You think you have a great idea for a product. It fills a market niche, it's what the health-conscious consumer needs and everyone who's tried it loves it it's bound to be a hit. But how can you be certain your judgment about the flavor is not wishful thinking? And how confident are you that consumers won't be turned off by the new taste?
Sensory evaluation (or sensory analysis) is the in-demand scientific discipline in processing. It uses a number of tools, especially the human senses, as data-gathering tools. Taste, texture, mouthfeel, aroma, appearance all are scored by panels of human assessors to generate data for statistical analysis.
The objective is to evaluate consumer products in an unbiased manner so you can gain insight about how your product will be accepted by your target audience, the ones who'll make it or break it. The discipline is so critical most large consumer goods companies have departments dedicated to in-house sensory analysis.
"It's the best way to find out how well a new idea will be received," says Marino Trevola, referring to sensory evaluation. Trevola is project leader food R&D, Alberto-Culver Co. (www.alberto.com), Melrose Park, Ill, which makes Mrs. Dash salt-free seasoning. According to Trevola, data gathered from sensory analysis is essential not only to the development of new products, but also to the successful extension of a well-established line.
The analysis starts with a product concept. Two key questions are: Does this product fit the wants and needs of the consumer? Is there a large enough market? Then a prototype must be created for inside sensory testing. "The objective of inside testing is to hone the product as far as possible," says Trevola. "It can provide valuable insight into consumer acceptability.
To account for understandable bias, you look to score higher on the in-house sensory evaluation than would be the case for the product sent for outside analysis. The bottom line is, no matter how much you think your product will benefit consumers, if it doesn't taste good, they won't eat it."
Sensory analysis is generally divided into three different types of testing:
- Effective testing -- the gathering of objective facts to determine the difference between two or more products -- generally requires a trained panel.
- Affective, or consumer testing (also called "hedonic testing") -- requiring the acquisition of subjective data from large numbers of untrained, prospective consumers. (Smaller focus groups also may be used in consumer testing.)
- Perception testing -- the application of biochemical and psychological theories to explain sensory preferences.
Applying modern statistical analysis to the data gathered by different forms of testing gives insights into consumer behavior and potential acceptance or rejection of products.
"Our Sensory & Product Guidance department is an integral part of our organization," says Mike Lucidi, research program leader, Campbell Soup Co. (www.campbellwellness.com) Camden, N.J. "The sensory team conducts consumer testing on products and packaging for brands across the Campbell portfolio, from Campbell's soups, V8 juices and Prego or Pace sauces, to Pepperidge Farm cookies, crackers and breads and Godiva chocolates."
"The ultimate goal is to optimize taste and make the best possible products that delight our consumers," Lucidi continues. "This is based on consumer feedback studies and sound science. A great example is Campbell's work to reduce sodium in our soups without compromising taste."
At Campbell's, the Sensory & Product Guidance team tests both new and existing products to evaluate packaging improvements, shelf and storage life and more. "All research in our Sensory & Product Guidance area is customized based on the needs of the business," adds Lucidi. "That way we can ensure that we are developing the best possible research and testing plan for the particular product."
Independent sensory labs can provide a wealth of information and valuable insight into the reaction of consumers to "new and improved products." This is especially important as new and improved increasingly means more nutritious.
Sensory Spectrum has been applying the latest technology to sensory analysis for more than three decades. The firm divides the process of linking consumer needs with sensory properties into five steps:
- Benchmark descriptive analysis of current product with competitors and prototypes. The objective: Document the current product in relationship to competitors and provide direction for product development.
- Qualitative research to identify critical consumer attributes or "must haves" for products in the category. The objective: Identify trade offs for various sensory properties.
- Product development created prototypes. The objective: Create products that focus on consumer-defined wishes from qualitative studies.
- Descriptive analyses on prototypes. The objective: Look at multiple products and see the impact of change on the sensory properties. Select products for further consumer research.
- Quantitative study in the form of a central location test. The objective: Measure consumer acceptance of prototypes and determine the next steps.
"The process allows for in-depth feedback from consumers during the process to ensure product development is meeting their needs," explains Rudolph. "Utilizing descriptive analysis allows for the translation of the consumer language into a direction product development understands."