Artificial flavors, synthetic fragrances, preservatives, etc., will almost certainly get your product benched. You know it. Regardless of their safety or efficacy, if these ingredients appear on a label, consumers will leave your product sitting on the shelf, in the dust. Why? Because they believe the products contain something bad, so they don’t want them.
Cause for Alarm
While this sense of alarm isn’t shared by all, the alarmists make lots of noise and this spreads. We keep reading that “consumers are more informed than ever before,” but it’s more like misinformed. Sure, they’ve learned a thing or two about ingredients and science, but what did they learn? And from where? I’m not discounting curiosity or learning, I’m just saying it’s important to think critically and consider the source (and more than one).
So now consumers believe they are experts. But in a way, who’s to say they’re not? They know what they want. They may be wearing the Emperor’s Clothes but in the end, their preferences and beliefs drive sales and support our businesses. But let’s not abandon science just yet. There are ways to ensure consumers get good information, and that’s through communication.
I experienced a perfect example of this during a recent family vacation to Hershey, Penn., when my family brushed up our palates for the “Chocolate Tasting Experience” at Hershey’s Chocolate World. Unbeknownst to me, WITF reported1 on the attraction’s opening in 2015, noting that it “functions like a class in wine sampling, exposing the participants to the terms and techniques used by professional Hershey’s chocolate palateers, and then offering them several styles of chocolate on which they can try their new skills.” (Disclaimer: Hershey did not pay or bribe me in any way to write this commentary.)
The program developers provided a truly academic setting for us to learn about tasting. Our “classroom” was arranged with rows of wooden tabletops and cushioned chairs facing a raised stage. Place settings were dotted with mats featuring a colorful “taste wheel”—I’ll discuss these a little later. Settings also included small, clear cups containing what looked like crumbled tree bark; a brown paper sack of chocolate candy samples; one Hershey’s Kiss; a packet of hand wipes; and bottled water. Needless to say, with young tasters, the chocolate samples were opened and gone before the instructor told us to open them.
Between every two or three seats, a tablet device was mounted to the table. Each was logged on to an interactive version of the same taste wheel. The walls lining the room were blank from the ceiling half way down to the floor, ending in heavy wood paneling. Here, in the blank space, video footage was projected around the audience, giving an all-encompassing view and immersion experience as the presenter explained the cocoa bean harvesting and chocolate production process.
Look and Listen
Donned in a lab coat and standing before us in front of a bookshelf backdrop, the presenter gave some facts about Hershey’s beginnings before initiating the taste experience. He asked us to wait before getting into our goodie bags, and explained the basic tasting steps we would follow.
“There is a difference between eating chocolate and tasting chocolate,” he said. “I invite you to slow down and enjoy the chocolate experience in a new way.” He explained we would look, listen, smell and then taste. Listen? I thought. Well, he did say it was a new way.
Once we had the game plan, we got into our goodie bags. They contained samples of the Special Dark, milk chocolate, Dagoba organic and the artisanal brand Scharffen Berger. One sample at a time, he walked us through all four steps.
First, we looked at the chocolate. I really only noticed differences in matte or shine finish, or cloudy or waxy composure. I think this step really was meant to slow us down from devouring it. But listening to the chocolate—or rather, how it sounds when you break it—was interesting.
“Listen to your chocolate as you break it near your ear,” we were instructed. “The way it sounds tells you how much cacao it contains. The louder the snap sound, the higher the cacao level and the lower the milk content.” As you would expect, the standard milk chocolate bar made some sound, whereas the Special Dark chocolate produces a very noticeable “click.”
Smell, Melt, Experience, Taste, Repeat
The tasting techniques taught us about the flavor profiles professional chocolate tasters use to identify different chocolate styles. According to the WITF report, Lael Hunt, director of Hershey’s Global Retail Experience, described the Hershey’s Chocolate Tasting Experience as a “peek into the product development labs, in which the complex flavors of the product are crafted and finalized.”
We were instructed to close our eyes and smell the chocolate, considering subtle hints that add to the overall flavor experience. We then placed the chocolate on our tongues, where we were told to leave it, allowing it to melt and spread across our palates. This maximized our sensitivity to the intricate characteristics.
This is where the taste wheel came in; labeled with category descriptors including sweet, dairy, fruity, floral, earthy or spicy-nutty, these traits were further broken down into specific tastes such as butterscotch, sharp cheese, raisin, leather, wood, nutmeg and many others. As we experienced the chocolate, we reviewed our taste wheel and voted, on the interactive one, for the flavors we identified. These votes were tallied and displayed on the main presentation screen in a word cloud, so we could see each other’s answers.
For example, the milk chocolate had a prominent sharp cheese element. The dark chocolate included some floral notes. We compared the finished chocolates to the raw “tree bark” cacao sample provided in the clear cup. Obviously, a dramatic difference. Participants, including my family members, were intrigued by these observations. It almost became a game to see if we could taste the same flavors as one another, and the instructor’s answers. Attendees were reminded that no two palates are the same, however, so there are no wrong answers.
“You may discover new flavors you didn’t even know were there,” said Hunt, in the report.1 “It’s both entertaining and educating.”
Hershey’s vice president of chocolate product development, Jim St.John, explained1 that the attraction arose out of people’s interest in learning more about the chocolate they love.
“Guests want to enjoy chocolate and understand why they enjoy it. There is a renewed sense of understanding ‘what’s in my food?’ and ‘why does it delight my palate?’” he said. He also cited interest in the attraction coming from the artisanal food movement, and the fact that millennials frequently consider themselves “foodies.”
Feedback on Tripadvisor and Yelp attest to this enjoyment, as those who’ve written about it say, “Overall, this was a pleasant experience,” and “[it was] fun figuring out if our palate was good enough to figure out choco taste components and great usage of crowd sourcing technologies for flavor voting.” Also, “Loved every minute of it” and “You get to taste about five varieties of Hershey products while discussing what makes them unique. My husband and I enjoyed this.”
So that brings us back to consumers, and getting them good information so they are properly informed. Building from their genuine enthusiasm and letting them into that world by exposing them to facts builds not just their knowledge but trust. It may be easier said than done—as evidenced by the empty wrappers of pre-sampled samples—but it’s a step in the right direction. Take it from me; I’m now a certified “Hershey Palateer.”