Foodology: a social experiment

14 November 2014
Foodology: a social experiment

Foodology, a project between Artizian Catering Services, Creed Foodservice and social media strategist Digital Blonde, attempts to examine diners' emotional reactions to food, as well as influence how they share that emotion online. Hannah Thompson reports

Foodology is a project between foodservice firm Artizian Catering Services, wholesaler Creed Foodservice and social media strategist Digital Blonde. It is a study into people's emotions around food, how the use of social media affects diners' experiences of a meal, and how the findings could translate into Artizian's future work.

Having identified the younger generation as an essential target for Artizian's future business, the company sought to understand how to appeal to and please these constantly-online, constantly-sharing consumers.

The fairytale experiment dinner, created by Artizian 'foodologist' Rob Kurz and chef Richard Skinner, gauged diners' reactions to food, both in person and online, and found that the more that people connected a dish with a story or a detailed description, the stronger their response. Such dishes were much more likely to inspire people's emotions and give them an enjoyable, noteworthy experience that they would be more likely to shout about and engage others with online.

Tracey Fairclough, commercial director at Artizian and co-organiser of the project, says: "The more participants knew about the story behind a dish, the stronger the emotions appeared to be towards it. This is why we need to do more to help customers in making menu decisions by creatively describing and explaining dishes to them."

The business also discovered that taking inspiration from the high street and other popular influences was crucial in ensuring that its chefs, managers and clients feel they have their finger on the pulse with relevant things to tweet and mention online. To this end, the company's 'creative caucus' initiative, which seeks to inspire new dishes and concepts, often involves taking clients to the high street to identify popular trends.

The fairytale menu was inspired by the Mad Hatter's Tea Party afternoon tea at London's Sanderson hotel, and also included touches such as a beef dripping candle, popularised by chef Tom Sellers at Restaurant Story (see below).

From the 40 diners in attendance, online marketing company Digital Blonde calculated that their posts on Twitter eventually reached more than 488,000 accounts. It also found that women are slightly more likely to tweet food photos, with 56% of the tweets from women.

Dawn Herbert, facilities manager at foodservice firm Chaucer, attended the dinner and found clear inspiration to take back to her business.

"I came away with creative ideas for our own client events and dining experiences, as well as ideas on how we can develop our menu planning and presentation," she says. "The evening was a memorable experience for me and I would like to be able to pass the same sensation on to our guests."

Central to this approach is the importance of a theme when developing a contract and the need to be aware of the five senses, which means asking how your event will excite customers visually, aurally and emotionally, as well as considering how the food will taste, smell and feel. This extends to pre-event teaser campaigns and considering how plates and décor will look in photographs that will then be posted to social media platforms, thereby spreading the word to a whole new audience.

The real success of the dinner has been its impact on the way Artizian approaches its business, as Fairclough explains: "We are [now] better at meeting the varying needs of our customers by creating art on a plate and choosing the right words to match the right photos to market those dishes."

Chef as storyteller

Tom Sellers, head chef at Restaurant Story, whose CV includes stints with culinary luminaries such as René Redzepi and Tom Aikens, is known for his storytelling approach to food. His restaurant's blog says: "Our dishes are a visual story, each one inspired by a unique memory. We want to share these memories with you to create a rich and evocative narrative through what you see, smell and taste."

Also famous for presenting food in a theatrical, storytelling way is three-Michelin-starred Italian chef Massimo Bottura. In his book Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef, he explains how his 'Oops I dropped the lemon tart' dish was the result of a kitchen accident in which a dessert slipped across the counter, smashing the plate and the tart.

"In that instant," writes Bottura, "the dessert revealed itself for the first time, and the lemon tart has never been the same. It is broken again and again. The ritual reminds us that breaking is a beginning, not an end."

  • Create a story behind each dish or menu, and explain it well.
  • Create themed menus and link dishes to personal experiences or stories.
  • Try to inspire strong emotions, such as happiness, desire, nostalgia and surprise.
  • Add detailed descriptions and leave these in place when diners are eating.
  • Surprise is particularly potent. If people initially think they won't like a dish (because they don't like fish, or they think the flavour combinations are odd, for example), but they actually enjoy it, this enhances satisfaction.
  • Present food in a theatrical manner to encourage people to share and take photos.
  • Think about vision, feel, taste, touch and smell.
  • Sharing photos of your food can also provoke significant emotion in those who see it online.

The experiment: How did it work?

  • Each meal in the seven-course dinner for 40 people was themed around a different fairy tale.
  • A 10-day teaser campaign via email and Twitter contained cryptic clues and was designed to heighten anticipation.
  • The food was presented in an atmospheric, restaurant-like setting.
  • Diners were given a timeframe to rate their feelings before and after eating using an at-table scorecard. They were asked about emotions such as happiness, desire, fear or surprise.
  • Diners were encouraged to take photos and tweet throughout, using the hashtag #foodology.
  • Two groups of diners who had not been at the event were shown photos of the food and asked about their emotional reactions. One group were given only photos and the second group were given the photos plus descriptions of the food. The latter group experienced greater engagement and emotion than the other group.

Foodology project aims

  • To provide a framework for Artizian's approach to creative food and social media.
  • To enhance people's enjoyment and experience of the foodservice offer.
  • To investigate how to enhance the foodservice experience to the Y and Z generations, who are always online and highly visual.

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