Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on the sensory and emotional relationship between restaurants and consumers. Part two can be found here.
The aroma of fried chicken, waiting to be devoured. The sizzle of a hot juicy burger. That savory first bite, followed by an eye-rolling “mmm.” Quick-service restaurants have the power to deliver an emotional experience that makes your taste buds water for more. And the pursuit of emotional connections can be a quantifiable growth strategy, backed by sensory science. It’s a win/win in everyone’s book.
Sensory and emotional profiling provides nuanced, multi-faceted insight into consumers’ emotional experiences, highlighting opportunities to increase guest connection, brand loyalty, and repeat purchases. When quick-service brands leverage their understanding of consumers’ emotional responses to their products, they can connect to diners on a deeper level and provide solutions to important consumer needs.
The Science and Design Behind Emotions
Designing products around emotions and feelings
It’s important to note that there’s a difference between emotions and feelings. Anita Jacob-Puchalska’s published article in UX Design states the following: “Neuroscientists distinguish between emotions and feelings as follows: While emotions involve the physical response to an external stimulus, feelings are the result when the brain processes these emotions. Emotions are therefore immediate, relatively short and intense. They can be detected and measured by certain activities in the brain.”
The concept of Emotional Design for product developments was first introduced by Don Norman, co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group. In the everyday life of a consumer, we connect emotionally to objects. Attractive features and benefits create positive emotional responses and cognitive ability improvements in our brains, resulting in a delightful user experience. Product liking and positive consumer experience can be the result of using Emotional Design. Applied correctly, this concept can have multiple positive effects on consumers, including consumers loving and repurchasing, higher tolerance toward product imperfections, and positive emotions that can beat out rationality (especially if price point is high). Simply put, we enjoy delicious things because they make us happy.
Approaches to discover and understand consumer behaviors and emotions
Consumers are oftentimes not even aware of the emotions influencing their decision-making. Gerald Zaltman, a professor at Harvard Business School says 95 percent of consumers’ purchase decisions occur in the subconscious mind. Zaltman clarifies that many approaches exist to help marketers, R&D, and brand managers in understanding the hidden behaviors and emotions that consumers feel.
- Verify stated beliefs with actual consumer behaviors by observing how they handle products and competitive brands. Shopper journeys around QSR experience and heatmapping technologies can tell us a lot about what consumers truly believe based on how they act.
- The use of physiological or response latency measures to reveal what consumers actually think or believe. This can be measured by unconscious physical reactions, as opposed to what they might say.
- Qualitative focus groups with in-depth conversations and interviews to uncover deeper meanings behind what consumers are saying. This approach helps transform spoken metaphors into identifiable thoughts and feelings.
- Consumer questionnaires, properly constructed, can be used to assess emotions. Given the limitations of ‘unconscious’ measures, several researchers consider these rated emotions to be our most reliable method.
The signature dish of emotional measurements
Because emotions are so subjective and difficult to quantify, understanding them as a driving force behind consumer decision-making requires a way to measure emotions accurately and reliably. One of the most influential theories of emotion is the Mood Circumplex model proposed by American Psychologist James Russell, which has been put forward as a general model of human emotions.
The Mood Circumplex proposes that emotions lie on a linear combination of two different dimensions (called core affect), i.e., whether they are pleasant or unpleasant (valence) and activating or inactivating (arousal). Using several different approaches, Russell and colleagues found that all other emotions could be arranged along these two core dimensions resulting in what is known as the Mood Circumplex. A person’s mood core affect is always a combination of these two core dimensions, with that unique combination being interpreted as that person’s current emotion.
One of the challenges with these measures is that they are fairly ‘blunt tools’ and are not capable of providing nuanced insight into what underlies them or the behavior they produce. In addition, they have been found to be quite variable across people.
Quick-Service Restaurant Engagement With Consumers and Their Emotions
Restaurants aren’t just businesses that sell food and beverage—they sell emotions through consumer experiences. As quoted often by the famous American poet Maya Angelou, "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Consumers engage in a quick-service restaurant’s emotional marketing efforts and, when done right, they walk away with a positive and memorable imprint of the brand. Research and proof behind this theory illustrates how powerful emotional marketing is with Fast Company’s analysis of 1,400 case studies consisting of successful campaigns, with emotional content performing twice as well (31 percent) as campaigns with rational content (16 percent).
Creating emotions that deliver a memorable consumer experience involves planned points of interactions that create moments of delight through various sensorial touchpoints along the consumer journey.
A shift in strategies spotlights emotions for quick-serves
As the market shifts due to changing macroeconomic factors and trends, strategies shift to meet changing consumer needs and emotions. Data from a Forrester report says that emotion is the most important driver behind the consumer experience. Another poll indicated that 83 percent of respondents were more likely to purchase from a brand that they have an emotional connection with. Quick-service brands are finding new ways to differentiate and emotionally connect with their consumers to provide high satisfactory experiences tied to their brand.
New technologies: New and integrated technologies now exist—thanks to the pandemic—to drive restaurants into the future and pivot to a more seamless consumer journey. Digital menu boards and simplified mobile ordering experiences are a nod to adaptability and ease of use. Curbside efficiencies and automated safety operations are the new future of quick service. These technologies provide an easy journey from ordering to eating, making us feel relatively safe, satisfied, and impressed with the results.
Nostalgia: The journey to fast-food delight has many stops along the way, including a trip down memory lane when nostalgia factors into consumer decisions. Many quick-serves are looking to their history and bringing back nostalgic icons to excite consumers and entice purchases. McDonald’s collaborated and served up a new package concept, inspired by Happy Meals but for adults featuring the iconic figurines Grimace, the Hamburglar, and Birdie. Also, KFC released Holiday Vintage Buckets with some of their most famous designs from 1960’s as a nod to nostalgia and the history of the brand.
LTO’s and Seasonal Offerings: Brand excitement soars as Limited Time and Seasonal offerings instill a sense of urgency in consumers to get moving before it’s too late. As quoted from QSR, “Offer a Big Mac or a Quarter Pounder to casual McDonald’s customers, and they might shrug. But offer a Shamrock Shake or a McRib, and there’s a good chance they’ll salivate. These menu options have become hugely successful at the fast-food giant, despite being offered for only a few weeks out of every year.” Seasonal favorites perform double duty—they drive sales and profits, while also building anticipation and excitement so consumers are ready to jump in line and be one of the firsts to indulge.
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.