I am often asked by clients to help them change a product formulation in such a way that the consumer does not notice the change. But it is not any change in the taste that really matters, it is the way that consumers respond to the change. Sometimes what the sensory team tell you is quite a significant taste difference has very little effect on consumer response, while in another case a barely noticeable change in the flavour can have a dramatic effect upon consumer responses.
Liking is an emotional response to the consumption experience. If a change in flavour or texture does not impact upon the important emotions of the product it may not matter, but even tiny changes in a flavour or texture that are important to the emotional response can have a dramatic effect.
We also see that preference testing of such product changes can be very unreliable. Consumers have a tendency to pick the more familiar (the current recipe) over the less familiar (any new recipe), also they pick the sweeter or more indulgent in a one off preference test while they will often buy the less sweet less indulgent version for regular consumption.
When you understand the consumers emotional journey with your product, the cues in your communication, packaging, appearance, consumption experience that prompt that journey and the important emotional outtakes that drive liking and preference for your product then you know where to focus your attention when managing product changes.
It is easier to focus on what we can measure; taste, sweetness, viscosity… and have the numbers of quantitative hall tests to back up our decisions, but it is the consumers emotional response to our product that really drives our success so this should be our start point – and then we can gain the security of the quantitative testing once we know what we should be measuring.