• John Ennis

Valerie Mialon - Advocate for Sensory

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Valerie is MMR’s Global Sensory Director, leading one of the largest and most innovative teams of sensory experts in the world, with sensory hubs in Europe, the US, and Asia and with over 20 trained sensory panels.

Valerie grew up in the south of France and trained as a food scientist in Burgundy, where she immediately fell in love with Sensory, as a discipline that uniquely blends the rigor of science, experimental design and statistics with the fascinating world of the psychology of human perception. Valerie has been working as a sensory and consumer research partner and consultant for over 25 years, with many of the major global food and drink, beauty and other FMCG companies, living in the UK, Australia and now the US. Throughout her career, she has demonstrated a passion to apply sensory and consumer research approaches in delivering business relevant, tangible and actionable recommendations, and pushing her teams to constantly innovate and adapt in response to clients’ ever changing challenges.

From her background and travels, Valerie truly appreciates and enjoys holistic sensory experiences, and as MMR’s Global Sensory Director she now focuses on making the power of sensory more widely accessible to help a wider range of functions and industries, and help create product and service experiences that delight consumers, and lead to long-term market impact.


Transcript (Semi-automated, forgive typos!)

John: So, Valerie, thanks a lot for being on the show today.

Valerie: Thank you for having me.

John: Yeah, it's been great. So, Valerie, we've known each other for a long time through ASTM. I was trying to think when I first met you, it might have been a decade ago. We've been friends for a long time. So it's really nice to know that you've joined us today because I think you have been extremely influential in terms of getting marketers and market research and the kind of market research side of organizations to appreciate the value of sensory. So I definitely want to get to that in just a second. But for the people who maybe don't know you, it would be good to kind of take a step back and have you talk about your kind of voyage into sensory. We all have kind of our unique journeys and it would be really nice to hear yours.

Valerie: Sure. Actually, like that one, John is another funny story. I really very early on I think I was really interested in food and nutrition. I was one of those kids that really like the sweets and stuff I like most things when made And I spend a lot of time. I grew up in France, but we could spend a lot of time tasting different bread and I'd like to know where it comes from. And so when I did a scientific level and I wanted to go into nutrition and see, I did my undergraduate in science of life and applied to be in the nutrition, apply nutrition engineering school and of course all the first classes of nutrition you had to cut up rats. I realize, no I don't want to be cutting up rats and rabbits. But one thing that in real life is that when you go into food science and that really good apply to food and nutrition school, there was a class that I never knew existed was called Sensory Research, and I fell into that. We had a very quirky teacher who also was a Math statistician for sensory sciences. I worked in a junior enterprise single testing for products for the local supermarket consumer. And as soon as I got into my graduate training, I was doing sensory and I haven't stopped since.

John: It's been good and you're very passionate about the field. That's obvious, I think when I talk to you for about maybe 30 seconds and how passionate you are.

Valerie: Thank you. You know, I think it is fascinating as a science. I mean, we still know so little about it. But yes, I think the yeah, the mixture of the physiological, psychological, and all the way that we use science to try and understand that is passionate. And it's everything we do is a sensory experience.

John: I completely agree with that. So I'd like to hear, I think it is good for our listeners to hear also about your kind of, I think, very successful effort to get marketers and market researchers to appreciate the value of sensory. I think if you look at the history of sensory, I think in the 80s and 90s, it was often something that was happening. Maybe it's part of our separate from marketing and I think that one of the big advances and we can talk about advances that are happening worldwide, that this might be part of one of the big advances of the last decade or two has been the much tighter integration of sensory with marketing. So can you talk to our listeners a little bit about this journey, how it was early on versus the kind of breakthroughs, the advice you have for sensory researchers who are trying to get their work recognized as valuable?

