Are you a supertaster or a nontaster?
Marketers can change labels, packaging, and size — but more recently, research explores biological aspects of taste preferences to inform marketing strategies, as alumni and others learned from Cornell researchers at the Ithaca Predictions Dinner.
by Janice Endresen
Kathy LaTour, associate professor at the School of Hotel Administration, and Miguel Gomez, associate professor at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, delivered an informative, entertaining, and interactive presentation, “Marketing Wine to Supertasters,” to more than 95 Cornell alumni, students, faculty, and staff at the Ithaca Predictions Dinner on Feb. 8. Held at downtown Ithaca farm-to-bistro restaurant Coltivare, the event was hosted by the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business and the Johnson Club of the Finger Lakes. LaTour and Gomez, who designate themselves as consumer marketers and psychologists, fully engaged the audience in taste tests designed to help each guest understand his or her own sense of taste; then they shared what they have learned by doing similar taste tests at a few Finger Lakes wineries.
LaTour, who is also the Banfi Vintners Professor of Wine Education and Management at the Hotel School and a sommelier, began by pointing out that taste descriptors, especially terms used to describe wine (such as buttery, charcoal, cigar box — not to mention the worst of the lot, cat pee), have little meaning for most people, and none at all for those just learning about wine. But she also spoke about how difficult it is for many to describe flavor, and she quoted Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who said: “One must ask children and birds how cherries and strawberries taste.”
She followed this up with the first hands-on, participatory segment of the evening, asking everyone to draw one of the special strips of paper coated with the tastant propylthiouracil (PROP) and taste them for 30 seconds. About a quarter of the audience found the taste to be terrible and bitter; they belong to a category called supertasters. Another quarter of the participants tasted nothing; they are nontasters. These are useful categories because supertasters and nontasters tend to have clear flavor preferences.
“Supertasters tend not to like green leafy vegetables,” explained LaTour. “They like milk chocolate versus dark chocolate; they like light-roasted versus dark-roasted coffee; and they prefer Pepsi over Coke.” In taste tests, supertasters also tend to prefer white wines like sweet Rieslings, whereas non-supertasters prefer dry red wines. In this part of her presentation, LaTour asked the audience to sample small glasses of white and red wines served to each.
“Super tasters have very narrowly defined set of preferences, and don't like to change,” said LaTour.
Of course, the flip side of that is product loyalty — a strong trait among supertasters.
That brought the topic around to marketing, which Gomez introduced by asking: Are winemakers missing an opportunity to segment these consumers and market to them?
“We found that experts are negatively influenced by the word ‘sweet,’ and positively influenced by the word ‘dry,’” said Gomez. “And supertasters are even more influenced by these words.” Although supertasters tend not to like dry red wine because they find it too tannic, many also know that dry red wines are regarded as a higher quality choice. That’s a double negative that makes them shy away from wine altogether.
LaTour and Gomez did some of their research at Finger Lakes wineries that agreed to let them use their tasting rooms as labs. They conducted experiments designed to learn more about consumers’ individual taste preferences as well as how consumers evaluate products. To begin, Gomez and LaTour “divided participants into supertasters and non-supertasters, and also into level of wine expertise: novices, aficionados, and experts,” said Gomez. “We selected a sweet white wine and a dry red wine, and asked [participants] to evaluate aspects of the taste, then evaluate quality,” said Gomez. In some experiments, LaTour and Gomez also manipulated the information they gave the consumers.
Among the key insights they gained from their experiments, LaTour and Gomez learned that while taste physiology matters for consumer preferences, product knowledge is more important than taste physiology. “In taste tests, most people prefer the sweet wine but know dry red wine is better choice,” said LaTour. “Your social aspirations have more weight than you realize,” Gomez noted.
“Wine marketers should pay more attention to supertasters,” said Gomez. Some wine tasting rooms are starting to think about marketing strategies along these lines, he said, by asking such questions as “Do you like dark chocolate? Do you like dark coffee?” By asking such questions, “wineries are starting to be able to ascertain what wine an individual consumer might like,” Gomez said.