Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series on the sensory and emotional relationship between restaurants and consumers. The first, on tapping into connections to drive traffic, can be found here.
How, exactly, do our five senses stimulate our desire for quick-service eateries, and affect our emotions as a result? When consumers are immersed into the restaurant experience, sensory stimulations are impacted, sometimes without even realizing it. In the order of how we’d experience these stimuli (sight, smell, sound, touch, and finally taste), concepts and strategies are outlined that can lead to winning solutions for quick-service restaurants.
We eat with our eyes, and we take in the world this way, too. The sense of sight is of paramount importance. When we don’t have it, such as in the case of dining in the dark experiences, our other four senses are enhanced with the loss of one. First impressions matter, from the social media food photography that might entice you to visit, to the entrance of a restaurant brought to life by décor, lighting, and cleanliness. What we see is the first sensory factor affecting how we feel, even before we step foot into a restaurant. A cozy nook in the corner, the comforting shape of the tables and chairs, a 50’s diner style eatery with a vintage jukebox—all these details form first impressions and start the shopper journey experience with the feeling and vibe a quick-service restaurant has to offer the public.
An example of this is the world-renowned coffee giant, Starbucks, in their transformation from their traditional warm and cozy atmosphere to a sleek interior atmosphere that reflects their global culture. A spokesperson for the company stated, “This is an absolute narrative on the coffee experience, one of the most current immersive experiences worldwide. This is how Starbucks will communicate their expertise.”
Color is also a huge influence on our senses, affecting our visual perception, emotions, behaviors, and even triggers our appetite.
A study conducted by restaurant tableware provider Tork sought to scientifically prove how restaurant colors affect consumer restaurant experiences. Using brainwave technology and a test size of 16 people, the subjects sat in a color-saturated environment and tasted foods and drinks that matched the color of the room they occupied. It was determined that color is crucial to the consumer experience with a predictable impact on emotions.
Green: Revitalized, refreshed, renewed. Great for midday environments, coffee houses, and health-focused restaurants.
Orange: Fun, happiness, good vibes. Great for quick-serves focusing on happy and fun environments as well as the occasional business gatherings, but not on luxury or romance.
Red: Strong emotional connections, romance, and creativity. Great for bars, romantic rendezvous, and creative fun places.
Blue: Welcoming, calm, relaxed. Great for quiet dinners, family lunch spots, or coffee and tea houses.
Yellow: Energetic, revitalizing, exciting. Great for promoting energy for all ages, especially around breakfast occasions.
Brown: Relaxing, neutral, traditional. Great for restaurants calling on tradition, especially when paired with more evocative colors.
Black: Complex, luxury, sophisticated. Although evoking high levels of creativity and arousal, black is distancing for diners and not used in many quick-service restaurant settings.
White: Modern, but with little impact. Other than its association to modern restaurant styles, the color white had little impact on testers, with no arousal and low brain wave registrations.
How can this be used in context at brick-and-mortar dining location? Jennifer Guerin, interior designer and color expert and owner of JG Color Studios in San Diego, recently worked on a brewery in San Diego, Hidden Craft, that uses a combination of bright yellow and bright green to evoke high energy, but also a faded blue to minimize the energy. “It’s light, it’s bright, but they don’t want people to stay for hours on end,” she says. As a comparison to this, think of McDonald’s with their classic colors of bright red and yellow, encouraging consumers with high energy to eat and leave quickly.
The sense of smell has been in the spotlight over the past few years with the rise of COVID-19 and reports of infected individuals losing or altering their sense of smell for an extended period. COVID-19’s olfactory effects aren’t confined to a loss of smell. For some, infection causes the smells that people usually enjoy or find comfort in—like a drive-thru coffee in the morning—to trigger a full-throttle sense of disgust or revulsion.
“It’s estimated that the number of odors that people can detect is somewhere between 10,000 and 100 billion, or even more,” says Dr. Gary Beauchamp, a taste and smell researcher at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. When we smell something, that odor information is delivered to different parts across the brain which can influence various aspects of our lives, like memory, mood, and emotions.
Quick-service restaurants are coloring outside the lines with new strategies that lean on the sense of smell to increase brand awareness and repeat purchases. Marketing through scent recognition is a strategic tool that emphasizes the appeal to smell over see visuals that can go undetected by consumers yet considered very effective for food-friendly avenues.
Imagine the delicious aroma of fresh baked cookies at an open house, an effective maneuver by realtors that’s lead to quick home closings. On an even bigger scale, think of Disney’s Magic Kingdom and the mouthwatering scent of vanilla coming from the “speaker” in the walls and dancing in the air around sweet shops on Main Street, enticing a calm but hungry effect. Or Auntie Anne’s open-store concept with a soft buttery pretzel scent filling the food courts and aisles of the mall. Even a crafted candle, designed to smell like your favorite fried chicken. Scent is all around us, especially at quick-serves, making our mouths water for more.
The sizzle of a juicy burger on the grill, the grinding of fresh coffee beans, the atmospheric music that surrounds the restaurant. According to Forbes, sound is the second strongest sensory influence, right after sight, in building a brand.
Sound has a profound impact on how consumers experience food and drink, ultimately affecting how we feel about what we’re eating. The crunch of an apple may signify how fresh the food is, and the crispness of a chip can be a nod toward its flavor. Researchers are acknowledging the sound of food is an important factor that can affect a person’s food and drink experience.
