The Right Sensory Mix: Targeting Consumer Product Development Scientifically

March 17, 2011

In his critiques of social capital, economist Ben Fine has referred to the stylised view of management studies as being intellectually lowbrow. There is little doubt that this is a problem, possibly in part because of the demands of business schools and perhaps also owing to the prejudices of scholars in other disciplines. But management studies have had to tread a difficult path between attempting to influence business on the one hand and contributing to critical debate on the other.

Diana Derval's The Right Sensory Mix falls clearly on the side of the path that aims to engage with business, addressing a range of questions, such as: Why do some people drink black coffee and others stick to tea? Why do some brands become overnight successes even when consumer panels dislike their taste? The book promises much, with chapters on detecting profitable markets, predicting consumer behaviour, identifying the right sensory mix and increasing the innovation hit rate.

Unfortunately, it does not always live up to these promises, particularly when it seeks to explain the role that the senses play in helping us understand how consumers respond to different stimuli. The author is president of a global market research firm specialising in human perception and behaviour and her examples include well-known brands such as Red Bull, Coca-Cola and Nintendo.

While there are many references to projects she has been involved in, the reader never gets to engage with the whole business problem, but is instead only ever offered a few lines about different companies dotted throughout the book without deep critical engagement. Indeed, sensory aspects are dealt with in only a cursory manner, often flitting from case to case in the course of a chapter.

Unfortunately, The Right Sensory Mix comes across as a book that does not know where it is going. It lacks structure and relies too heavily on anecdotal asides and jokes, which for this reader meant that it lost its credibility.

In a book that promises that after reading it I will be able to understand and predict consumer behaviour, I do not want to be told that consumers' decisions may be influenced by the colour of the cashier's socks or that nurses would make perfect dates for rugby players. The book's reliance on oversimplified generalisations will convince neither business academics nor practitioners.

For example, Derval insists that once we understand consumers' preferences and are able to predict their behaviour in a new context, only two things can go wrong: either you miss a major trend in the market or your senior management does not understand your innovations.

I would argue that there is another factor to be considered, namely that consumers do not always behave as predictions indicate. If it were as simple as Derval suggests, there would be no business mistakes.

There are many management books that have very successfully taken academic research into the popular domain, among them Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein's Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness (2008) and Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions (2010). And doubtless there is a really great book out there waiting to be written on the role of the senses in decision-making that will both pass the academic credibility test and be useful to business people, but this is not it.

The final "Take-Aways" (the author's term) in this book include the statements that "Statistics have little to do with science" and "Mapping the brain, and counting genes, can be as useless as making a survey". I was left wondering how these revelations were going to help me predict consumer behaviour.

Unfortunately, this book will do little to alter the views of the critics of management studies, nor, in my opinion, will it become the business person's resource for understanding consumer decision-making.

The Right Sensory Mix: Targeting Consumer Product Development Scientifically

By Diana Derval. Springer, 146pp, £44.99. ISBN 9783642120923. Published 19 September 2010

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