Like a Proustian Madeleine, or a perfect serving of Ratatouille, we are all familiar with the idea that flavours can be emotive and transportive. Increasingly consumers want to experience more than something that simply tastes good or offers refreshment. In a crowded market, nuanced experiences that fit into the social and emotional landscape of an individuals’ life or consumption moment are standing out against generic claims. Brands are starting to appreciate and use this quality to market a new kind of benefit, that goes beyond simple health or flavour to something more metaphorical and intangible.

This is particularly evident in the no- and low- alcohol beverage categories, where drinks brands are looking to offer a different kind of experience than the usual buzz. Everleaf alcohol-free aperitif names its products after environments that the flavours are intended to evoke – Mountain, Marine, and Forest – priming the consumer for a shift in sensation: the flavour is not only ‘refreshing,’ or replicating a specific ingredient, but instead provides the feeling of visiting a place that one might normally find oneself on holiday, with the mental and emotional invigoration of those natural spaces found through taste. Likewise Ghia, another alcohol-free aperitif brand, uses experiential language to describe the experience of the flavours of its RTD (“hot and fiery like a night at the cha cha”) and mocktails (one incorporating blackberry is named “Dusk in the Garden”). These brands are selling more complex transportive experiences that suggest an entire narrative to be experienced through a drink, ultimately evoking an emotional or mental outcome, whether that’s energising, inspiring, or soothing.

This is also evident in the alcohol RTD space as well. These Days drinks offers a Sundown Spritz and a Venetian Spritz, their take on aperitivo classics, which through name alone suggest particular times and places that the flavours and fizz of the drinks evoke. Even if one is not spending the summer in Italy, it’s possible to enjoy the taste of a piazza experience through sipping one of these spritzes. And in comms the brand amplifies this, as the drinks are featured cut-out against a blue, lightly clouded sky, as though spotted out the window of an airplane mid-flight.

Increasingly though this trend goes beyond drinks and into the food and snacks categories as well, implying a broadening of consumers’ understanding of flavour overall. In the case of snacking, the simple appeal of flavour is giving way to a more complex understanding of taste and the mental or emotional experiences provided by food. Wild Cassava chips, for example, bill their Sweet Chili & Onion variant as “Fun and feisty, like dancing on a bed of hot coal, these slightly chilli and savoury cassava chips will take you back to your natural fiery roots.” Or Cornwall-based chocolate company Josh’s Chocolate, which evocatively names each of its bars after an experience one would have on holiday in Cornwall, inspired by ingredients added to the chocolate. Dark chocolate with sea salt, for example, is named “Tiptoe Across the Tide,” or milk chocolate with sea salt and caramel named “Weekends On The Water” with imagery of surfers and gently rolling waves suggesting a link between the youthful sweetness of the bar and a worry-free weekend of activity. 

Healthfulness and wellbeing benefits are also increasingly tied to a less quantifiable sense of “feeling good.” Nut Blend nut butters for example have as their main claim “feel good energy” posted on the front of bright colourful labels, suggesting not only a sense of medical wellbeing but also a mental and emotional way of feeling well. In addition, comms provide tips on boosting mood and managing stress, highlighting a holistic attitude to what food brings us in daily life. There is an overall suggestion here that our food choices can impact our mental state, whether that’s through a literal mind-body connection in a medicinal sense, or simply through our psychological relationships with specific flavours and ingredients. It’s also interesting to note that this idea has long been used in foods targeting children – such as the Happy Meal – but increasingly we see that the pleasure and ‘feel good’, emotional wellbeing that come from eating certain flavours or ingredients is important for consumers of all ages. Overall, regardless of the product, its ‘rational’ benefits, or its consumption moment, we see that there is an openness to using flavour to connect with emotional and mental states, and products that do this well are at the leading edge, pushing the boundaries of the role that food and drink can play for consumers.

3 key takeouts for brands:

  1. Look for opportunities to go beyond a simple ingredient-based approach to flavour: what other cultural and emotional meanings arise from the taste, texture, and serve of the product?
  2. Consider evoking a sense of time and place – without losing authenticity – through the flavours and sensations offered by a product
  3. Think intentionally about the consumption moment – when and where does it happen, and how can this be amplified and reinforced with your brand or product?

Isobel Grad, Project Director

Selling Sunset Semiotics: How brands are selling the feeling of flavour