We are born with innate preferences. That's worth thinking about if we are in the business of providing great customer experience. If we have a predilection for certain smells or tastes or colours, maybe we should understand them so that we can use them to our advantage.
Take taste for example. We are born with the ability to recognise tastes that are sweet, bitter, salty, sour and savoury. Sweetness is at the front of this queue and it is argued that this is so because it's nature's way of making sure we take in calorie rich foods.
We learned this early on in our work as market researchers. Quite a few years ago it was fashionable to develop beers by testing new brews in hall tests. Drinkers were recruited off the street to sup a glass or two of anonymously labelled brews which included established beers as well as the new formulas. We soon learned that the drinks that gained the highest scores of satisfaction were the sweetest and gassiest. We are sad to say that market researchers (not us we hasten to add) were responsible for Watney's Red Barrel, a beer brand that had been around since the 1930s and in the early 1970s was reformulated following market research testing.
Watney’s made a big thing about the research claiming "We’ve studied flavour, studied people’s reaction to flavour, and produced experimental beers, testing out all the variations we can think of in such things of sweetness or bitterness."
The consumers’ choices may have been valid when sipped as small tasters in the market research test but try sinking five or six pints of this stuff on a Saturday night and the satisfaction score falls considerably.
It wasn't just Watney’s who bought into the sweet and gassy argument. You may remember the Pepsi “challenge” which generally came out in Pepsi's favour when pitted against its arch rival. It was another example of taste manipulation because Pepsi's concoction was sweeter and gassier than Coke's. What followed has become a classic business school case study. Coke developed a new formula (guess what, it was sweeter and gassier) and it passed the market research tests with flying colours. And, popular though it was in the tests, the market immediately rejected it. Within months we were back drinking the original, classic Coke despite its poor performance against Pepsi.
So what is going on? Should we ignore innate preferences? The confusion arises because as we get older and arguably more sophisticated, our tastes change. We eventually get to like hot spicy food, bitter tastes, and savoury dishes. We may like something sweet to start with but you can have too much of a good thing. The brand itself becomes an added layer of attraction to the physical product and can be just as important a contribution to our satisfaction. It certainly was in the case of Coke. In fact, the more distinctive the taste and the brand, the more it could build a loyal following. Think Marmite. You don't need everyone to love you, you just need enough of your target audience and from them you want unswerving loyalty.
The other thing it is important to note is that a lot depends on your product. To make our point, the examples we have talked about are from the food and drinks industry. If you are a perfume manufacturer and reading this you will be eager to tell us that the key to success is constantly launching new fragrances. Ditto for people in the fashion industry. And, if you are (like many of us) a supplier of boring old industrial goods, the impact of taste will have very little effect. You might look for the world’s favourite colour and hope that a green hue will freshen up your logo only to find that the world has moved on and it is now proton purple.
Far better to concentrate on superb quality, great value for money, and ease of doing business. These ingredients will taste good to your customers and they won’t tire of them for years to come.