What can marketers learn from chefs?

Carlos Velasco, Nina Veflen, Pablo Narjano Agular

Our food experiences are some of the most multisensory events of our everyday lives. But what can a marketer learn from a chef? Research shows that all the senses are crucial when it comes to developing all kinds of user experiences.

Our food experiences are some of the most multisensory events of our everyday lives. Even the most mundane meal involves a magnificent sensual world: Colours, shapes, textures, sounds, smells, tastes, and flavours. Many Chefs carefully consider all these food-related sensory cues, both intrinsic (such as aromas) and extrinsic (such as atmospheres), in order to systematically construct specific dining experiences.

But what can a marketer learn from a chef? Consumers interface with brands through their senses and brand touchpoints are rich multisensory devices that can be carefully crafted. First, let us look at the world of multisensory dining and then let us consider some key takeaways that marketers can learn from the way chefs design them.

There is increasing interest in capitalizing on the role that different senses play in dining experiences 1 when designing them. For example, UK celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal’s signature dish “The sound of the sea” presents seafood together with an iPod in a shell that includes sounds of the sea that appear to enhance the diner’s experience of the dish.

UK Chef Jozef Youssef, at Kitchen Theory, have worked with visual illusions in the way he plates the food in order to enhance the diner’s experience of the food and to nudge them to eat in specific ways (for example, to eat more or less). Here at the Centre of Multisensory Marketing, we recently developed a collaboration with Chef Pablo Naranjo at Le15 Café in India, to present the first multisensory multicourse dining experience in Mumbai, India: “Awaken your senses”.

So what happened in Awaken the Senses?

Inspired on research about the human senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell, just to mention some), a multisensory, multicourse, dining experience, which blended culinary arts and science was developed and implemented by Associate Professor Carlos Velasco and Chef Pablo Naranjo.

The main goal was to show the diners how each of their senses was involved in their eating experiences and, that the careful consideration of how one designs for the senses, may result in unique targeted experiences. Awaken your senses was presented in Le15’s monthly event called “Table Number 13”, where the chefs let their creativity, and experience talk in the form of a tasting menu.

Tablenr 3_2.jpg

Awaken your Senses was systematically assembled from the beginning to the end. Through a creative iterative process, both chef and scientist came up with a novel culinary journey designed to awaken the diner’s senses 2.

Let us look at two of the dishes, namely “Sonic sip” and “Synaesthesia”, in order to illustrate what happened in the event. Both dishes were designed to make the diners reflect about the sometimes surprising role that sound can play in our food experiences.

“Sonic sip” dish was inspired by research that suggests that atmospheric sounds can influence taste perception3. This dish consists of water extracted from fresh tomatoes, blended with seasonal strawberries fermented for 48 hours with Gluconacetobacter kombuchae, and seasoned with home-made grilled pickled jalapeños, lime, raw honey and a hint of garlic vinegar. That day, though, the dish had a special ingredient: sound.

All of the diners were blind folded and presented with the food twice, each time accompanied by one of two soundscapes that, based on research, we know that they enhance the spiciness or sourness (you can hear the sour soundscape here) of foods, respectively. Although the dish was the same in both presentations, anecdotal reports from the diners indicate that, as expected, they perceived them as having different levels of acidity and spiciness.

Sound is not typically consider a ‘flavour’ sense; however, it can influence the diner’s perception of the food. Similarly, sound is not typically consider in certain brand touchpoints such as a product’s packaging. However, we know that both packaging opening and pouring sounds can actually influence the perception of the product.

The dish “Synaesthesia” consisted of oak smoked salmon ceviche, served with a spicy tiger’s milk made with home-made confit tomatoes, ginger, coconut milk, lime and celery salt, topped with puffed flat rice and coriander. Synaesthesia is a condition that around less than 4-5% percentage of the population appear to have whereby stimulation of one sense leads to experiences in a second sense. For instance, some synaesthetes might hear music when tasting foods, or see colours when hearing music. The dish was inspired by this condition. In particular, we collaborated with saxophone musician Ryan Sadri (IG: @rynosax).

We gave the dish to Ryan Sadri and asked him to “play the sound of the dish” in his saxophone. He ate the dish and improvised a piece that represented the textures, aromas, and taste of the dish (you can listen to it here). When we presented the dish to the diners in Awaken the Senses, the dish was accompanied by this music. Overall, the diners felt that both dish and music blended well and enjoyed the flavour experience with the music.

