Analysis: when it comes to new food products, our complex likes and dislikes around a food's flavour or taste are often difficult to decode

As a food product designer, your passion should be for the consumer. You want to put the consumer at the forefront of development and develop products that excite them. To ask them what something should look and taste like.

Food is a very emotional part of our lives and not just at the moment of letting it enter our bodies. The emotions associated with our food are at the core of our memories. For me, the lingering, slightly earthy, faintly bitter flavour of elderberry jam transports me directly to my childhood. I cannot verbalise the taste and flavour coherently, but I know the warm, homely feeling that immediately comes to me when I eat it.

It is difficult for us all to find the words for such complex encounters, especially when it comes to describing flavour and taste. We know what we like, but the reason why might be buried deep in our unconscious. From our earliest existence, we collect experiences and link them with preferences. New likes and dislikes are found when we start to grow in the womb. Our senses register experiences and our brain stores the information together with the emotion. However, it is difficult to uncover the triggers to likes and dislikes, and nearly impossible to discuss them without distorting the "truth". 

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From RTÉ Radio One's Mooney Goes Wild, a report on The Taste Of Success competition for new food products

With this in mind, we have to discover the flavours and flavour combinations, and everything about a product that makes it successful when we want to develop winning food products. To do this, we have to make the consumer central to the process.

In the sensory sciences, when we aim to figure out how a new product should taste and look, we traditionally ask the consumer if they like a sample and how it compares to other samples. For example, we might ask "is this product sweet enough, too sweet, or should it be less sweet?" However, while these questions elicit answers, they may not be the right ones. Often, when consumers finally look at our new products, they do not buy them.

One of the great examples of a wrong decision based on solid consumer research is that of New Coke in the 1980s. In blind testing, consumers preferred a new, sweeter, recipe when asked to taste Coke products without knowing the brand names. This new recipe was launched, but had to be withdrawn after numerous customer complaints. The consumers demanded a return to the "Classic Coke" recipe.

Kansei engineering's aim is to uncover the triggers in the product and find the feelings they elicit in us.

We know that the traditional way of asking questions does not give us the full picture and that feelings about products are often linked to important memories. These feelings are the basis of decision-forming. Consequently, we can predict much more accurately whether or not a consumer will enjoy a project if we know what emotion they associate with it.

But how do we unlock these emotions, the likes and dislikes? How do we lift them out of the unconscious mind without asking direct questions? In Japan, the feeling about something is called ‘Kansei’, and Kansei engineering seeks to do exactly this. Its aim is to uncover the triggers in the product and find the feelings they elicit in us.

The word Kansei cannot be translated directly, as there is no direct word in any western language for the concept of the feeling an artefact creates in us. Originating in the 17th century, Kansei is a construct of two adopted Chinese characters used in modern Japanese writing. Each expresses a meaning which, in combination, can be translated as "sensitivity" or "sensibility".

The etymology of Kansei

Mitsuo Nagamachi, founder of Kansei Engineering, sees Kansei in the context of product development as "the impression somebody gets from a certain artefact, environment or situation using all the senses of vision, hearing, feeling, smell and taste as well as cognition".

When we apply Kansei Engineering, the consumer is asked to test a set of products and provide information about what tends to grab the emotions experienced when consuming a product.  Thus, we communicate with the part of the brain that is instinctive and emotional rather than the deliberate, logical part.

Developing the Kansei engineering method further, we avoid verbalisation by using picture pairs to extract emotions. For example, a picture pair could be a hammer and a feather. We can paint an emotional portrait by using many more pairs. Participants look at each picture pair and decide which picture they feel closer to when consuming the product, using what is called the semantic differential

These more intuitive decisions establish an emotional representation of the product. When the process is repeated on a set of products, where each product is changed slightly, emotions can be linked to the actual changes in the set of products and the design changes. Data collected from the testing is statistically modelled to reduce testing and arrive more quickly at the optimum product. An emerging tool for the product developer and marketer alike, Kansei engineering is certainly not just for food and beverages and can help any developer get closer to the true bases of consumers’ decisions.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