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Why we need to build sensory excellence in health


Historically, the food, drink and fragrance industries have led the way when it comes to engaging consumers on a sensory level. However, as the health sector shifts its focus from curative to preventative solutions, providers must start to prioritise the sensory experience to a similar degree.
  • Author Company: Sensory Consumer Science Excellence at RB
  • Author Name: Sarah Smith, R&D Director
Editor: PharmiWeb Editor Last Updated: 21-Jul-2020

Historically, the food, drink and fragrance industries have led the way when it comes to engaging consumers on a sensory level. However, as the health sector shifts its focus from curative to preventative solutions, providers must start to prioritise the sensory experience to a similar degree.

Fundamentally, providers have a responsibility to make solutions in this space as engaging as possible; consumer will take better care of themselves if they enjoy doing so. However, sensory enrichment is also a business imperative. As the consumer health product market, currently worth £2.7 billion, continues to grow, solutions that appeal to consumers’ senses will stand out and gain a dedicated following.

Understanding the sensory experience

While each of the five senses plays a unique role, they are also inextricably linked. As early as 2016, Charles Spence, Professor of Experimental Psychology and one of the key opinion leaders in this space, was looking at the impact of sound on humans’ perception and enjoyment of food. It’s the reason why many of the foodstuffs consumers tend to find enjoyable are crackly, crunchy and carbonated.

Smell can also initiate a profound emotional response, as this is the only sense hardwired to the limbic system, responsible for controlling memory and emotions. This was illustrated by the Alzheimer’s sensory box study, undertaken by Boots and the University of West London. Researchers recreated the scents of popular products and packaged them with archive items from the store. These were given to Dementia sufferers and used to create effective memory bridges with the past.

The key for product developers lies in thinking less about solutions and more about experiences. This will encourage consideration of all senses, rather than just one or two. Once sensory engagement has been prioritised, the next step is to establish what the multi-sensory experience of a solution should be.

Making sense of sensory evaluation

Sensory evaluation was developed to disentangle all the different experiences we feel when we use our senses. This concept originally emerged from the food industry in the 1930s, when mass production and manufacturing roared into gear. It helped to standardise and objectively assess what sensory experience a product should give the consumer.

Methodologies for this have become increasingly sophisticated, with the widely accepted KANO model now having huge influence. Developed in Japan, this structures thinking around the ‘must haves’ and the ‘delighters’ of an experience. These might not be instantly obvious, but if one is removed, the impact is clear. Take eating a crisp – it must be brittle and crunch in the mouth, but the real delight is in the flavour.

This methodology has been widely adopted throughout the food and drink sectors, and now health is taking note too. The key to developing useful and pleasurable experiences lies in differentiating the must-haves from the delighters. There are several ways to uncover these driving factors. Over recent years, R&D teams have used questionnaires and focus groups to establish consumer preferences. However, these methods can be problematic, as they expose only consumers’ rational responses. Sometimes people enjoy a product without recognising why it is, or are unable to articulate their rationale.

The golden ticket is knowing what people’s subconscious response is. Increasingly, R&D teams are turning to biometric measures, such as brainwave and heartrate monitoring, to help establish this. However, there are limitations to these. Whilst they enable teams to see a response, they do not give a reliable indication of whether it is a positive or negative one. Additional, qualitative measurements are needed so correlation analysis can uncover the true meaning.

Impact on product development

 It is imperative that the must-haves and delighter aspects of an experience are established early on, as these will dictate what exactly is assessed in future lab tests and modelling.

 Sensory evaluation is an iterative process. Once teams have determined what the qualifying ‘must-haves’ and ‘delighters’ are, developers can go back and fine tune these. During the process it might be established that a product’s fragrance delights the user, then sensory evaluation can be applied to test which fragrance is deemed most appealing.

 However, sensory evaluation cannot be undertaken in silo, collaboration is vital. Sensory experts need to work alongside other areas of the business to ensure that a great sensory experience remains efficacious from a technical standpoint. Technical, sensory and consumer modelling are all interlinked cogs, which need to work together so results can be amplified.

 Challenges to adopting this approach in health

 It is easy to understand why sensory enrichment has so far taken a back seat in the health sector. The technical and functional requirements of health solutions are so specific that the sensory – and enjoyment – factors have historically been relegated in research and development. The thinking has been that if a person is suffering with a headache, necessity trumps nicety and therefore they will not mind taking a pill that is bitter tasting or leaves a slightly unpleasant mouthfeel.

 However, as the consumer health market continues to diversify and people have greater choice in terms of products on the shelves, sensory appeal will increasingly become a differentiator, driving preference. The health sector must adapt and place the necessary emphasis on this if it is to continue to evolve.

 For RB, our next challenge is to further develop our understanding of sensorial science, to become a powerhouse of excellence. Reflecting the wider health sector, we will need to connect the dots, raise the role of sensory enrichment in our business and ensure this is pulling through to solutions developed.

 Why partnerships will be key

 Cross-industry partnerships will be key to creating products that meet both technical and sensory requirements. There is still much to learn from the food, drink and fragrance industries, which are having to place evermore emphasis on sensory enrichment to makes experiences stand out.

 Food manufacturers are even studying demographic trends to predict what their future consumers might enjoy. In the knowledge that the EU population aged 65 or older is set to rise to 30% in 2060, some are adapting the colour, flavour and textures products to create experiences deemed more palatable by this demographic.

 In addition, as more health solutions are digitised, sensory experts will need to work hand in hand with technology developers and those with UX expertise to understand the parameters of technology and how solutions can be made more appealing within these.

 Furthermore, collaboration should not be confined to the initial R&D stages of product development, as small formulation changes to established products can have a big sensory impact on consumers. When people purchase a household name they believe they know exactly what they are getting. It can then be disappointing when the product does not meet their expectations. It’s important that those with technical and sensory expertise work in tandem on product evolutions to ensure key ‘must-haves’ and ‘delighters’ are retained.

 Sensing change

 Looking ahead, new techniques will help us to shine a light on the subconscious elements of preference. Implicit testing is increasingly being used, for example, to test reaction speeds to sensory stimulus. The development of thought leadership is also helping to piece together the puzzle, with Professor Francis McGlone’s research into the optimum touch revealing how skin is programmed to compute sensory stimulations. All of these are helping us to build our understanding and ultimately make better decisions when it comes to sensory experience.

 As health professionals, we have a duty of care to consumers. Undoubtedly, developing effective products is the number one priority, but we are also responsible for creating products people want to use – and for this, sensory engagement is key.