By Erin McCullough, Brand Music Consultant at sonic branding agency DLMDD (www.dlmdd.com) and Jessica Weiss, Communications and Branding Specialist.
As the UK marked a year since the start of the first lockdown, restaurants and bars across the country have been busy preparing for their long- awaited reopening. Despite the very sad fact that many venues may not have survived this turbulent year, the good news for hospitality businesses right now is that the British public are chomping at the bit to once again visit their favourite haunts, or to sample new eateries.After months of stay- ing at home, consumers are ready to splash the cash and a number of restaurants are reportedly fully booked for months to come.
But as restaurants plan for their grand reopening, how should they go about enhancing their customer experience? After a year in which sound has come to the fore like never before, hospitality businesses should consider how music can have real impact on the ambience of their restaurant and consequently the experience of their customers.
Eating is mostly thought of as a four-sense experience.We see some- thing delicious on our plate, smell the aroma, feel the texture in our mouth, and taste the complex flavours. Sound is not often considered part of the equation. But as researchers are rapidly discovering, what we hear while we dine is extremely important: factors like acoustics, back- ground music, noise levels, and the sound of the food itself can change our experience massively, with huge potential to shift the future land- scape of food and restaurants.
WE’RE ALL SYNESTHESIACS
There may be certain aspects of synesthesia (a neurological phenomenon where stimulation of one sense leads to involuntary experiences in a second sense) that we all possess: sound can be a potent manipulator of flavour.This specific sense-pairing seems to happen to everyone, with largely standard observable effects.
‘Taste originates in the brain as much as it does the belly,’ explains Dr. Tim McClintock, of University of Kentucky.These effects are felt in a variety of ways, with the volume, pitch and personal preferences of the individual all playing a part. In one study, participants tasted and rated wine while four different songs, ranging from mellow to harsh, played softly in the background.The participants were unknowingly influenced by the aural triggers around them, believing the wine accompanied by mellow music to be higher quality.
There also seems to be an innate connection in our brains of sweet- ness to higher pitches, and bitterness to lower pitches.The Crossmodal Laboratory at Oxford University explored this with cinder toffee. If we listen to a low-pitched sound, our taste awareness shrinks to the back of the tongue, focusing on the toffee’s bitter elements. But when listen- ing to a high frequency, the sweetness takes a much more prominent role in the flavour experience.
Sound cannot create a taste that isn’t there, but can act as a ‘sonic seasoning’ to bring out different elements and draw attention to certain characteristics in your tasting experience.
Restaurants need to choose their background music very carefully to set the right ambience to compliment their food.They also need to think about how loud they play it: noises over around 80db suppresses our ability to taste sweetness and saltiness, leading to a less pleasurable experience. Conversely, the background hum of airplanes in flight has actually been shown to enhance the taste of umami, so no more complaints about airplane food!
Taking things a step further than the right level of background noise, restaurants may even want to employ ‘music sommeliers’ to suggest perfect pairings of song to meal. Sound could become the final frontier in high-end food presentation.
This is something that celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal has been experimenting with since 1997, when he introduced his dish Sounds of the Sea. Guests were served fresh seafood and edible seaweed on a bed of sand-like tapioca while listening to the sound of breaking waves played into their ears via iPod. Blumenthal hoped to bring the multi-sensory experience to life and bring out the freshness of the fish.
Once we realise just how important the sound is to the overall multi- sensory experience, we start to understand why it’s so important in marketing to pick the perfect soundtrack to both accentuate the satisfyingly crispy, crunchy, and crackly sounds of the food, and suggest the specific flavour characteristics of the experience.
More recently, high-end steak restaurant Hawksmoor and popular meal service Gousto have been offering playlists to compliment their dine at home kits, to make sure every sense is catered to and to maximise the experience.
What’s clear is there is huge potential to create new and powerful experiences through the connection of taste and sound, which will become a much bigger part of everyday life in the coming years as research continues to decode this mysterious phenomenon. So as restaurants prepare to welcome back guests in the coming weeks, they mustn’t forget the power of sound in bringing their customer dining experience to life