The Whisky Experiment

the whisky experiment - image for article by Greg Alder

The host places a rack of test tubes in front of each participant in the experiment. In each test tube is whisky. The participants are instructed to add a specified amount of water to 3 of the tubes – 2 drops, 4 drops and 8 drops.

The participants are then invited to taste the contents of each tube. The goal is to determine if the addition of water simply dilutes the whisky, or if it enhances it. As it turns out, aromas are enhanced as the water levels increase.

In the second experiment, the participants inhale concentrated aromas of peat smoke, orange, vanilla and toffee – four characteristics found in the whisky. In each case, the participants find that each concentrate intensifies that aroma in the whisky itself. Perhaps not surprising.

In another experiment, the whisky is served at 3 temperatures – 15ºC, 5ºC and -5ºC. The whisky displays more complex aromas and flavour at the warmer temperature than at freezer temperature. To be expected, perhaps.

In a fourth round, the whisky is served in three different glasses, a heavy glass tumbler, a light crystal tumbler and a small tulip-shaped tasting glass. The participants are asked which glass of whisky they prefer. The unanimous vote goes to the heavy tumbler. Now things start to get interesting. Does the shape and size and weight of each glass really influence the aroma and flavour delivery of the whisky inside? Or are the participants being influenced by conditioning? Do we associate solidity with quality and light weight with cheapness?

The next 2 experiments are more challenging. Each participant is handed a cube. Two sides of the cube are wooden. Two are covered in velvet. Two are covered in Velcro. The participants are asked to feel each of the 3 different surfaces as they smell and sip with eyes closed. The participants report that the whisky tastes spicy and smoky when they are feeling the Velcro surface, and soft and round when they feel the velvet.

In a final experiment, each participant puts on headphones. Two different pieces of music are played as they taste. One is a dark, threatening film score, the other is ethereal and dreamy. Once again, the participants report that they note spicy and smoky flavours when listening to the dark music and fruity and sweeter notes when hearing the lighter music.

This is what makes the experiments so interesting – and relevant to all of us with a product or service to sell. Our audience’s perception of our core product can be influenced by things outside of the product’s core characteristics.

When we think of our product or service we focus on function – how it performs the task for which it was designed.

When we think about brand characteristics, we often overlook how we want it to sound and feel and taste and its quality perception.

When we think about brand ID, we think visually – logo, typefaces and packaging shape.

However, as this whisky experiment shows, we are all influenced by so much more – by temperature, by smell, by touch, by weight, by texture, by sound and choice of material.

Research has shown that if we’re sipping a hot drink, we have warm feelings towards those we’re with – a reason to offer clients a coffee, or to meet in a café.

The presence of a landscape painting has been shown to influence a management team to make environmentally sound decisions.

Men are attracted to women wearing red. In Glasgow, blue street lighting has reduced crime.

A photo of a light bulb boosts our creativity. Upbeat music lifts our mood.

So many times we inadvertently undermine ourselves, our services and our products by ignoring these other influences. A poorly designed website, a flimsy business card, a budget store fitout, generic packaging, dirty delivery van, aggressive driver or a café manager’s love of heavy metal can put customers off our business.

The best products and services look and feel more expensive than they are. Because they look expensive, their value is enhanced.

Whisky distilleries understand this. The better the whisky in the bottle, the more considered, stylish and expensive the packaging.

Tomorrow morning, walk into your shop or factory or office and try to imagine it as a first-time visitor would see it. What impression does it give? What does it sound like? What does it smell like?

If familiarity makes that difficult, ask a valued client what he or she thinks about your place of business.

Ask him or her to give their impressions of your website. Your website is your display window to the world. Would the world walk by? What’s the user experience?

Think holistically about your brand. Get every sense involved. Give every one of your customers’ (and staff’s) senses pleasure.

We all respond positively to having our senses stimulated. If you don’t do it, one of your competitors will.

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