The Sensory Researcher as a Trusted Advisor

Interview with Anne Goldman, Director of Research Guidance at ACCE in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada


How has the sensory function evolved in the last 50 years?

The sensory function today is an integral part of a successful business model, recognized for it’s supportive role to the product life cycle. The growth of the sensory research field is evident today in the number of well established in-house sensory research groups, the increasing numbers of suppliers of sensory research and the support network of sensory interest groups, conferences and scientific publications. There is also a growing list of employment opportunities each year in the sensory field.

How does the sensory function need to evolve if it is to become a lasting, indispensable business function?

It is imperative that those individuals who hold positions of responsibility either in the corporate environment or as outside suppliers of sensory research, evolve from a position of sensory “order taker” and assume the role of a “Trusted Sensory Advisor”. To illustrate, I like to use the analogy of the patient and physician for the client and sensory advisor role. For example the trusted sensory advisor develops a relationship with his/her client, which is analogous to that of a physician with a patient.

The client articulates the symptoms of the problem (e.g. decline in sales volume, loss of business to a competitor) to the sensory advisor who then interacts with the client to determine the problem and the research approach to seek insights for treating the problem. Just as the physician would not allow a patient to request a specific drug to cure his/her self diagnosed illness, the Trusted Sensory Advisor resists taking orders about the test design or data collection methodology until the diagnosis is complete.

What are the necessary prerequisites to develop the role of a Trusted Sensory Advisor?

There are several prerequisites for the development of the Trusted Sensory Advisor Role. First and foremost there must be a strong foundation and understanding of the application and use of sensory research to all relevant parts of the product life cycle that is clearly articulated to clients to develop professional credibility. In addition there must be an in depth understanding of the relationship of sensory research findings with many other elements of the product life cycle: for example tracking studies, retail audits, qualitative research findings, concept, advertising and package information.

Also by having an understanding of the various aspects of the business: retail sales, marketing, finance and production processes the Trusted Sensory Advisor is able to position the sensory function in a more strategic function. Additionally the ideal personality is self reliant, entrepreneurial with analytical skills for problem definition and implementation.

What is the most valuable role that the Trusted Sensory Advisor can fulfill?

There is a tendency amongst sensory researchers to speak in a language and present research findings that the world outside of the sensory group such as sales, marketing and production does not fully understand. It is imperative that sensory findings be transposed into insights to be of value to the business at all levels. A Trusted Sensory Advisor is able to do this.

How do you define an insight?

To be of value to the business decision process, an insight must be factual and meaningful. It must be relevant to the brand or the business in that it can be applied to the promotion or description of the product in a way that has relevance to the consumer. An insight should meet an articulated consumer need for the product or category. And lastly the insight should point to a change in consumer behavior leading to a potential competitive advantage for the product.

Can you give some case study examples of the role of the Trusted Sensory Advisor?

One of my classic examples is the prevention of incremental product degradation. Unfortunately in today’s competitive environment there is extreme pressure to reduce product costs. I think we can all give examples of products that we know that don’t have the same sensory character that their more costly predecessors had. In the company where the sensory function is viewed as a trusted source it is less likely that cost driven changes will be made without attention to appropriate sensory test action standards for the decision to be made.

My other example involves a company that had always used qualitative research as their sole means of decision making for new product introductions. When introduced to the concept of quantitative sensory research they embraced the addition of these insights to their business decision making. The first product that was introduced after using quantitative sensory has been the most successful launch in the company’s history and set the benchmark for other competitors in the market. Subsequently all research now uses a combination of qualitative and quantitative research tools as a part of their business model for all new product introductions.

Thank you, Mrs Goldman.