Tag Archives: Attributes

Natural, is it all in the name?

ShoppingA colleague at work recently asked me to comment on the role of colour on consumer perceptions of natural for her own blog article. This got me thinking, natural is a buzz word for consumers these days. Natural is everywhere! Gone are the days of ‘No additives’ or ‘Nothing artificial’ to dialing up all things natural with taglines like ‘Nature’s best’.

But what is ‘natural’?  Well at the moment, anything can be!  Consumer preferences towards healthier products have driven this trend in ‘natural’ products, with no legislative or governing bodies fast enough to keep up!  As a result there is no clear definition or regulation of the term natural.  Therefore product developers have been learning through testing out the ideal ‘natural’ product, and sensory cues are key to delivering this.

For a product to be considered natural, all sensory attributes must associate to the product ingredients, marking the ideal for consumers. Visual cues of natural are most key, with less bright and vibrant pack colours (direct cues with green packaging has worked for some products), and an equally muted product inside.  Visible, recognisable ingredients, each providing a variety of colour shades, irregular shapes and combinations all help cue natural for wide range of products. Achieving an overall natural appearance is a fine balance between consistent portion size and execution (so consumers get the same product each time), with some variety and irregularly to reduce processed and mass-produced associations.
Natural aromas and flavours can also be slightly muted (aroma more than flavour) but must align with the ingredients. Take a flavoured yoghurt for example, natural aroma cues can be delivered by both notes of the over-arching strawberry flavour, but also the dairy milk base to give recognisable associations to consumers. Crucially, if a product has a wide range of ingredients, e.g. a mixed fruit juice or cereal bar, consumers need to be able to taste the different flavours. This is particularly key if there are bits of fruit, chocolates etc. as this indicates that nothing is hidden in the products, enhancing natural cues.
Textures are also key across food, drink and particularly in personal care categories. Although relating the texture to ingredients is important, it is considered more of a hygiene factor by consumers, allowing slightly more wiggle room for product developers. However, in personal care, smooth non-oily textures can achieve natural as long as the other touch points of pack and neutral pale colours align. This highlights how appearance is king for a ‘natural’ product execution with all attributes of the product delivering to this message.

Whilst the sensory cues are clear, the natural message isn’t.  Manufacturers and marketeers do not need to jump through hoops to make natural claims, which could broaden the scope of the meaning, even beyond consumer acceptance.  As the debate ‘naturally’ heats up, product development companies need to take care their natural cues have a direct basis for consumers (e.g. organic, no additives etc.), as I predict very soon proof will be needed to explain the natural claim.  They need to keep track of developments in consumer perceptions and legislation of the term natural.  I too will be watching closely!


Generating consumer descriptions of products – It’s not all talk

Consumer language

As a sensory and consumer scientist, understanding how consumers perceive and describe products is an essential aspect of market research.  However, consumers can struggle to find the language to express and articulate product characteristics, often selecting liking and hedonic terms they feel more comfortable using.  This leads to difficulties understanding why consumers like or dislike products and could provide limited optimisation guidance for product development teams.

An ideal approach is preference mapping, allowing consumers to just rate their liking of the products, while a trained sensory panel score the samples for their characteristics.  The consumer liking data is then combined with the sensory map of product characteristics to really understand what attributes drive consumer liking and is a robust insightful tool.  However, this approach can be expensive and time consuming, and in this ever demanding world of faster insights, may not be suitable in every case.  This means asking consumers to describe products in detail, a tricky task.

So what is the best way to gain the most product information and insight directly from consumers?  Is there a practical way to get participants to really give product characteristic descriptions?  A recent study in Food Quality and Preference has compared a range of different consumer methods, to find that the highest number of descriptive terms were provided by consumers when assessed samples at an individual level or by presenting triads of samples in a repertory grid.  This is in contrast to assessing and comparing a wider number of product in the full sample set, which can lose some of the detail.

These study findings align with my own experience of product testing with consumers, where found pairwise comparisons offer the best option to get detail from consumers.  For example, if consumers are trying to describe the characteristics of plain biscuits, it is easy to compare and contrast two products for differences in key attributes such as colour, baked character, crumbliness, cereal flavour, crunchiness, sweetness and so on.  By providing both products, consumers can say things like “This biscuit is drier than that one”, and help them to express the differences in the products.  This can allow consumers to generate descriptions as well as elements of liking and crucially provide R&D teams with as much sample focussed detail to drive development and product optimisation