Food and sensory perception

Music can enhance – or ruin – the dining experience… But choosing the right music can also enhance sales!

Researchers from HUI Research, a research-based consulting firm in Stockholm, have conducted the largest ever study of the influence of background music in restaurants. Led by Professor Sven-Olov Daunfeldt, the researchers found that the right ambient music could exert a positive effect on sales and evoke a range of positive emotions to enhance diner’s satisfaction.

McDonalds and TGI Fridays have found that playing the right music will encourage customers to spend up to 10% more than they would normally – especially on ‘extras’ like side orders and desserts. The trick is to play music that reflects the brand’s values. Many restaurants play music in an attempt to improve their customers’ overall experience, but their choice of songs is usually based on owner’s own tastes, which is a mistake, or that of their staff, which can be an even bigger mistake.

Over the course of five months, researchers analysed nearly two million unique transactions in 16 McDonalds restaurants. They compared the impact on sales of playing a carefully selected choice of music that fitted the chain’s brand against a random selection of popular music. The results showed a 9.1% difference – music that fitted the brand made customers more likely to buy additional items.

A separate survey of more than 2,000 restaurant guests showed the impact of brand-appropriate music against random popular music on emotion and satisfaction. The researchers found that guest’s wellbeing and mood dramatically improved when listening to brand-appropriate music.

The most effective playlist was a mix of popular and less known songs that still had a good brand fit. The playlists also took into account factors such as time of day and type of person likely to be in a certain location, so creating a tailored atmosphere for both the brand and consumer. For example, music played at breakfast in the city centre sounds very different to that played during a romantic evening in a rural restaurant.

The complexity of consumer listening patterns means that playlists need to be flexible to lots of different situations. Some restaurant chains target a millennial audience so need to go for music that reflects a brand identity that is welcoming, modern, and expressive. Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You is like a warm hug as you walk into a restaurant.

As with a restaurant’s choice of décor, playing the wrong music has an equally negative impact on sales. So if you get your music wrong, you might be better off not playing any background music at all.

Apart from increased sales, there are other reasons music is played in restaurants. So far, we have only looked at the effect of music in ‘family’ Restaurants such as McDonalds, and other cheap and cheerful high turnover outlets. At the other end of the scale are the high-end eateries, where the food and fine wine is expensive and diners are likely to spend the entire evening. Here, the music is designed to accompany and enhance the food and create a specific ambience and atmosphere.

These restaurants even employ their own musicians, sometimes a pianist, or a string trio or quartet. With the exception of the War years, London’s top hotels employed small orchestras to play in their dining rooms. The great violinist Max Jaffa and the Palm Court Orchestra and trio, with Jack Byfield and Reginald Kilbey, broadcast weekly for the BBC in a programme called Grand Hotel.

Different types of restaurant will play different kinds of music, but the very best play discreet instrumental music that doesn’t distract from the food or is too loud for quiet conversation.

There is clear evidence that music strongly influences our perception of food and wine.

According to research from the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford, people associate higher notes, flutes, and tinkling piano with sweetness, and deeper, more resonant notes with bitterness. The finest restaurants do not play any music at all, reasoning – correctly – that if the food is truly great, any kind of distraction will only detract from it.

The right music can affect how food tastes. Punchy, energetic and fast paced background music can increase the perceived spiciness of food, again by up to 10%. Experts at the Oxford University have called the effect ‘sonic seasoning.’

Indian music, featuring sitar and rhythmical tabla drumming, in Indian restaurants definitely affects the way we perceive food. Italian crooner Julio Eglasias enhances the dining experience over a romantic dinner in a quiet Italian restaurant.

Researchers got 180 volunteers to eat spicy food while listening to short sections of music they thought would be associated with the food, or white noise, or silence. When music with a faster tempo, a higher pitch and distorted sounds was played, the diners reported that the food tasted spicier and had more intense flavours.

Loud, fast music activates the sympathetic nervous system – the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. This opposes the parasympathetic system and diminishes appetite, which is why you don’t suddenly feel a tinge of hunger while being chased up a tree by a lion.

Music can detract from conversation if it’s too loud and music with lyrics imposes the singer’s thoughts and emotions on diners. Lyrics are either banal or incongruous, and can easily clash with diner’s moods. Why should diners care about a stranger’s love life? And then there are people who have nothing or little to say to each other, in which case music can cover the silence and relieve the pressure of having to make conversation. Some restaurants have silent areas or privates rooms.

It’s not just the music that affects how and what customers order. Marketing research experts at BI Business School in Oslo, led by Professor Anders Gustafsson have discovered that restaurant staff with tattoos, pale skin and messy hair trigger unhealthy menu choices from customers. It seems customers are unconsciously influenced by the appearance of their waiter. Healthy or slightly overweight waiters often influence customers to choose a healthier meal option, but unhealthy looking waiters made customers choose less healthy food.

The researchers showed 100 women video clips of waitresses and measured the women’s eye movements over the menu to see where their eyes lingered and then kept a record of what they ordered. Just one waitress was used in the videos showed the participants, but her appearance was drastically altered for each of the experiments.

