Making Sense of Tea Product Innovation

M a k i n g S e n s e o f T e a P r o d u c t I n n o v a t i o n

Packaging and promotion may turn heads and initiate first purchase, but the sensory experience of tea brings customers back for more.

Firsd Tea spoke with Cecilia Saint Denis of Consumers’ Sounds LLC about product innovation and consumer sensory perceptions of teas. Consumers’ Sounds delivers sensory evaluation solutions and qualitative research on product perceptions and consumer insights. Prior to Consumers’ Sounds, Cecilia worked with L’Oréal and Nestlé on consumer goods ranging from hair styling products to coffee. She holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry. Her recent book, Consumer and Sensory Evaluation Techniques: How To Sense Successful Products is published by Wiley and available on Amazon. For more information, contact Cecilia at or 908.502.2132.

Firsd Tea: Innovating new tea flavors and tea blends can get costly and time-consuming – are there any keys or shortcuts?

CeciliaFor decades, the development of new products was most often based on the intuition of a few creators or on the intimate conviction of a few decision makers. Developing new products is way riskier now. Testing, weighing market response, and predicting success has become critical to ensure success. It has become vital for brands to invest in R&D to launch new products that survive. There isn’t one sole and exclusive way to approach consumers throughout the creative development process, but there are key considerations, like reviewing fundamental consumer insights.

Firsd Tea: How do consumer insights affect tea product innovation?

CeciliaConsumer insights dig into geography, seasons, gender, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, age differences, and the roles these and other factors play in the way products are perceived. In some cases, this information may already be known- it is a matter of putting it together in a meaningful way. We already know, for example, that the Mid-Atlantic and New England areas of the US consume more hot teas than Southern states. This is likely due to colder winters in the North, and also to stronger cultural ties to iced tea in the South. Exploring how consumers are paying more attention to potential health benefits of certain teas is also important. It is vital to understand what those expected benefits are and what will make claims credible for consumers- be it visual cues, taste components, proper documentation, or all of these.

Firsd Tea: Beyond packaging- how do consumers generally determine if they like a tea, or if a tea is good?

CeciliaIt is often assumed that flavor components are the strongest determinant of consumer preferences. However, some visual dimensions may also lead to acceptance or rejection, or be decisive cues for consumers to assume certain qualitative properties or benefits. These areas have yet to be thoroughly investigated. Olfactory and other sensory impressions can be influenced by the consumers’ geographic, cultural, and economic backgrounds, as well as their age and sex. Visual aspects of color and clarity play an important role, as does the intensity of taste components. Acidity, bitterness, astringency and more subtle flavor nuances all contribute to degrees of acceptance and preference with consumers.

Firsd Tea: To what extent do other tea product features influence the sensory experience of a tea?

CeciliaConsumers may be sensitive to fair trade and organic labels. Various subsets of consumers will assign different weights to these aspects and be willing to trade off in terms of taste or price.

Firsd Tea: Have studies revealed how the environment in which tea is consumed affect the organoleptic experience of tea drinking?

CeciliaThe context in which consumers drink tea should be considered. Given that the vast majority of US teas are consumed at home, this can give clues as to the context of the sensory experience. Teas at home may be enjoyed alone or with family and friends. It may be prepared with various additions, like milk or sweeteners.  It may be consumed during meals or as a standalone.

Drinking tea is a fulfilling experience of tastes and flavors that can trigger both emotional and physical reactions. Understanding tea sensory experiences is crucial to create a cohesion between what the product truly conveys and what the consumer expects.