Skip to content

Why Multisensory Menus Are A Win-Win For Restaurants And Customers

  • Marketing focused on the multisensory properties of food can encourage people to eat less and enjoy food more
  • Sensory-based menus can contribute to a shift from ‘food as fuel’ to ‘food as pleasure’
  • Emphasising the aesthetic, multisensory properties of food is a promising alternative to current health messaging

A glistening bowl of caviar in a Michelin-star restaurant and a casually assembled bacon sandwich are culinary worlds apart, but what unites them?

The answer is simple: they’re both loved by foodies for their flavour. Or as Emily in Paris tweets in the hit Netflix series, Butter + Chocolate = ❤️.

But there is a balance to strike between gastronomic excess, bland healthiness and savvy shopping which fad diets have not yet achieved. So how can we revolutionise the art of enjoying more while spending less, and bolster the bottom line rather than the waistline?

Yann Cornil, Associate Professor of Marketing & Behavioural Sciences at the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business and Pierre Chandon, Professor of Marketing – Innovation and Creativity at INSEAD and the Director of the INSEAD-Sorbonne Université Behavioural Lab say using Epicurean-labelled foods in supermarkets and restaurants can increase satisfaction at a good price for both the customer and the business. 

What does that mean for business and marketing strategy? In effect it is a sensory-based menu, describing meals in a qualitative way such as flavour profiles and ingredients rather than quantitative ways such as calorie counts.

Professor Chandon explains, “We call this Epicurean labelling because it is consistent with the teaching of the Greek philosopher Epicurus who wrote that the wise person does not choose the largest portion of food but the most pleasing”.

To put this claim to the test the researchers gave participants in a restaurant one of three menus: an Epicurean-labelled menu, a nutrition-labelled menu which had significantly fewer calories and a control menu where they could select how much food they wanted. 

The Epicurean based menu included descriptions with a multisensory focus, such as: “Beef shepherds pie with flavours of the Mediterranean” or “Crunchy shortcrust pastrywith an elegant and slightly sour lemon juice cream.”

Paying customers could choose as many portions as they wanted and were asked to estimate a fair price for the meal they had chosen.

The research found that customers in the control condition had an average calorie intake of 984 kilocalories and estimated that the meal was worth €17.

In contrast, the calorie intake of those exposed to the Epicurean menu was 817 kilocalories, 17 percent less than those who ordered off the control menu. And despite eating less, customers choosing from the Epicurean menu valued the experience at €20, a 16 percent increase over those with the control menu. 

“These customers were happier and willing to pay more for less food,” says Professor Cornill. “They also anticipated a more pleasurable experience after reading the sensory-based menu, and ate at a slower pace.”

He added that customers exposed to the nutrition-labelled menu consumed just 680 kcal, 31 percent less than the control condition. This group were left still feeling hungry and unsatisfied with the experience, valuing it at an estimated €15.

[You can find out more about the impact of restaurant reviews in this BlueSky Thinking article, “How Can You Predict Business Failure? Look To The Stars”]

This may be good news for both restaurant customer and owners, but what are the consequences for the competitive world of retail?

The researchers examined the effect of epicurean labels on food products in French and American supermarkets. Using data collected by market research company Mintel Corporation, they compared information on the price, size and product descriptions on food packaging, finding that France had a larger proportion of products with at least one sensory descriptor.

In contrasting the average size and price, Professor Cornil noted that products with sensory labels tended to be packaged in smaller quantities in France but were no cheaper in price. In the US, however, there was hardly any difference in size, but sensory-labelled products were markedly more expensive.

The researchers concluded that French consumers associate pleasure in food with smaller quantities, and are willing to pay more for it, whereas Americans are willing to pay more for higher quality but don’t want less food as a result.

According to INSEAD’s Professor Chandon, Epicurean labelling has three clear advantages. First, it is better for people’s health as it encourages people to eat moderate portions. Second, it is better for business because people eat less food for the same price. Third, it increases overall satisfaction since people enjoy the meal more.

The researchers hope that the findings will contribute to a shift in attitudes to food. “In the fight against obesity, public health authorities have tried to promote moderate eating and healthy diets by adding nutrition labels to food products and menus,” says Pierre Chandon. “Here, we argue that emphasising the aesthetic, multisensory properties of food is a promising alternative”.

“Food companies need to change their business model. Rather than selling more calories to more people for more money — the “food as fuel” model — they need to grow their business by selling fewer calories but more enjoyment, the “food as pleasure” model. 

So the language we use to market products or entertainment really does make a difference. For businesses in the food industry “food as pleasure” could very well be food for thought.

By James Dugdale

Leave a Reply