Often marketers ask themselves questions such as: How should my product look? What is the best colour to convey my brand’s meaning. However, they rarely consider “synaesthetic” questions such as: What does my product’s taste sounds like? What does my brand’s logo feels like? By considering such questions, marketers may design both novel and more multisensory brands and touchpoint experiences

What can marketers learn from chefs?

Chefs come in different shapes and colours, so do marketers. But generally speaking, chefs seems to be more aware of the importance of stimulating all the senses when creating unique consumer experiences than marketers.

In the “Awaken your senses” example above, we illustrate how scientist and chef’s knowledge of multisensory interactions, made them able to develop enjoyable food experiences for their guests. By playing with the interaction of taste, smell, visual aesthetics and sounds, they were able to create something that was unique. Marketers can also utilize this knowledge. It all starts with the awareness of how crucial all the senses are for creating positive customer experiences. Let us consider three examples:

Designing store experiences

The atmosphere in the store can influence the behaviour of the customers4. The sounds, the smell, the light, the aesthetics, all interact to create holistic customer experiences. Some places are perceived positively, whilst others are not. Store managers aiming for an atmosphere that communicates a specific image (be it discount or luxury, female or masculine), should play on all these strings. Today, many stores have a potential for improvement. Often retailers copy what is common within their category, without considering how a personalized atmosphere can give them a competitive advantage. This goes for the physical stores, but also for on-line stores.

The last being the most challenging. How can an online stores user-interface, that stimulates only the eyes and the ears, communicate the stores image and the products physical attributes? Knowledge of how shape, colour, light and sound impacts consumers experiences, becomes important here5.

Designing brand experiences

People interact with brands through different touchpoints and each of these are rich multisensory devices. Just think of a product’s packaging, it has colours, textures, a specific weight, temperature, but even smells and sounds6. If marketers carefully consider the different sensory cues associated with the touchpoints of a brand, they will increase the likelihood of delivering the intended brand experiences.

Designing unique customer experiences

One of the crucial factors for new product success is the ability to develop differentiated products that are perceived as better than the existing products in the market7. Products, brands, and/or stores need to stand out. It is all about creating unique customer experiences. This goes for both food experiences in a restaurant, shopping experiences in a store, and user experiences with a brand at home. Awareness of multisensory marketing is the first step towards succeeding with developing positive, unique customer experiences that can give your company a competitive advantage.

Overall, “Awaken your Senses” illustrates the fact that all the senses are crucial when it comes to developing experiences. By seasoning the different dishes with specific senses, both chef and scientist were able to design targeted experiences. This also shows that customer experiences, at least partly, can be designed, by considering and systematically utilizing different sensory cues.

1. Spence, C. (2017). Gastrophysics: The new science of eating. London: Viking Penguin.
2. Ablart, D., Velasco, C., Vi, C. T., Gatti, E., & Obrist, M. (2017). The how and why behind a multisensory art display. Interactions, 24, 38-43.
3. Velasco, C., Reinoso-Carvalho, F., Petit, O., & Nijholt, A. (2016). A multisensory approach for the design of food and drink enhancing sonic systems. In Proceedings of the 1st Workshop on Multi-sensorial Approaches to Human-Food Interaction (MHFI '16), Anton Nijholt, Carlos Velasco, Gijs Huisman, and Kasun Karunanayaka (Eds.). ACM, New York, NY, USA, Article 7, 7 pages.
4. Spence, C., Puccinelli, N. M., Grewal, D., & Roggeveen, A. L. (2014). Store atmospherics: A multisensory perspective. Psychology & Marketing, 31(7), 472-488.
5. Petit, O., Velasco, C., & Spence, C. (2019). Digital sensory marketing: Integrating new technologies into multisensory online experience. Journal of Interactive Marketing, 45, 42-61.
6. Velasco, C. & Spence, C (Eds). (2019). Multisensory packaging: Designing new product experiences. Cham: Palgrave MacMillan.
7. Cooper, R.G. (1999): From experience - The invisible success factors in product innovation. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 16, 115-133.

The article was written for BI Marketing Magazine.

Published 26. June 2019

You can also see all news here.