To see or not to see? How our senses affect our relationship with products, by Ryan Lewis

Food and Drink
March 23, 2017

Everybody has heard the old adage “you eat with your eyes” but is it true? In the last month over the course of two very different culinary dates, my girlfriend and I have really put that theory to the test. Firstly, an extremely visual food sensation at Leeds’s only Michelin-starred restaurant The Man behind the Curtain and then eating in the complete dark at London restaurant Dans Le Noir. But which was better? What did I learn about the roles our senses play in our experience of food? And wider afield what does it mean for how brands appeal to all our senses?

“It looks too good to eat,” and the antonym “it looks good enough to eat” are things we’ve all said. Both demonstrate how our perception of food and eating is closely connected to our sight. But when the option to see what you are eating, as I experienced at Dans Le Noir, is removed is one’s experience of food affected? The answer is undoubtedly yes and for me, I’m afraid, it wasn’t for the better. I can conclude categorically that I like being able to see my food and what’s more it increases my enjoyment of a meal.

The contrast between the two meals couldn’t have been starker. Michael O’Hare’s food at The Man behind the Curtain is cosmic in appearance because it resembles a nebula star whereas the experience at Dans Le Noir was cosmic because it was as black as deepest darkest space. However, intriguingly there were similarities. At both meals I didn’t always know what I was eating. At Dans le Noir this was because I couldn’t’ see my food and wasn’t told what I was eating. One had to rely entirely on taste to identify the food, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. At The Man behind the Curtain despite being able to see the food and being given very detailed descriptions of what was on the plate, I still didn’t always know what I was eating simply because the creations were so fantastical. Edible egg shell, for example, blew my fragile little mind.

Food and drink is best enjoyed when all our senses are stimulated. What’s more our relationship between food and drink and senses is well known by brands and frequently exploited. The most tempting treats (those that are bad for us) are always sold at eye-line in the supermarket, coffee shops frequently waft their aromas out on to the street, and how much do you always want a Coke when you hear that pop and fizz of someone else’s can opening? It’s just as important to appeal to all the senses in the language we use when communicating and talking about food and drink. The legendary American salesman Elmer Wheeler said it best “You sell the sizzle, not the steak.”

Appealing to all our senses is essential for all brands. The consumer today wants to have experiences and an emotional relationship with the brands they buy and one way of doing this is ensuring the products and services we use excite all our senses. Brands should consider when appealing to our senses:

Sight – The sense most closely linked to our perception of things. What colours and shapes do customers associate with your brands? What emotions do these evoke? Is your brand recognisable from just its colour, shape, or logo?

Sound – This can easily be conveyed in adverts (Breakfast cereal is sold on sound alone). What sounds and music do customers associate with your brand? Do you have a catchy theme tune or tagline? What sounds do people link to your product? Also, how do people talk about your product?

Smell – The sense that is closest linked to our memories. Smells take us back to childhood or place we once knew. What smells are used in your stores? What memories does the smell of your products evoke?

Taste – This sense is not just confined to food and drink products. If your product had a flavour what might it be? How could taste be incorporated into your brand? If not a food or drink brand what food or drink product would customers associate with your brand?

Touch – The sense that the customer closest links to quality. If it feels good we think it’s good. How tactile is your product? Does it feel better than competitors? Does the customer get the opportunity to feel before they buy?

It makes good sense for brands to appeal to all our senses and they should investigate as many ways as possible to appeal all of them. Based on my two dinner dates I can testify that an experience is definitely better when all your senses are stimulated and excited. Dining in the dark was fun but for me there is definitely more enjoyment in seeing the joy in the face of the person you are with. Call me old fashioned but if I am going on a date with someone beautiful, I want to be able to see them.