As a regular item in NeedToKnow: Trade Marks, we highlight a scientific or psychological study on consumer behaviour that has caught our attention.

For many years, restaurants and food marketers have noticed that the taste and smell of foods are not the only drivers of taste preference, but that visual stimuli play an important part. Foods that look good are thought to actually taste better, which may explain the extraordinary effort that some restaurants put into the presentation of their meals. Others in the food industry have noticed that colours can also be used to unconsciously emphasise or enhance the perception of certain flavours. Two recent studies prove these effects in a dramatic way.

In the first study, researchers at the University of Bordeaux1 found that oenology students used red wine terms (such as chicory, prune, raspberry, clove, cherry, chocolate and cinnamon) to describe a white wine which had been dyed red (without their knowledge). The same white wine (in its natural colour) was described a week later in white-wine terms (such as honey, lemon, grapefruit, straw, banana and flower). The researchers concluded that “because of the visual information, the tasters discounted the olfactory information”. Essentially, the wine’s colour misled their ability to judge flavour. The study suggests that food and beverage makers can highlight or emphasise certain desirable flavours or ideas, simply by colouring the foods or beverages. Colour can effectively “prime” consumers to expect and to experience certain smells or flavours. Yellow, for example, could suggest that a food or beverage has a stronger lemon scent or flavour than it actually has.

This “colour priming” effect not only applies to the colour of the food itself, but to its packaging or container.

In the second study, researchers at the University of Oxford and the Polytechnic University of Valencia2 served the same hot chocolate in plastic cups of different colours: white, dark cream, orange and red.

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The participants rated the taste and chocolate flavour of the hot chocolate in the orange cup as better than that served in the other cups, with the white cup faring the worst. While the researchers could not explain why these effects occurred, they concluded that “these results should hopefully stimulate chefs, restaurateurs and those working in the food and beverage packaging sectors to think more carefully about the colour of their plate ware/packaging and its potential effects on their customers’ perception of taste/flavour of the products they happen to be serving/delivering to market”. Food producers need to conduct their own tests to find the colour of plateware/packaging that best drives sales for their own particular products. If that colour or colour combination is unusual or distinctive in the trade, food producers should seek trade mark registration for the colour(s), to protect their competitive advantage.