The first thing you realise about Thornton Mustard is that he has one of the most apt names imaginable, be it that he is the man behind the tastes of some of the world's leading food and drink brands. The second thing is that when it comes to taste he can put into words what many people can't even begin to try. While the average person may be able to apply to food adjectives such as acidic, dry or just plain 'yuck', Mustard can write a whole thesis on it.
Nor is this just hyperbole. Mustard sees taste as an experience. As an observation with a beginning, a texture, an end and an aftertaste. "It is a serious mistake to think that taste is instant -- it has duration," he says. "I have the ability to explode a 10 second [taste] experience into a 15 minute description of it."
This may seem like gloating, but it is Mustard's only explanation for his unearthly ability to know food and drink products inside out, and to use this knowledge for the benefit of new product development (NPD). Consider the figures. While it is well documented that 80-90% of all new product launches fail, where Mustard's advice has been given through his company The Marketing Clinic this figure has been slashed to only 14%.
And we're not just talking about a handful of low-profile launches here. Mustard has worked the gamut of food and drink brands: from Alpen to Weetabix, with Mars, Ginsters Coke, Red Bull, Thorntons (of course) and Pringles in between.
So what it his secret? While Mustard certainly isn't going to reveal the full techniques behind his alchemist's touch, he does offer some clues to his approach to NPD, which he says differs from all other ways he has previously encountered.
Mustard began his career working in fragrance NPD for Avon cosmetics where, discovering that he could not understand what would be the next fragrance using orthodox market research, he decided to alter his approach to NPD.
"[Orthodox market research] doesn't work," he says. "And the reason it doesn't work is that the fragrance is associated with the emotions in fashion at the time. So if you produce a fragrance that is very close to a current line it will win tests but will fail in the market because 'me too' fragrances are a waste of time. If you want to be successful you need to be new in a genuine sense of the word, so that your fragrance fits in with the emotions of the day."
While perfume may have little connection with food, Mustard says that food, like fragrance, is linked to emotions that go in and out of fashion. He realised the potential for food and drink companies to exploit this link and developed an approach to NPD that would enable them to do so.
The fundamental difference between Mustard's approach and that of others is that he is first and foremost concerned with emotion, and its effect on taste, rather than the other way round. "I started from an emotional point of view whereas everyone else starts from a declared preference," he says.
"The problem with declared preference is that if you like something you like it for the situation in which you are using it. Very few people would like whisky at 7:00am. The principle of 'I prefer x to y' is blatantly rubbish because it depends on the situation you are in. That is the fundamental weakness of the whole system of quantified testing and of looking for preferences."
Instead, The Marketing Clinic, which Mustard set up in 1984, discovers the key characteristics of a product through people's emotions and puts them into a language that's easily understood -- not organoleptic or R&D speak, as Mustard says. Consumers test products, either complete or in the development stage,and their reactions allow Mustard to discover the emotions that are driven by certain tastes.
To do this, The Marketing Clinic uses a highly secretive, if not slightly unnerving sounding, interrogation technique that Mustard calls "soft confrontation". All he will reveal is that consumers are split up into groups of five and various in-depth interviews are conducted using his technique. The rest is secret.
"You don't ask of a product how it makes you feel. It's a shambles," he says. "We find out what the taste characteristics are and what the emotional rewards are for consumption."
Through his interrogation Mustard identifies what he calls need states -- a set of practical and emotional requirements of a specific eating occasion. Once a need state has been established he can then identify the attributes a new product needs to be a success.
So, for example, if a company wanted to develop a product to be eaten when watching a film at home, Mustard would look at all foods consumed in that situation and learn common themes about taste, texture, where in the mouth flavour is powerful, what it is like to swallow etc, to end up with a "basket of values" the product must have.
The taste signature
The Marketing Clinic has also developed a way of ascertaining what Mustard terms the taste signature of a product. In a nutshell, a taste signature combines the emotions created by eating a product and their relative levels of importance with the key elements of taste, flavour and mouthfeel to show how tastes trigger and influence these emotions.
