In the foggy, gray workspaces where new foods and beverages are conceived, skilled sensory scientists are strategic thinking partners and qualitative researchers.

There’s a tendency to cut through the gray space as quickly as possible and create a tangible image that everyone can see.

Sensory probing, on the other hand, explores the gray space and reports important findings.

Trained sensory ears and eyes shed light on veiled consumer responses that point to underlying beliefs and practices.

Consumers do not express what they really want or do.

They say they eat only healthful foods, but to know what really drives preferences and actions, observers must look into their cabinets and refrigerators, follow them around with their grocery carts, and sit with them when they eat out.

Sensory exploration and examination uncovers and decodes the unarticulated gray space, translating it into meaningful and actionable results.

Understanding gray space

I am a proponent of ‘basic understanding’ as the first step—examining the beliefs and expectations of the targeted consumer,

It’s like doing your homework.

Basic understanding of the target consumer points to intensities, experiences and perspectives that influence product design.

To skip this step, which is frequently done under the pressure to get a new product to market, or cutting it because of budget constraints, is a mistake, she contends.

Understanding the physical and emotional expectations of targeted users jumpstarts focused product development.

Basic understanding in the product design process has limitations, because it is generally based on intangible gray ideas.

It’s said that consumers who were asked if they’d like wine with bubbles said, “Absolutely not!” but when presented with Dom Pérignon champagne, quickly changed their minds.

We can learn much by providing models that consumers can see, touch, taste and smell.

In another scenario, basic understanding of a group of young people may uncover a willingness to try something new that disrupts the current mode.

Accepting this premise explains the popularity among young “echo boomers” (children of baby boomers) of bubble tea, a mixture of cold, sweet, flavored tea (sometimes with milk) with gummy black or white tapioca balls at the bottom of the cup.

A product that represents innovation in a category requires identification of a true need. Needs are often expressed as a much-disliked task like peeling and prepping salad ingredients. Consumer-based insight explains why legions of homemakers welcomed Dole packaged salads and all of the prepared vegetable products that followed the early salad- blend iterations.

They had to identify what drives consumer’s acceptance: emotional components, functional benefits and specific product attributes,

Qualitative research

Researchers  align product concepts with consumer fit.

Until consumers have hands-on experience with the product, there’s little or no measure of success,

The consumer is very grounding for us. Consumer research outside the United States requires much more detail. Cultural palates vary greatly around the globe.

It takes specialized sensory decoding for those with a Western orientation to understand the foundation upon which a product will be built.

Our primary tools are a trained sensory eye and ear that can pinpoint relevant body language and verbal language that reveal sensory clues and insights to specific attributes,

Sometimes, one sensory trigger can be like a lightening bolt in the discovery process.

Capturing the emotional space surrounding a product, idea or attribute can often bring clarity and focus to that puzzling gray space.

Culinary feng shui

Interest in the emotional, experiential, sensory aspects of products is growing.

In “Gimme! The Human Nature of Successful Marketing,” author John Hallward contends that advertising needs to focus more on minds, moods and motivations of consumers.

“To build successful brands, you need to create emotional benefits beyond raw functional requirements,” he writes.

Thus, it is not surprising that Asian influence is on the rise. Feng shui, an ancient Chinese practice, creates the emotional benefits of balance, health, energy and well-being that Hallward describes as essential for successful brands.

Sensory tools not only define the background of feng shui, but the culinary palette that delivers the experience: stir-fried colors, crisp and soft textures, yin (mild) and yang (bold) flavors, hot and sour paired with plain (rice or noodles), and the aromatic scents of chiles, garlic, Szechwan peppercorns and ginger.

Balancing natural forces that create tranquility and nourishment with the current demand for convenience is a challenge for product developers.

In a recent review of a new U.S. speed-scratch version of a traditional Chinese dish, a first-time customer noted that the mix did not provide crunch, or suggest adding the crunch and satisfaction of fresh vegetables.

Sensory sorts the gray pixels of belief and expectation; adds color, flavor, aroma and shape; monitors excitement and experience; and minimizes risks by listening with a keen ear and watching with a sharp eye.