Thoughts from a consumer goods focused sensory/consumer researcher on the intricacies of researching touch.
Sensory attributes translate to profit for household brands. For example, the smell of Unilever’s Dove soap has been said to contribute $63m to its annual US revenues, while the touch adds a further $34m.[i] Many fast-moving consumer goods manufacturers are buying into the concept that the more you appropriately engage all of the senses in the marketing, design and usage of a product, the more consumers form lasting emotional bonds with these products. In theory, this leads to intuitive selection of these brands.
Fig 1: Design and marketing using the senses helps engage target consumers. Credit: Carol Raithatha Limited.
The senses include sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. Although each are important, in any given context all may not be as obvious to research and understand. For example, in food and drink, sight/appearance and taste are usually given the most consideration, but from what we know about the multi-sensory nature of experience, it’s important to acknowledge how important both consciously and subconsciously touch/feeling can be. This is even evident in the language used in the sector; marketeers refer to the ‘touchpoint’ as a moment of consumer/stimulus interaction in the context of a consumer product.
Feelings are fiddly
In predictions of key global food trends for 2018, Mintel highlighted texture as “a tool to engage the senses and deliver share-worthy experiences”, going on to explain that “In 2018, the sound, feel, and satisfaction that texture provides will become more important for food and drink companies and consumers alike.”[ii] This is refreshing; because as a sensory and consumer researcher who has spent most of their career focussing on food and drink and related sectors, I’ve found that touch/texture is often overlooked or misunderstood: Possibly because of the multifaceted presentation and complex conceptualisation of touch sensation and perceptions.
The experience of feeling for consumer goods is made up of haptic sensations via any part of the skin and mechanical sensations via the bones and muscles from any part of the body. Linguistically and psychologically touch is complex: we can start from the fact that the word ‘feeling’ relates both to emotions and physical sensations. This can make defining and researching specific sensations difficult. This complexity of touch can be, for example, contrasted with taste, which is commonly thought to be perceived only on the tongue and in the mouth, and consist of simply the five basic tastes; sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (Note: Taste is actually also quite complex: There can be many presentations of each basic taste; fat is being discussed as the sixth taste; and we now know that there are also taste receptors in the gut.).
Feelings are far-reaching
Feeling experiences in terms of consumer goods cover a broad spectrum.
Fig 2: Appearance can drive expectations of texture and mouthfeel of food and drinks. Credit: Carol Raithatha Limited.
Following the consumer journey: Appearance may drive expectation of texture/feeling; touch may be involved in interacting with packaging and handling the product while unwrapping and preparing it; perceived feel, texture and/or mouthfeel will be important while consuming or using the product. For example, for food and drink; texture and mouthfeel are perceived on lips and the tongue, in the mouth, via the teeth and jaw, and in the throat; and can be intertwined with hearing. Although not often considered, perceptions of pain that can be essential for the authenticity of some sensations (such as chili heat) are also experienced through haptic routes. This falls into a more general category of cutaneous chemosensation which includes experiences such as the coolness of peppermint and the tingle of carbonated drinks[iii]. And then there are the post-consumption sensations such as after-feel on the hands, in the mouth, lips, and throat; and aftereffects felt within the digestive system.
Fig 3: The sense of touch is important throughout the entire consumer interaction with a product. Credit: Carol Raithatha Limited.
Touch can interact with other senses and may enhance or detract from other sensory impressions. For example, a recent study on ice cream showed that a sharp cup inspired a more intense taste sensation compared to a smooth cup[iv]. These cross-modal effects can also work in the opposite way: For instance, added butter odour has been found to enhance cheese texture liking.[v] So it is important to remember that feeling and touch are highly interlinked and almost always impacting or being impacted on by other perceptions.
Training to feel
For some aspects of sensory and consumer research we screen for and train the more sensitive individuals to become expert assessors. Panels of these expert assessors describe stimuli in a detailed objective and descriptive language which can be compared and correlated to more global and hedonic consumer perceptions. But the selection and training of individuals for the sense of touch/feeling can be very tricky.
Some examples of screening tests for haptic/feeling abilities include:
- Identification of letter tiles pressed on to the tongue to determine level of lingual tactile threshold and suprathreshold sensitivity[vi];
- Rating or ranking of a range of pre-selected samples for skin feel attributes such as stickiness, spread, greasiness, etc. to determine assessor suitability for objective evaluation of skin creams and lotions[vii];
- Simple ranking of a range of food products of different hardness or any other texture attribute to directly determine discrimination ability for specific mechanical or geometric texture attributes;
It’s clear from the above examples, that acuity tests can be more less applied and need to be carefully designed, taking into account the context of the research.
Development of touch vocabulary is often a challenge for expert assessors. It appears that feeling/touch type words are not often used in common conversations about consumer goods. It therefore takes a lot of discussion and comparison to find appropriate attributes for which there can be consensus agreement on the definition. Part of the problem is that within the training of sensory assessors, qualitative and quantitative references are often used, and although these can be relatively easy to construct for senses such as taste and odour (i.e. for sweet taste we can develop references with different levels of sugar), they can be quite difficult to create for some less clearly defined elements of feel and texture. Sometimes novel methods such as cross-modal calibration are explored. For example, materials such as silk, satin, and fur have been used as touch standards to represent wine mouthfeel sensations [viii].
Fig 4: Physical standards can be used to help develop and define touch attributes in the context of consumer products. Credit: Carol Raithatha Limited.
Getting to grips with touch
Evaluation of food and drinks is often referred to as ‘taste testing’. This demonstrates the inherent bias towards one sense over another in a key consumer goods sector. Although the importance of all the senses is becoming more widely understood and accepted, we face conceptual and methodological issues of how to define, measure and understand touch in the context of consumer product evaluations. It’s complex, but touch offers many routes to insight and engagement.
[iii] Félix Viana, ACS Chem Neurosci. 2011 Jan 19; 2(1): 38–50, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3369707/
[iv] Thomas J.L. Van Rompay, Lisa-Marie Kramer, Daniel Saakes, The sweetest punch: Effects of 3D-printed surface textures and graphic design on ice-cream evaluation, Food Quality and Preference, Volume 68, 2018, Pages 198-204, ISSN 0950-3293, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2018.02.015.
[v] Pengfei Han, Therese Fark, Rene A. de Wijk, Natacha Roudnitzky, Emilia Iannilli, Han-Seok Seo, Thomas Hummel, Modulation of sensory perception of cheese attributes intensity and texture liking via ortho- and retro-nasal odors, Food Quality and Preference, Volume 73, 2019, Pages 1-7, ISSN 0950-3293, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2018.11.019.
[vii] ASTM E1490-11. Standard Guide for Two Sensory Descriptive Analysis Approaches for Skin Creams and Lotions.