Chefs in all levels of restaurants from fine dining to quick service are looking into ways to make dishes more sonically pleasing, using ingredients like popping candies, crispy flakes or grains, and much more.
The sense of sound is all around restaurants, and it’s gotten more sophisticated with technology. Haagen-Dazs came out with an app that lets its consumers relax and listen to classical music while they wait for their ice cream to soften. Diving even deeper into technology, the concept of using ASMR, autonomous sensory meridian response, can illuminate sounds like crinkling, chopping, sautéing and stirring that can cause pleasing emotions and feelings of euphoria, relaxation, and well-being. ASMR food videos are on the rise in the U.S., allowing everyday people to livestream and make the most enticing food-favorite noises possible.
To drive this point, NPR wrote about vloggers like ASMR Darling who created a 21-minute video of herself, whispering to viewers while slurping an icy cold Dr. Pepper drink, tapping her nails on a Chick-fil-A box of chick-n-minis, and whispering through the video with a side of hash browns. This particular video drew in an audience of more than 1.5 million views, simply with sounds.17
Only a small handful of scientific experiments have been conducted on ASMR due to the intricate details and new “trendy” feeling behind ASMR, but it’s considered a perceptual sensory phenomenon. Restaurant giants like KFC, McDonald's, Portillo’s, and Applebee’s along with megabrands like Pepsi, Tastemade, Blue Apron, and Thrive Market have also been captivated by this, and created ASMR content and videos around food to enhance sounds and entice consumers to purchase.
Skin is the largest organ on a human and sends direct signals right to the brain. Being able to touch and engage with products builds the magic behind consumer engagement. Imagine the feel of a warm buttery bun in your hands, or the fizz of a soda as it enters your mouth for the first time. Now imagine the quick flash of emotional impact and how that first contact makes you feel. The sense of touch immerses us and can make or break our quick-service dining experience.
Touch is present in food texture and mouthfeel which play important roles in how a consumer perceives, evaluates, and makes decisions about food and beverage, especially during consumption. Mouthfeel occurs when consumers put food into their mouths and the surface of the tongue and other sensitive skin reacts to the feel of the surface of the food, allowing for various sensations as the food is chewed.
Consider how cold coffees in various forms at quick service and casual dining, have been attracting attention over the past years. Beyond simple coffee with ice, restaurants are now exploring a variety of cold brew coffees, such as nitro coffees and teas infused with nitrogen and other gases that impact mouthfeel for an enhanced, indulgent, and upscale consumer experience.
Another current phenomenon in the food industry is the explosion of healthier plant-based offerings and the opportunities that exist to recreate the juiciness, mouthfeel, and flavor of its namesake meat. According to data, plant-based protein has experienced a menu penetration of 48.6 percent across all plant-based segments as of Q2 2022, with the fastest plant-based protein dishes over the past year being build-your-own pizza (+58.3 percent) and imitation meat sandwiches (+31.7 percent). Being able to meet this critical texture match will help bridge the gap between meat-based and plant-based offerings, and allow for higher acceptability of plant-based foods among meat-preferred consumers. This gives consumers a higher emotional state of wellbeing and healthy living.
The sense of taste is something that quick-service brands can appeal to simply by giving out free samples. For example, Eataly offers samples to give consumers just a taste and leave them wanting more. Wineries do this as well, with wine tastings that are intended to generate product liking and purchases.
Ironically for restaurant businesses, consumers showed the lowest emotional response from the sense of taste, according to Forbes. This does not mean that taste is any less important, of course. Consumers can experience a great and engaging restaurant journey, up until that first bite. If the food is not as appealing or palatable as they expected, consumers can become alienated from the quick-service restaurant brand which affects their decision to revisit and repurchase in the future.
A world of flavors exists that restaurants can explore to improve taste offerings to consumers. A sense of excitement and fun can be brought to plates through exotic flavors inspired from around the globe and unexpected flavor pairings. According to Datassential, some of the top exciting flavors expected to see everywhere in the next year take a nod from international cuisines, adding excitement and a sense of boldness and newness to foods and beverages.
Mangonada: The Mexican frozen beverage made with mango sorbet and Chamoy topped with Tajin has grown 100 percent on menus in the last year alone, and it’s also growing as a flavor.
Yuzu: This Japanese citrus fruit is becoming a go-to citrus flavor and will show up on even more chain menus and national retail products in 2023.
Spicy Maple: Adding a sweet-and-spicy profile to a variety of offerings, particularly on fall and winter menus, this is the “next hot honey.”
Salsa Macha: This Mexican chile condiment is up 339 percent on menus over the past four years.
London Fog: Essentially an Earl Grey latte, this drink and flavor profile is growing due to the health connotations of tea and the growth of floral flavors on menus.
Wrapping Up The Results
Leveraging insights from emotion-focused research can lead to game-changing results in the quick-service industry. Factors in that impact emotionally driven decisions can range from new technologies to LTOs to nostalgia, and can generate swift results in the fast-paced world of restaurant brands. By tapping into emotional triggers, restaurants can engage with consumers through sensorial touchpoints to drive purchases.
Understanding the multi-faceted landscape of consumer emotions facilitates more than just the design of better, more consumer-aligned menu items. It allows operators to create cohesive brand strategies and impactful communications that resonate with the right emotions to build brand connectivity.
Valerie Cansler is the SVP of client services at Curion. With experience in marketing research, product development, and engineering, Val utilizes her unique perspective to design meaningful research that solves complicated business issues.