Sensing the future

There is a tendency for qualitative researchers to address senses in isolation but the challenge, says Charles Spence, is to look at how they impact on products and packaging when viewed in a more holistic way

If psychology has told us anything over the last 50 years, it is that we cannot trust the evidence of our senses. When we think about a product we always tend to think in terms of a single sense: How much do I like the smell of this new product, what does the colour of that one remind me of, or ‘wow’, the packaging of this brand feels distinctively different.

Our brains, however, are constantly taking in information that impinges on each of our senses (including what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell), and using that information to form the rich and varied multi-sensory experiences that fill our lives. Thus knowing what something ‘looks’ like isn’t simply a matter of knowing what a person sees, it also (somewhat counter-intuitively) depends on what they happen to be smelling at the same time. Similarly, what a person ‘feels’ when they touch that distinctively-different new packaging has as much to do with what they hear when they touch it, as with what is going on under their fingertips.

There’s no such thing as white! Take, for example, the perception of whiteness and softness of your sheets whey they come out of the wash. It is all about what you see and feel, right? Wrong. Many companies have been infuriated by the results of their sensory evaluation panels showing that, when they add a ‘clean’ fragrance to their new laundry detergent, their consumer panels start saying that their clothes ‘look’ noticeably cleaner, and that their whites look whiter than ever before.

What is going on? How can it be that changing a product’s fragrance changes what people see? Well, recently, cognitive psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists have started to provide some intriguing answers to these questions.

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