How the colour of food alters perceptions of texture

Why does red suggest creaminess while blue signals crunch?

The manufactured and reassuringly solid clunk of a closing car door is an example of sensory marketing. It is a sound that makes us feel the entire car is safer and better built.

Then there is the deep and lustrous scent of chocolate or coffee that pervades various cafes and chocolate stores, even when few of their products actually give off such an aroma.

The smell of leather in luxury car showrooms, the scratchy sound when writing with a Sharpie pen, the obviously heavier and darker glass bottles of high-end red wine – they’re all examples of sensory marketing at work.

Synaesthesia, or the production of an impression on one sense by the stimulation of another, has long been researched by neuroscientists, its results translated into a powerful marketing tool. Those with something to sell are becoming better at utilising it.

The sporty BMW M5 model amplifies the car’s engine sounds via the car’s speakers, even when the speakers are turned off. Women’s clothing stores diffuse feminine scents such as vanilla, which are said to double sales compared with periods when plain old fresh air prevails.

And on buses in South Korea, a recent Harvard Business Review story reports, Dunkin’ Donuts increased sales by 29% at stores near bus stops by playing the company jingle on buses and, at the same time, releasing a coffee aroma via an atomiser.

‘Our findings suggest that the colour of food does change the perception of the texture'


Feel the colour

Studies in psychology have long suggested that a small percentage of the population has a condition known as synaesthesia, meaning they may hear music in different colours, or experience taste by touching something. But there is not as much known about how many of us are affected to a lesser degree.

This fact was one of many that influenced Mathew Chylinski, a senior lecturer in the school of marketing at UNSW Business School, to look more deeply into cross-modal perception.

“There is a crossing of information in the brain so a specific sensory modality, say touch, picks up information but another sensory modality is stimulated,” Chylinski explains. “The resulting experience, then, is actually in terms of the other sense. This is what we call cross-modal perception.

“What we’re trying to show is that for the majority of people there is a lower level of synaesthesia-type activity, that most people make certain connections. They are not as strong as those experienced by people with the full synaesthesia condition, but as research in psychology has shown, much of the population has the capacity for it.

“We have long known of research that proves the effect of colour, for instance, on human behaviour. Seeing the colour red, for example, can have a direct influence on emotional reaction.”

In their recent paper, What colour do you feel? Cross-modal interactions between colour and texture of food, Chylinski and co-authors Gavin Northey, from Western Sydney University, and Liem Viet Ngo from UNSW Business School, investigated the influence of colour on perceived texture of food products.

“Our findings suggest that the colour of food does change the perception of the texture of food,” Chylinski says.

“This is a new, novel finding, in that previous research had found evidence of colour saturation, or shades of colours, influencing texture. But this is the first evidence of hue – red or blue – having different effects and also having an influence in a marketing context."

 Embodied or learned

Research in specific fields of psychology suggest people can process information in an ‘embodied’ way or a ‘learned’ way. For instance, embodied perception can include how the way you stand or sit influences the way you evaluate somebody. If you’re sitting in a slouched position you will evaluate somebody as less attractive or less stringent.

At the same time, if you’re holding a warm cup of coffee or hot chocolate you’re likely to experience a more positive evaluation of that person than you would if you were holding a cold drink. The sense of touch and the position of the body naturally informs our judgments, Chylinski says. That sense is built in. It is embodied.

Learned associations, on the other hand, are ones that we develop over time through some sort of conditioning process. So embodied associations are hard-wired, but learned associations are a result of experience.

In our perceptions of the texture of food as a result of its colour, it is embodied associations that come into play. Our cross-modal interactions in this instance are independent of learned meaning.

But, says Chylinski, flavour is a very complex phenomenon. It is a composite of smell, texture and flavour. He and his research team looked at the problem from the angle of vision (in this case, the influence of colour) on a product’s perceived creaminess and crunchiness, which are the most common attributes of food products that people assess using their oral somatosensation, a.k.a. their ‘mouthfeel’.

Both red and blue as food colours, they discovered, positively influenced perceptions of creaminess and crunchiness respectively. Those same cross-modal interactions occurred even if the product type did not fit with the colour (custard or yoghurt is considered acceptable in various colours, for example, where mayonnaise is not). Red accentuated creaminess and blue accentuated crunchiness.

Just as importantly, the authors found that the majority of the research cohort had the capacity for cross-modal awareness, providing further evidence that across the broader population, we all lie somewhere along a cross-modal spectrum.

'We think this is a fundamental issue, especially in relation to the growth in online retailing'


Marketing metrics

In their paper, Chylinski and his colleagues wrote that colour, on its own, has been found to have a significant influence on expected pleasure and purchase intent.

“However, when creaminess is included in the model, texture mediates the relationship so that the paths for colour-pleasure and colour-purchase intent become insignificant,” they say.

This means that after colour shapes perceived texture, particularly in relationship to creaminess, that perception controls the ongoing process and determines expected pleasure and purchase intent, as opposed to colour alone.

“So it isn’t necessarily blue or red that makes you think of greater or lesser quality, it is sometimes mediated through this perception of texture,” Chylinski says.

“Without that perception of texture, colour no longer had any appreciable effect on those marketing metrics. This cross-modal effect seems to drive marketing metrics, but to get it right you need the whole cross-modal process, rather than just colour.”

Follow-up experiments, Chylinski says, have suggested that even when people are not consuming a product, such as when they are simply watching a commercial or seeing packaging in a store, the use of colour has a similar effect on their expectations around creaminess or crunchiness.

“Do marketers do a good enough job in this area? Probably not,” Chylinski says. “We think this is a fundamental issue, especially in relation to the growth in online retailing. Any use of colour or visual imagery that suggests texture or feel might be important in that medium, and strategies around that are probably underrepresented at this stage.

“Our research might contribute something to that in terms of how this cross-modal interaction suggests texture of food to regular people. It does have implications for perception of the quality of food and perceptions of freshness.??

“People see the colour, they feel the texture, or at least they imagine the feel, then they make the connection that the specific product is, or is not, going to be fresh and good quality.”


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