Do we judge chocolate by its wrapper?

Packaging is the first impression consumers have of food products that influences the likelihood of purchasing.

A new University of Melbourne study in the journal Heliyon evaluates the effect of chocolate packaging design on sensory liking and willingness to purchase.

Researchers found that participants expressed stronger emotional associations with the packaging than they did from tasting the chocolate.

They concluded that while taste is the predominant factor in determining subsequent purchases, perception of taste is influenced by emotions evoked by packaging.

Professor Frank Dunshea at the launch of the ARC ITRP hub, Unlocking the Food Value Chain.
Professor Frank Dunshea at the launch of the ARC ITRP hub, Unlocking the Food Value Chain.

“There’s a difference in how consumers perceive intrinsic product cues – like flavour, aroma, and texture – which are associated with sensory and perceptual systems, and how they perceive external cues – like packaging materials, information, brand name, and price – which are associated with cognitive and psychological mechanisms,” says co-lead investigator Professor Frank Dunshea.

“The information provided via packaging can influence customers’ expectations and affect their emotional response when their sensory experience confirms or doesn’t confirm their initial impression.”

This research was conducted by the sensory research team in the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences for the ARC Industrial Transformation Research Program (ITRP), Unlocking the Food Value Chain.

The sensory research team combines conventional sensory testing – asking people what they like about a food – with biometric data gathering and machine learning to measure subjects’ unconscious responses to food.

The University’s sensory lab. Photo: Sarah Fisher, the University of Melbourne.
The University’s sensory lab. Photo: Sarah Fisher, the University of Melbourne.

“This research proposed a cross-disciplinary approach with a combination of sensory and consumer science as well as psychology- and physiology-based assessments, which are important to understand the implicit response of consumers to meet the expectations of products in the market,” says lead author Nadeesha Gunaratne, a graduate researcher in the Faculty.

The researchers set out to identify how packaging affects the liking of a taste, explore the emotions evoked by the packaging and the chocolate and determine whether these factors affected subsequent willingness to purchase.

Seventy-five participants (aged 25-55 years old, 59 percent female) were asked to evaluate chocolates under three conditions: a blind taste test of chocolate, packaging concepts only and chocolate plus packaging.

The same chocolate was wrapped in six different packaging designs representing bold, fun, everyday, special, healthy, and premium concepts. At each step, participants were asked to associate the samples with a lexicon of emotion-based terms.

Six packaging designs evoked different emotional responses by participants, which influenced their perceptions of the taste of the chocolate.
Six packaging designs evoked different emotional responses by participants, which influenced their perceptions of the taste of the chocolate.

How much participants liked the taste of the chocolates was affected by their expectations based on the different wrapper designs, especially when expectations created by packaging were not met.

Participants selected stronger emotional words to describe the packaging than they did when describing what they blindly tasted the chocolate.

The investigators found that there was a moderate positive correlation between liking the packaging and the taste of the chocolate when it was wrapped in packaging described with positive terms such as happy, healthy, fun, bright, relaxing, peace, achievement, togetherness, balance, excitement and friendship. Participants’ association of positive emotions with the packaging therefore had a direct influence on the acceptability of the chocolate.

“An estimated 60 percent of consumers’ initial decisions about products are made in stores solely by judging the packaging,” says co-lead investigator Associate Professor Sigfredo Fuentes.

“As a result, our findings offer important insights that can be used in product design and development to control product intrinsic and extrinsic attributes by enhancing the emotional attachment towards the food products.”

The investigators also note participants preferred the taste of the samples more when they were eaten in blind conditions, as opposed to evaluating them after assessing the packaging, and that taste guides subsequent purchases.

Banner image: Adrian Vittorio; main content via Elsevier and Heliyon. The article is “Effects of packaging design on sensory liking and willingness to purchase: A study using novel chocolate packaging,” by Nadeesha M. Gunaratne, Sigfredo Fuentes, Thejani M. Gunaratne, Damir Dennis Torrico, Caroline Francis, Hollis Ashman, Claudia Gonzalez Viejo, and Frank R. Dunshea.

It was supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council. IH120100053: “Unlocking the Food Value Chain: Australian industry transformation for ASEAN markets.”