If you would like more information, check out our sensory claim white papers and contact us to discuss your situation.