Food Can Speak To You

I saw an interesting experiment conducted by wine expert Jancis Robinson with a university in the U.K. Basically it was a blind taste test where they removed the research subject’s ability to smell and gave them various liquids to sample. As you’ve probably guessed already, none of them could tell the difference between wine, water or cordial. The conclusion – our so-called highly refined “taste buds” don’t work in isolation, if at all.

You’ll know your self that when you have a cold, you can’t actually taste the food because you can’t smell it. But your memory tells you the chocolate soufflé you are about to devour is one of your favourite things. Multi-sensory experiences have created memories in our brains that link smell, sight, taste and feel to our view of food. Embellish that with the occasions and people and social or life experiences that we most associate with that food and you go some of the way to understanding why so many people like to eat so many different things.

If that is the case, then why is the retailing of food often so lacking in multi-sensory, multi-dimensional stimulus at the point of sale?

Great food retailers all over the world have proven that bringing a story to life, using multi-sensory stimulus and seducing the customer into voluntary engagement dramatically lifts sales. They start by weaving a wonderfully rich story into their products and embedding mnemonics that will trigger those memories when they are re-played to you. They make sure they create magnetism that makes you want to engage. They do imaginative sampling and above all there are obvious hallmarks of differentiation in the product itself.

Anyone can create a cheaper “me too”. Our supermarket shelves are full of interchangeable stuff that sells on price but offers very little real choice to the shopper. But we’ve all seen that special product that comes along and grabs the shopper’s imagination – re-invigorating a category or creating a new sub-category on its own.

In every category there will only ever be – at best – 2 major volume brands. The rest need to create a “mass-niche” position. Food is a deep, anthropologically embedded fundamental that has progressed beyond the survival and into the social realms. In all mature, western markets in the world shoppers are looking beyond basic staple food products to food products which are uplifting for the shopper and their family and friends.

The rise of organics and the emergence of mass premium brands are just two examples of a growing trend for food shoppers to want some colour in their otherwise grey shopping experience. In our quest to lift basket size, this is the area that should be focussed on more often. Building imaginative, lyrical stories that paint wonderfully romantic pictures reinforced by multi-sensory experience is right in line with contemporary food trends. Even existing brands need to improve and innovate.

After all – as Wal-Mart says – “What doesn’t change gets cheaper”.