What’s the best way to run taste tests?

taste tests

It’s a fact that even with the most well-thought-out branding and marketing, if the taste of a product isn’t good, consumers simply won’t buy it again. Valuing style over substance may work in some industries but food and drink is not one of these. This is something international brands in particular need to pay attention to. While it is tempting for international brands to simply export their existing best-selling products to a new market with no taste adaption, there are countless examples where such products simply haven’t been able to translate across borders.

Taste tests are therefore the logical way around this issue, allowing brands to at least reduce risks through finding out whether their products have a chance of success and what specific formulation changes should be made to suit new marketrs. However, taste tests can be a logistical mine field – particularly when researching international markets and when testing chilled products.

As with all market research, there is a spectrum of research designs for taste tests from the empirical to the authentic. More empirical methods will use laboratory-like conditions which tends to result in more time and effort with each participant to ensure complete standardisation. More authentic, ‘life-like’ research on the other hand is less focused on the science and is often less time and cost intensive. While there’s no ‘right’ answer, there is always a balance between efficacy and economy which needs to be struck.

I’d recommend brands consider four key areas before agreeing how the research is to be run:

1. Think carefully about what you want to measure

The foundation of any kind of research is to be sure you are measuring what you set out to measure. For scientists, this means doing whatever is possible to eliminate the influence of any ‘extraneous’ e.g. outside variables. This is especially true when we consider the multisensory experience that is consuming food and drink. While it is well known that the taste experience is influenced by the look and smell of food, it goes much further than this – to the degree that taste perception is even altered by the colour and size of the plates and cutlery used, packaging etc.

For example, research has shown that food tastes sweeter on smaller spoons traditionally used for desserts while yogurt eaten with a white spoon is perceived as sweeter than when eaten with a black spoon. Deborah – picture here?

Similarly, people perceive themselves as more satiated when they eat from smaller plates compared to larger. With all these contributing factors, it is important to keep methods standardised for each participant and to keep any materials used as neutral as possible. This points to laboratory-style conditions to ensure participant results are comparable. A step further is blind taste testing which ensures participants are focusing solely on taste.

However, while blind tastes can certainly be useful for comparing brands and making ‘8 out of 10 consumers prefer x’ claims, when looking at the overall product experience there is an argument that researchers should keep conditions as close to real life as possible. Who in real-life will eat a yogurt with their eyes closed?! Not to mention that keeping these conditions standardised requires effort and time which often means either sacrificing cost or the number of participants.

2. Ready, aim, Fire – NOT Ready, fire, aim!

However, as always in market research, there is a fine balance between keeping costs down and getting robust, informative results. While of course, taste tests can be done ‘on the cheap’, this kind of method is unlikely to give the results brands need. Planning is a crucial stage in the process and time needs to be invested in doing this properly with an expert experienced in this field.

Poor research design and a lack of contingency planning is often at the route of market research failure – something which should be avoided at all costs as it can be difficult to spot research mistakes before actually seeing the product fail and asking ‘why?’. Only then do you realise that the root cause of the issue was decision making based on inaccurate results.

3. Getting the sample right

Central to any good research is identifying the right sample and, more importantly, finding the participants! This links tightly with location. Pick a cheaper hall test location which is ‘out of the way’ and you won’t necessarily get the footfall you need to get the numbers you need. However, getting a good location doesn’t necessarily mean big money. It’s all about the target consumers – investing in a central London location for a hall test may mean access to a lot of busy professionals but if you’re looking for active consumers you’d be better off in a leisure centre.

Equally, when recruiting for focus groups, a lot of thought needs to go into exact sample specifications as the sample is so small, findings can be greatly influenced by any outliers. Thinking through the best method for sample recruitment can save you money and time as for hall tests in particular, researchers will likely to get through the fieldwork quicker if less time is spent waiting for the right participant to walk in off the street.

4. Make sure the research design gives you the results you need

One of the first steps of any research project is asking what research design is best to use. For taste tests, if you are after exploratory research and want detailed views on which aspects of the product are working and which aren’t, a focus group would be the logical route. While if you are after figures to present to buyers or statistics to cite in a press release, hall tests would be recommended. It is always a good idea to work back from where you want to end up to determine how best to get there.
Taste tests are a crucial stage of the route to market process but unfortunately are so often ignored. Introducing a product which fails on taste grounds is damaging not only financially but also to the brand’s reputation and this can be something which is extremely difficult to come back from.

While many brands might assume costs will be prohibitive, in fact a considered plan can help minimise costs through increasing the efficiency of fieldwork and ensuring the research design is suited to the desired results. An experienced researcher can help you by devising the best possible method to get you the results you need while working to your budget.

Contact kim@food-and-drink.marketing if you’d like to discuss any of your research needs.

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