Hearing the sound of jelly babies screaming as you chew them is no longer the stuff of nightmares, thanks to advancements in sensory technology. In 2011, researchers in Japan developed a headset that triggers different sounds as wearers close their jaws when eating, including the heartbreaking squeals of masticated jelly babies.
Although Bassett’s is unlikely to invest in that particular piece of kit anytime soon, the increasingly high-tech world of sensory marketing is becoming big business for brands. It’s designed to appeal to all the human senses, to engage emotions and thereby influence purchasing behaviour. New technology is helping brands provide sensory experiences that are more immersive and, often, wouldn’t look out of place in a science fiction novel.
Food for thought
Many brands are following the lead of proponents of “off the plate” dining experiences, such as Heston Blumenthal, whose restaurant The Fat Duck became famed for its Sound of the Sea dish with accompanying iPod playing the sound of waves. Cutting-edge dining now also incorporates the projection of augmented reality imagery on to food – an experience offered to diners at some of the world’s top restaurants, such as El Celler de Can Roca in Spain, which staged an immersive opera-dinner called El Somni, and Ultraviolet in Shanghai.
Drinks giant Diageo is a major investor in sensory marketing, launching multi-sensory spaces and apps for brands including Guinness, the Singleton and Johnnie Walker. This investment is driven by science rather than technology, however. As the company’s global design director, Jeremy Lindley, says: “As humans, we’re not logic-based beings; we make decisions primarily off emotions. Really, it’s about marketers understanding more about what makes us human and what motivates us.”
Pairing sound with food and drink has been scientifically proven to enhance flavour. A recent study from Oxford University revealed that high-frequency sounds enhance sweetness in food, while low sounds bring out bitterness. British Airways is banking on this sensory science to help it stand out in the premium market. The airline is launching an in-flight playlist with 13 tracks chosen to enhance the taste of the dishes on its in-flight menu.
Charles Spence, the experimental psychology professor behind the Oxford University study, who also worked with British Airways on its synesthetic soundtrack, says that many brands are looking at ways in which they can bring the experience they provide consumers in the retail space into the home. “Everyone now is selling experience,” he says. “In five years’ time, when you go into a wine store… you’ll be able to scan the label on the bottle and get the matching music for your wine.”
The influence of the sensory approach upon new technology is also emerging. One piece of tech leading the charge is the Apple Watch, which will have a tactile GPS function to literally nudge you in the right direction if you get lost.
“As it develops, digital is becoming more touchy-feely and more sensory,” Jones notes. But for future advancements in sensory experiences, the world’s most creative culinary experts are ones to watch, adds Spence: “innovation will happen in hands of the chefs turning technology into something memorable, more sensational and more shocking.”
Visually augmented food is certainly something of which we’ll being seeing and eating more. Japanese researchers have shown that augmented reality can trick people into feeling full by making food on the plate appear larger than it is (a godsend to dieters). Spence predicts that in years to come, when certain foodstuffs are no longer in existence, we’ll use Google Glass to project images on to our dishes to give us the impression of the food we used to enjoy.
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