Behind every great flavor is a great taste testing study

When it comes to food, consumers bring to the table a host of expectations about how the food will taste and feel and how that might align with respective brands, both novel and already well-loved. Brands that engage in taste testing research can offer a product that meets or exceeds these expectations by gaining a clear understanding of how consumers interact with the product. This kind of research can also reveal important information entrenched in the context around consumption.

When conducting taste testing research, the goal of a brand may be to:

  • Substantiate claims: Relevant research may be necessary to prove that a product is truly preferred among consumers.
  • Perfect recipes. Test testing research helps to identify the best formula for a product.
  • Understand contexts. Brands can gain a better perspective into how a product will perform among consumers and alongside competing products.
  • Satisfy consumers. Vetting products through taste testing and sensory research can ensure a product meets consumer expectations and can uncover unknown needs.

Taste testing in action

For a classic example of taste testing research in action, let’s take a look at the Wendy’s Classic. In launching this study, as described in a 1987 Quirk’s article by former Quirk’s Managing Editor Beth Hoffman, Wendy’s aimed to learn how they could reconfigure their traditional Single burger to more effectively compete with Burger King’s Whopper.

The research spanned six months and $250,000, through which the team of researchers conducted more than a dozen taste tests among 5,200 participants across six major U.S. cities. During the study, participants were asked to taste and comment on Wendy’s burger prototypes alongside other sandwiches, including the Whopper and the McD.L.T., without any information about the burger or its company of origin revealed.

By the end of the study, several contenders became clear winners, rising to the top from combinations of three types of buns, 40 special sauces, three varieties of lettuce, two sizes of tomato slices and 500 names, including "The Hunk," "The Chief," "The X.L.," "The Hot 'n' Juicy" and "The Max." Thus, the Wendy’s Classic was born, featuring a new Styrofoam container that resembled the chosen bun’s shape and a combination of selected ingredients that taste testers had deemed most appealing.

Notably, the research team began the study by identifying the participants who were most likely to actually eat a fast-food burger. According to Michael Sapienza, then-vice president of marketing analysis and new products at Wendy's International, the participants were chosen based on three criteria:

"First of all, we wanted a good geographical diversification of cities that had many Wendy's outlets,” says Sapienza. “Secondly, we wanted cities where Wendy's was well-represented and where we had competitive presence. Thirdly, we had to conduct the tests in places where we could get reliable field services to control the quality of interviews."

By creating a broad set of recipes to be tested, recruiting representative sample and including competitor products in the study, Wendy’s was able to not only perfect their recipe, but perfect it in the context of the consumers who would be most likely to eat it, even on the competitive plane of fast-food burgers.

The art of taste testing research

There’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s, but there are many right ways to tackle a taste test study. While the previous example of the Wendy’s study looked at how consumers interacted with a product at a restaurant, other brands might want to gain a better understanding of how consumers are preparing and eating a product once they’ve brought it back to their home.

From this angle, an article by the staff of Highlight recommends conducting in-home taste and sensory tests in combination with online surveys to capture consumer responses and understand those responses in the context of consumer shopping habits, food preparation and dining experience.

Additionally, Highlight recommends choosing panelists that match your target market’s demographic to ensure the research transfers to your consumers. As with the Wendy’s study, it’s important to identify which consumers are actually likely to interact with your product in the first place – from this solid ground, researchers can gather reliable information about the products tested from the intended consumer group.

Grocery products, too, can benefit from the controlled environment of a research facility. Conducting taste testing research in a research facility can allow for greater control over variables such as the order by which a participant tests products or how the product is initially presented to them. While in-home tests can reveal information about how consumers interact with these variables on their own terms, in-facility tests can further explore outcomes when different variables are presented to them by researchers in a controlled fashion.

The meat of taste testing research

With the massive range of edible products and their contexts – packaging, purchase location, pricing, appearance, consumption location, etc. – the range of taste test testing and sensory research that can be employed to look deeper into how consumers enjoy their food is limitless. So too, are the benefits of conducting such research. Brands that delve into taste test research will find reward in the satisfaction of consumers and a broadened understanding of the market in which their product exists.