OPINION12 September 2016

How food advertising best stimulates the senses

Behavioural economics FMCG Opinion UK

Neuroscience tells us that to engage viewers, food advertisers should consider showing the products in their messy, authentic glory by Dr Cristina de Balanzo.

Lurpak egg_crop

From the golden, elastic mozzarella dripping from crispy pizza dough to the glossy chocolate sauce oozing from the centre of a sponge pudding, it goes without saying that brands are keen to leave an aftertaste in our brains through clever and creative marketing campaigns. 

But how exactly do these images impact our view of a brand, or change how likely we are to buy the product? Consumer neuroscience allows us to go beyond traditional ‘self-report’ methodologies and delve deeper into how people’s brains react to images of food.

We generally assume that food is primarily associated with our sense of taste, but marketers must rely on other senses when seducing us to go out and buy a product. Everything in the brain – including brands and food products – is represented through a network of associations and memory structures which include vision, touch, taste, smell and sound. 

Our brains and senses are interconnected; we cannot consider them separately. When we see or experience something these pathways light up, and the more senses are stimulated the more memorable any interaction.

We recently ran a study for a well-known chocolate bar, during which implicit testing demonstrated that when an image of the chocolate itself was included within a printed advert, the emotional conviction behind positive statements about quality and taste was much stronger than when just the pack is shown. Simply seeing an image of the chocolate bar was enough to increase positive associations, probably because we were triggering past experiences of the brand and how the chocolate tastes.

So you see a juicy burger sizzling in a pan, or perhaps an ice-cold beer gushing out of a tap, your eyes widen, your mouth waters, your breathing intensifies. That doesn’t make you leap out of your chair and race to buy that product though. Or does it? 

Measures such as Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) show how excited and energised people are by what they see, which can then be used to predict purchase behaviour. In a recent Budweiser advert we tested, we found that the visual representation of food alongside brand imagery resulted in a high level of excitement among the brand’s target audience. The more ‘energised’ a person is, the stronger their experience of the advert, and the more likely that experience is to impact what they buy.

Neuroscience techniques can also be used to challenge our perceptions about food. Although within our industry the trend exists to style and prettify food for use in advertising campaigns, our analysis and first hypotheses shows that the brain reacts far more positively to more visceral images of food and eating. 

Professor Charles Spence has spoken at length about the fact that when it comes to fatty foods there is “motion behind the emotion” ie stringy cheese or dripping chocolate is much more favourable to the brain than a stationary image.  (Givili et al, 2015 )

Lurpak’s ‘freestyle’ advert is a great example of how food should be shown and how we can activate every sense. Big band jazz provides the soundtrack for an exuberant celebration of colourful ingredients. We see honey swirled, pomegranates squeezed, bread torn, onions chopped, a fried egg and salt scattered – all rising to the emotional crescendo of that first, satisfying, messy, bite. 

We asked participants to watch the advert while wearing EEG headsets to monitor their second by second unconscious emotional reactions, and found consistently high levels of engagement and excitement at this food performance.

Our recommendation to advertisers and marketers is that although we might be tempted to spend hours making food ‘pretty’, keep it real and consumers are more likely to crave your products.

Dr Cristina de Balanzo is the Main Nut of consumer neuroscience consultancy Walnut Unlimited