Discovering a product's taste signature is important as it allows companies to further develop their brand, either through line extensions or by moving it into new areas, says Mustard. "If you wanted to extend the brand you can go in a couple of directions. You can pick up the strongest emotional benefits from consumption and build on that or take the dominant taste characteristics and take the taste into another category."
For example, if a chocolate brand generates emotions of relaxation and luxury it could be made into an ice cream, a long drink or a cake, says Mustard. And, there is no reason why it should stop there. As long as it was in keeping with the emotion, it could even be moved into products such as a duvet, he says, because people would still understand the principle behind it.
For line extensions, companies can use the brand's taste signature but alter a few flavours to deliver different emotions. They can even look at a signature of a leading brand and "borrow" some of its strengths.
According to Mustard, a product has about 150 flavours, of which only around 12 may be critical. These flavours give certain messages and by altering one or two companies can extend a product in new areas. Mustard views taste like a melody in an orchestra. Make the woodwinds a little softer and you can hear the strings more clearly. Soften one or two particular flavours a whole new product composition can be made.
However, companies must avoid purely cannibalising their original product, he warns. "By adding other flavours you have got to make sure that they do not give the same pattern of emotions as the original delivery, otherwise [the product] gets used in the same place. It has to fit a different need state."
An example where Mustard has put his flavour 'tuning' powers into practice was with Harveys Bristol Cream sherry, which was suffering from dwindling sales. Mustard discovered that certain flavours in the sherry gave young drinkers powerful images of ancient relations where in comparison its competitor Croft Original, with its lighter profile, was seen as much younger drink.
After working with Harveys on the drink's taste signature Mustard lightened the nose of the drink and brought out its mid mouth tastes. Slight changes that successfully returned Bristol Cream to the position of brand leader.
But while tweaking a product may be a very successful, if not less risky, form of NPD, Mustard believes that true success comes from companies going out on a limb and launching a product that doesn't necessarily please everyone's tastes.
"Companies are inclined to go for the thing that everybody tolerates pretty well," he says. "But actually when you look at great brands most of them have a core of massive enthusiasts, whose number may not be that high, and they maintain it in the marketplace while other people acquire the taste. As they do it becomes massively popular."
One such example would be Red Bull, whose uncommon taurine taste has now become synonymous with energy drinks. But it is not alone. Brands such as Guinness, Dr Pepper and Marmite all fit this model.
consumer is king
A reason that more companies don't do this is that NPD is often left up to the marketers, who Mustard believes don't launch products based on what consumers want, but what they think the consumer wants. "Generally speaking the marketer does not know anything about what consuming something is all about -- they just project their own opinion," he says.
To emphasise the fact that all his work is based on what the consumer actually wants, and not what he thinks they want, Mustard doesn't even taste some of the products he helps to develop in minute detail, but works purely on consumer reaction. He has worked on countless beer and spirits brands, but he doesn't drink and never has.
Because he is so tuned into what consumers want, Mustard is also acutely aware of new products his instincts tell him will struggle and of brands that could better stretch themselves. "I do think 'why doesn't that company do something else?' or 'why doesn't that brand realise what it's doing is not a good idea?'," he admits. "You see new products come out, take one look at them and see the mistake."
Take the recent KitKat orange, and lemon meringue pie line extensions, which Mustard views with an air of cynicism. "[Nestlé] has made some serious mistakes," he says. "It hasn't got the taste signature. It understands the need states of KitKat really well but it hasn't got a full understanding of the heart of what the KitKat taste is all about. It has extended it in a way I thought was pretty unwise."
Other flavours he says companies should steer clear of are very rich tastes that are powerful at the rear of the mouth. He also firmly believes iced tea won't catch on in the UK, despite many attempts by companies to popularise the drink over here.
"Cold iced tea won't work because the tea taste emotional associations are all about home, safety and childhood, and these don't fit in with iced tea. You could try forever but it won't work." And he should knowFM