By: Marty Daks, The Alternative Press
NEW PROVIDENCE, NJ – For more than 27 years, Sensory Spectrum Inc. has been smelling, tasting, touching, looking at and thinking about its clients’ products, advising them on ways to make them more efficient and appealing. The 150-employee New Providence-based management consulting firm specializes in understanding the sensory-consumer experience for industry, academia and government, linking advanced sensory methods to consumer research with statistical analysis.
“We specialize in filling gaps,” explains Program Director Joanne Seltsam. “Unlike many advisory firms that focus on a very limited number of product attributes, we approach each assignment in a holistic way, uncovering the sensory story underneath the data and revealing the interrelationships between a product’s sensory properties and consumer acceptance and perception.”
Sensory Spectrum works with a wide range of local and global companies from industries that include food, cosmetics, pharmaceutical, and consumer product groups.
“If you walk down the aisle of most stores, you’re likely to see products that we’ve worked with, from in-home care products to mattresses,” Seltsam says. “We differentiate ourselves from the competition on a number of levels, including our ability to work with clients from product development to finished goods.”
The company also digs deep to find out if a product matches up with consumers’ preferences. Instead of simply asking a panel of people if they like or dislike an item, the company’s consultants develop a multi-level sensory “fingerprint” of each product that allows them to compare and contrast each item on an attribute by attribute level, as well as in a broader context.
The result is a kind of landscape that shows precisely what a consumer is experiencing, focusing on the look, the feel, the taste, the smell and even the sound of the product.
“We use a detailed approach, including field observation techniques, shop-alongs, in-home visits and online diaries—that assist in uncovering and describing the sensory cues that consumers notice as well as those that co-exist with a product’s sensory attributes,” she explains. “The information we gather and analyze can provide product development direction and may also be used for marketing and advertising support, product maintenance, continuous improvement, quality control, new product development, sensory advertising claims, shelf life and other applications.”
Sensory Spectrum even has the ability to engage in a bit of detective work, according to Seltsam.
“In one case, a manufacturer contacted us because it was receiving consumer complaints about an unpleasant odor associated with one of its home-use products,” she says, noting that confidentiality concerns prevent her from identifying the client. “This was particularly challenging because the product itself was designed to give off a pleasant odor, so we were basically trying to identify an odor within an odor.”
As part of the investigation, Sensory Spectrum consultants had to find out where the product was made, how it was made, and how long it was typically used in a household.
“Among other steps, we had the company carve up the product into pieces and send them to us wrapped in tinfoil,” Seltsam recalls. “Eventually we were able to identify the offensive odor as a kind of wet mold, and upon further investigation we determined that the water used in manufacturing the product had been contaminated. The manufacturer took care of the water source problem and was able to eliminate the disturbing smell.”
In addition to its New Providence headquarters and testing facility, Sensory Spectrum has a location in Kannapolis, NC. She says that New Jersey is a prime location since it affords easy access to major companies and educational centers, but in a global economy location is not as important as it once was.
“We can fly to other continents to conduct consumer testing and then electronically communicate the results back here to be analyzed,” she says. “The distance alone doesn’t present much of a challenge, but when you’re global you have to keep cultural and other differences in mind, since they can affect everything from how you structure the testing and other procedures to how you interpret the results.”
Seltsam says the company’s been able to weather the recent turbulence in the economy, but adds that it’s always looking for ways to continue to grow.
“There’s been a significant upswing in substantiating advertising claims,” she notes. “The Federal Trade Commission has been more aggressive about challenging companies to substantiate their products’ claims, so this has been one of the growth areas for us; and our specialists have frequently been asked to testify on behalf of clients at court and other hearings.
Also, as firms seek to cut costs, more of them are asking us to investigate what happens if they use less-expensive parts or ingredients; they want to save money while maintaining quality.
“We have a diverse array of skill sets, and offer a wide range and depth of experience,” Seltsam said. “Clients appreciate that, so we anticipate continued growth.”