The magic of a glass
Have you ever noticed how different types of drinks are usually served in different shaped glasses? It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about wines, spirits, or even beers but it turns out that choosing the right glass can increase sales by up to a third1. Wine and whisky connoisseurs argue that the right glass is designed to maximise the flavour. For example, the shape of most wine glasses slopes inwards trapping the aroma or bouquet within the glass – providing the drinker with a more intense flavour. While there is no debate that changing the shape of the glass changes the chemical composition of the aromas that sit at the top of the glass2, what is unclear is whether these differences can be objectively detected by expert drinkers – let alone a casual drinker3.
Taste vs Flavour – what’s the difference?
Even if most people can’t objectively taste the difference, that is not to say that the shape and weight of a glass does not influence our perception of flavour, flavour is not a simple chemical reaction where our taste buds identify individual chemicals (that’s taste). Instead, flavour is what our brain creates when our sense of vision, taste, and touch all interact4. This distinction may sound like semantics, but it means that at a psychological level, the shape of a glass can dramatically change how a drink tastes. For example, when regular drinkers of beer were offered an Australian craft beer, they thought it tasted 13% fruiterer and had a more intense flavour when they drank it from a glass with curved glass rather than one with straight sides, even though they thought it smelled the same5. But this is where things start to get interesting. It is not only the shape of the glass that makes a difference, but the texture of the glass that changes our perception of flavour. When researcher’s 3D printed a glass so that texture either felt more rounded or angular, they found that consumers rated both coffee and hot chocolate as tasting 27% more bitter when it was served in the angular glass and 18% sweeter when the cup felt rounder6.
We know this effect occurs, but scientists are not certain why7. It cannot be explained by physico-chemical factors. Our best guess is that consumers have learnt to associate sweet tasting food and drinks with rounder shapes, whereas bitter and sour flavours are associated with angular shapes. Consequently, if we have a drink from an angular glass it primes us to concentrate on the bitter and sour flavours. Once more suggesting our enjoyment of wine, beer and whisky, is more connected to psychological factors than the drinks properties.
This effect is not only restricted to drinks, but the same effect occurs with food. When food is served on a square plate, we perceive that it isn’t as sweet as when it’s served on a round plate8. (Which is interesting when you think how many fancy restaurants serve desserts on square plates). Even how we present the food on the plate is enough to change our perceptions. Simply plating food in a ‘round way’ can cause a similar effect.
So, what does this mean for marketers?
However, marketers can exploit this effect phenomenon in a more subtle way. One of the most well-known finding in psychology is the bouba/kiki effect. When people are shown two random shapes (see image) and asked to guess which shape is called bouba and which is kiki virtually everybody answers the same (regardless of culture). We assume the round shape is called bouba and the angular shape is called kiki9 and this has implications for how we brand food products. Shoppers naturally assume that food presented in a circle will have names similar to ‘malomu’ or ‘bouba’, whereas more angular food will have more angular names such as Kiki10. Although the research did not look to see if a brand name affects taste, it seems likely that the right name makes a chocolate bar or a wine taste sweeter or more bitter.
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1 Beer Matters: How Miller Brands Partners with Licensees to Drive Sales. The Publican. 24 July 2009. Available online: http://www.morningadvertiser.co.uk/Drinks/Beer/Beer-Matters-How-Miller-Brands-partners-with-licensees-to-drive-sales.
2 Liger-Belair, G., Beaumont, F., Vialatte, M. A., Jégou, S., Jeandet, P., & Polidori, G. (2008). Kinetics and stability of the mixing flow patterns found in champagne glasses as determined by laser tomography techniques: likely impact on champagne tasting. Analytica Chimica Acta, 621(1), 30-37.
3 Spence, C., & Van Doorn, G. (2017). Does the shape of the drinking receptacle influence taste/flavour perception? A review. Beverages,3(3), 33.
4 Gal, D., Wheeler, S. C., & Shiv, B. (2007). Cross-modal influences on gustatory perception. Available at SSRN 1030197.
5 Mirabito, A., Oliphant, M., Van Doorn, G., Watson, S., & Spence, C. (2017). Glass shape affects the perceived taste of beer. Food Quality and Preference, 62.
6 Van Rompay, T. J., Finger, F., Saakes, D., & Fenko, A. (2017). “See me, feel me”: Effects of 3D-printed surface patterns on beverage evaluation. Food quality and preference, 62, 332-339.
7 Spence, C., & Van Doorn, G. (2017). Does the shape of the drinking receptacle influence taste/flavour perception? A review. Beverages,3(3), 33.
8 Fairhurst, M.T., Pritchard, D., Ospina, D.et al. (2015). Bouba-Kiki in the plate: combining crossmodal correspondences to change flavour experience. Flavour 4, (22) 1-5. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13411-015-0032-2
9 Ćwiek A., Fuchs S., Draxler, C., Asu E.L., Dediu D.,Hiovain K., et al. (2021). The bouba/kiki effect is robust across cultures and writing systems. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 377(1841), 20200390. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2020.0390
10 Fairhurst, M.T., Pritchard, D., Ospina, D.et al. (2015). Bouba-Kiki in the plate: combining crossmodal correspondences to change flavour experience. Flavour 4, (22) 1-5. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13411-015-0032-2