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Trained Sensory Panel or Consumer Research? (Or Both?). Which method is right for you.

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July 31, 2014

As a supplier who offers both consumer research and trained panel services, we hear this question all the time.   A client is set on collecting information about their product, but is unsure about which method is right for their needs.  Although many factors go into a final decision, we usually ask one basic question.  Do you want to understand how much your product is liked?  If the answer is yes, then consumer research is probably right for you, but if understanding sensory attributes is more important, then trained panel might be your best bet. 

Consumer research is the investigation of consumers’ needs and opinions about a particular product or service.  To understand consumer research you must understand two key words. Consumer – average customers who use your products, and opinion – judgement or perception not necessarily based on fact or knowledge. 

A trained sensory panel, often referred to as a trained panel or a descriptive analysis panel, is the scientific discipline of characterizing products using trained human tasters (panelists). A product is dissected to understand what sensory attributes are present and to what degree of intensity.  Trained panel is differentiated from consumer research in the two key words – trained panel requires trained panelists, not consumers and the information collected is fact, not opinion.

Research is a big investment and it is important to choose the correct methodology. “Why would I invest in research if it doesn’t tell me how much my product is liked?  After all, it’s the consumer who is purchasing my product so their opinion is most important”.  This is a logical argument and often a reason for choosing consumer research over trained panel.  The response to this would be: why wouldn’t you invest in a trained panel which will provide scientific facts on your product?  How can you begin to understand the consumer if you don’t understand your product at the most fundamental level? 

To understand which method is the right choice, we go back to that most basic question.  Do you need to understand how much your product is liked?  If the answer is yes, go with one of the many consumer research options available – Central Location Testing (CLT), Home Use Testing (HUT), etc.  If the answer is no, then trained panel can help you understand your product in even greater detail.  And if budget permits, combine trained panel with consumer research to gain the greatest wealth of information!  Below are some examples of how consumer research and trained panel can be used in conjunction to meet objectives.


Consumer research is ideal for understanding appeal of a new product innovation.  The product must be tested by consumers to understand whether it stands a chance in market.  Does the product taste good?  Is there interest amongst consumers (purchase intent)?  Does it deliver to concept (meeting expectations)?  Is there opportunity to revise specific attributes such as appearance, aroma, flavour, texture (hedonics, JARS, penalty analysis).  But, how do you come up with the innovation? How do you identify an area of opportunity or fill a void in the marketplace, providing a new and exciting experience for consumers.  By evaluating the current market landscape with a trained panel and performing Principle Component Analysis (PCA mapping), you can identify these areas of opportunity.

Competitive Testing

When testing your products against major in-market competitors, consumer research will tell you which product is liked more, and provide a general understanding of why.  For example, if the competitor is preferred over your product and receives stronger scores for liking of vanilla flavour, a trained panel will dissect and compare the products to fill in the gaps about that particular vanilla flavour.  It turns out that the competitor uses natural vanilla and your product uses vanillin, the artificial flavour alternative.  The picture is now complete and there is clear direction for optimization.

Product Monitoring

Consumers can evaluate your product over time which will express changes in product attributes through a change in overall liking or liking of an attribute.  However, it is a trained panel that will identify that change ( a flavour or aroma off-note, for example) and help understand the source of the issue – new ingredient supplier, production line issue, seasonal changes, to name a few.

The applications for consumer research, trained panel, or a combination of both are endless. Trained panel can help product developers match a competitor, while consumer research can measure alienation of a product reformulation, and the list goes on.  If you understand the disciplines and the pros and cons of each method, you will be able to make an informed choice that will help you meet the objectives of your study, understand your product, exceed consumers’ expectations, and beat the competition!

  • steffiefree
    May 21, 2015 16:41:14

    How do I become a trained panelist?

    "We are looking for potential panelists and will be beginning group screening sessions coming up that you will be invited to. In the sessions, you will complete simple tasks and your performance of taste and smell will be rated along with being a good fit with our current panel. If you could please provide your email and/or phone number, someone will provide you with more details. Thank you."

  • Dawn
    October 19, 2014 23:12:21

    I am formerly from South Africa and have been involved with marketing many new products to consumers. I find there is such a lack of consumer involvement in products. You need more interaction, free sampling and excitement in promoting your product. Marketing is so important. Don't expect the consumer to grab your products when you are holding back.

    "Sampling is good, however the test is always whether the consumer likes the product inside the package and if the appropriate consumer research is not carried out before the product hits the shelves then no amount of sampling will help to make the product a success. ACCE is experienced in using consumer research to ensure product success."