Food and feelings
“People tend to be cautious rather than adventurous,” says consumer researcher Nina Veflen Olsen. “Consumers want the products they know and love. Variety is certainly not the spice of life!”
These comments were made during the theme day “What Do Consumers Think of Tomorrow’s Food?”, organized by Nofima. According to Nina Veflen Olsen, one of the solutions is to give consumers more experience, with gradual steps being a suitable way forward.
Nofima’s consumer researchers invited the food industry to the theme day in Oslo in January.
Nina Veflen Olsen recently surveyed how European consumers viewed new production techniques, such as high-pressure processing and electrical stimulation. Many consumers were at the outset sceptical of the new methods. That the processes enhanced taste and nutritional value was regarded positively, but an overly long shelf life was an area of concern. Questions like “What sort of additives do these products contain?” were asked.
Consumers were generally more sceptical of electrical stimulation than of high-pressure processing. Pressure was a method they could more readily conceptualize, probably assisted by their own experiences with pressure cooking. In contrast, Nina Veflen Olsen reports, electrical stimulation was seen as more forbidding, with some consumers even associating it with the electric chair.
Studying the consumers
“There is often a significant discrepancy between what people say and what they do,” says adviser Britt Signe Granli. “A typical example is when people say, ‘Price is not a concern when I go shopping’, and then they go and choose the least expensive option. Observation is therefore a key method. We often use this method to learn more about consumer needs and hit the mark more accurately when we develop a new product. When studying consumers at the moment of purchase or use, you learn more about consumer evaluations, and you can pose follow-up questions, such as ‘Why did you look at that package, but choose a different one?’, or ‘Why do you mix the cake batter in exactly that way?’”.
Britt Signe Granli has studied innovation processes in e.g. the seafood and bakery industries. Along with several colleagues, she has frequented convenience stores, gas stations, and people’s cars and homes in order to observe.
“Our observations provide us with insights that enable us to develop business concepts that people want,” Britt Signe Granli beleives.
Conservative opinion of meat
Consumer researcher Øydis Ueland has surveyed people’s attitudes towards meat. She reports that when given the choice, consumers prefer to meet the local butcher.
“Meat is complicated,” she says. “It’s not the same as fish or vegetables. Those products are healthy, period. A consumer’s opinion of meat is related to attitudes, health, and environment. Opinions of meat and meat products are in general very conservative. On the one hand, meat is the food that interests us the most. When we talk about what we eat at Christmas, we think about ribs and cured mutton, not the potatoes or sauerkraut. On the other hand, red meat is associated with unhealthy food and greenhouse gases.”
“Recent studies have shown that consumers accept changes such as heating, high pressure processing, and marinating,” Ueland continues. “They reject changes that are perceived as manipulative, such as for example marinade injections, the adding of nutrients, or gene modification.”
Sceptical of tampering with traditional food
“European consumers associate traditional food with high quality and savoriness, and that it is safe and healthy,” says consumer researcher Margrethe Hersleth. “Traditional food is generally held in high regard despite a high price. Knowing this as we do, it is meaningless to slash the price of ribs, as happened before Christmas in 2010.”
In Norway more than in other European countries, traditional food is perceived as something that is consumed on special occasions. Taste is important and is associated with a specific region or country.
“That’s why the proposal to stop producing Gudbrandsdal cheese in the Gudbrandsdal Valley was greeted with a public outcry,” notes Margrethe Hersleth. “Similarly, a few years ago, Freia changed their recipe for milk chocolate ever so slightly. They didn’t beleive the consumers would notice anything, but it didn’t take long for consumers to voice their disapproval.”
Margrethe Hersleth has studied among other things consumer reaction to changes in ham, cheese, smoked salmon, and sausages. Reducing salt is met with approval, as long as such reduction is done incrementally. “Organic” is considered a plus in connection with traditional food. A change in taste is unacceptable, however – the addition of omega-3 may be considered unnatural in dairy products.
“It is entirely possible to modify our traditional food,” Margrethe Hersleth concludes. “If the consumers clearly perceive the benefit, and the product tastes the same, reception is favourable.”
The auction method
In an experiment involving smoked salmon with varying salt content, consumers were asked to indicate how much they were willing to pay for the smoked salmon. They received samples where they were only given information, as well as samples where they were allowed to taste the product and received information about salt content and the method of salting.
“This method involves consumers bidding on a good,” explains researcher Valérie Lengard Almli. “They must carefully consider how much they are willing to pay, because this determines whether or not they will be allowed to purchase a package of smoked salmon at the end of the experiment. At the end of the session, a sales price for the smoked salmon is established by a random draw of market prices. The consumers are then allowed to buy the good at the sales price, not at their bid price. This method recreates what goes on in a store. If for example someone was willing to pay 30 kroner for a chocolate bar, and someone else 35 kroner, both would in any case pay only 20 kroner, if that is the store price. The consumers’ bid prices provide us with knowledge about what samples are acceptable and at what price level.”
In the experiment the researchers discovered that consumers are positively inclined to a new type of salt and a new salting method, but that taste is decisive for what consumers ultimately price the highest. Samples where a salt substitute reduced the salt content by 1/3 tasted exactly the same as normally salted samples, and were equally priced. In contrast, the use of brine injections changed the smoked salmon’s colour, taste, and consistency, and these samples were therefore not priced as highly as ones produced through traditional dry salting.