In one version, the waitress was shown as her normal fit and healthy self, 171cm tall, weighing 56kg. In another version she was portrayed at the same height but with extra padding so she looked slightly overweight. The final version showed her at her normal weight, but made-up with a tattoo, sallow skin, hair piled up and a generally unhealthy appearance.

The study shows that our menu choices are not always entirely conscious – we often choose in accordance with automatic responses to stimuli. When we choose from a menu, we often unconsciously compare ourselves with others so we don’t break with the norm. This is pure non-verbal suggestion.

If we come face to face with a healthy, or even a slightly overweight waiter, we are often and without realising it, influenced by this norm and order accordingly. Conversely, when faced with an unhealthy waiter, we tend to choose less healthy options – the waiter doesn’t look like they care what we eat anyway, so we go for the tastiest, biggest pile of junk we can find.

Who would have thought going out to dinner could be so complicated?

Incidentally, McDonalds also install hard plastic seating in all their restaurants – it’s easier to keep clean, but it’s mainly there to discourage customers from sitting there too long! McDonalds is a volume business and they need to free up the space as quickly as possible for other customers.

Even the quality of cutlery can affect the taste of food. This is because of a phenomenon known as ‘sensation transference,’ which converts negative visual sensations into less pleasant flavours, sometimes by as much as 10%. Heavy cutlery screams quality, and that persuades you to appreciate the food more – and consequently makes you willing to pay more. The same goes for the quality of the tablecloths, the furniture, the lighting… and so on.

There are high street shops, almost always aimed at young people that blare loud rock n’ roll music to attract those customers into the shop. They are almost all darkly lit and sell mainly dark coloured clothes. No one over the age of 25 goes in there. But the music in these shops is very definitely tailored to the brands inside and shoppers’ expectations of how they’re going to look when they step out, wearing their new ripped jeans and chain belts, and ridiculously impractical footwear.

Atmospheric sounds matter. The pop of the champagne cork, the gurgle and hiss of the coffee machine, the grind of the pepper mill… Crisps taste fresher when they sound crispy and crunchy, and even more so when the packet also makes a crackling sound.

In terms of product preservation, there is no reason for noisy packets – but noisy food must have the right packaging because it reinforces the expectation of crisp fresh food. Manufacturers know this, which is why lettuce and salad is wrapped in cellophane. The packaging – as well as the food itself – is made as noisy as possible to make it taste better.

The influence of background music in restaurants is far more subtle however, and that may account for the secret of its success – it’s less ‘in your face.’ However, you seldom hear ‘muzak’ played in supermarkets any more, or in hotel lifts, because people found it irritating. It seems that sometimes, silence is golden!

When it comes to wine, we are far more easily fooled! Our brains are often tricked into thinking a bottle of wine tastes better just because it’s expensive. In one research project, a group of volunteer wine tasters believed that the same wine tasted better when they thought it had a higher price tag.

This is the placebo effect in action, well known to psychologists and hypnotherapists everywhere. With wine, the effect is employed as a marketing tactic to coerce people into buying more expensive bottles.

As a lover of wine, I can confirm that I am not fooled by this tactic for one moment! I can also confirm that the cost of a bottle of wine is largely dependent on the cost of harvesting the grapes. For instance, grapes from a vineyard on a hillside will be more expensive to harvest than those from a vineyard on the flat. The other thing to bear in mind is that most people drink wine with food, and different foods can change the way a wine tastes. Most people choose a medium priced bottle in a restaurant to avoid the embarrassment of appearing mean. The truth is, the cheapest bottles on the wine list are often just as good as the medium priced ones – often the reason is because the restaurant has bought a large supply at a discounted rate. However, the marketing placebo does have its limits. You would notice a poor quality wine offered at an outrageous price.

Nonetheless, researchers from the INSEAD Business School and the University of Bonn looked at how different prices are translated into taste experiences in the brain, even if the wine is from the same bottle. The study involved 30 participants – 15 women and 15 men, average age, 30.

The participants lay in an MRI scanner while tasting various wines, allowing brain activity to be recorded. A price for a wine was shown, before just one millilitre – enough to taste – was given to them. They were then asked to rate how good the wine tasted on a nine-point scale. They rinsed their mouths with a neutral liquid between samples, which although priced differently were in reality from the same bottle.

The researchers carried out the tests using an average to good quality red wine with a retail price per bottle of €12 (£11/$14). The price of the wines shown randomly to the volunteers varied between €3 (£2.70/$3.50), €6 (£5.45/$7) and €18 (£16.30/$21.20.)

As predicted, participants stated that higher priced sample tasted better than the ostensibly cheaper one. In addition, it made no difference whether participants had to pay for the wine or were given it for free. And the brain scans from the MRI confirmed that identical wine tasted better when the participants believed it was more expensive. It’s all about perceived value – when prices were higher, the researchers found that the brain’s reward and motivation systems was activated more significantly when prices were higher, thus enhancing the taste. Ultimately, it is the reward and motivation system that tricks our brain into thinking wine tastes better.

Research also suggests that the language used on the label of a bottle could be as important as the flavour of the wine itself. Elaborate and emotional descriptions act as a placebo, tricking our brains into a false sense of quality. Study participants rated the same wine higher if its description included information regarding winery history and positive wine quality statements, while the wine was not rated as highly when it had no description.

Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.