Valerie: Sure, I can definitely talk about it and I think that's me and MMR success story. I joined MMR as a trained and somehow experienced sensory scientist to try and really help get the sensory data quality that we could model with consumeristic. So really MMR strike away was like, how can we use sensory data to help the company optimize all the drivers of liking. That was the early days. But that's really when I joined. But yes, very quickly, I got involved in working with client accounts and helping them and understanding how we will work together, and even though it's a long time ago, I probably can't talk about the actual project. But we had a few clients that were really stumbling into a big problem like they knew that they couldn't further optimize to create more liking because it was telling them to make something sweeter or what flavor to the point you come to the liking is that they had really high-end and very iconic brands and really popular products. The liking was already there, but they didn't know how to get more consumers into the brand or get people to consume more. And we could see that was not about just liking and improving that but how do we make the product better, communicate to what they are promising? If I remember one brand, in particular, I was trying to attract men into the brand and you know they tried to make it less. We did those for some reason, but it didn't work. It was not about just what you put in sensory but how all the sensory elements of the product were communicating that wrong. And so that's got to thinking and again, as I said to MMR, success stories working with people like our chairman, David was always fascinated by how are we going to breakthrough. We understand consumer motivation and all the people in the team are constantly thinking about how are you going to do that? And I remember doing what I'm going to call the embryonic version of what we do now, starting more qualitatively like trying to understand how to put the sensory properties of food and drinks or products we have to communicate beyond liking and something we do commonly now. But that was really the beginning and pushing that. And so, yes, once we realized what it was like to just follow behind sensory properties, that's communicating, not just functional variety show that something is refreshing or energetic or relaxing from the sensory, but also emotional. And so that's when we started really developing methods to help answer those questions. And we still at the beginning of showing more marketing audiences and people that working on the product offering about why the product matters so much in the whole week. You know, you've heard about the experience economy and how the experience. The way that we work with different channels and I think there's still a lot of work for us to do especially for me and MMR but I want to show people actually sensory and the sensory experience and measuring the sensory experience and relates to the functional and emotional communication of your product and how it works in unison, you know, in harmony with your brand, your packaging, your communication, your social media presence. It's so important.

John: Yeah, definitely. You know, that kind of leads into something else I'm very interested in which is this, I mean as we talked about a little bit about extended reality, how there's this merger happening, I think between UX and sensory, we increasingly have the ability to present different experiences through sight and sound to our consumers, as well as taste and smell and of course, you know, touch. So we have more influence over all five of the senses and I'm kind of curious, what are your thoughts on either new technologies we could be leveraging or recent breakthroughs or some of the advances that have happened in kind of multimodal research? Charles Spence was actually just on the show recently.

Valerie: Charles is so fascinating.

John: Yeah. But I think just if I can lay out this general topic of kind of accessing all the senses, either through virtual media or online, I mean, what are some of the opportunities that you see for us in sensory and branching out in some of the senses that maybe we're not so comfortable with? I mean, usually sensory scientists are comfortable with chemical senses. So what do you see as some of the opportunities involving the other senses?

Valerie: Yes, that's a very, very interesting question and I think you talk about user experience, sensory experience, but it's very limited to whatever device or whatever you are evaluating. A variety of whether we're living our life and shopping in particular and consuming is it's a very digital. And I think for one application, for example, I think it's very relevant is how can you use sensory in e-commerce applications? I mean, covid has accelerated the e-commerce capabilities of most retail so how do you use sensory power and the sensory experience to differentiate yourself and make more impact? So without actually, I think you saw some of things that presented at conferences towards the end of last year. But we have found some case study and project funds where we use by using videos, found them the visuals. You can really focus on this playing and emphasizing some specific sensory characteristics, but also as we were talking, linking those sensory characteristics to what it is communicating with. It's refreshing to have so making that sound, that image completely emphasize the sensory properties and what it is bringing and elevating the product. And it's still creating that connection with the consumer in a much better way than if you just see a picture on a website.

John: Right. Yeah. There are so many tools available to us and actually we are almost always communicating in various ways. And it is important to actually this brings up to the other topic I like to talk about which is this idea of the consumer journey. Right? There are all these touchpoints that we have with our consumers. And I think, you know, the sensory experience when someone actually finally drinks the drink or whatever it is, is one of those touchpoints. But can we talk so our listeners, a little bit about the whole the entire consumer journey and the many points of which many opportunities we have to communicate with consumers and the sorts of things we should be thinking about in those different touch points.

Valerie: Yes, sure. Absolutely. And this is something that we are getting involved to do more and more for the food and drink which obviously has a classic uses of sensory, but also beyond food and drink and personal care, hand care, devices. The journey is longer so it's not easy to do in the lab, but even at the point of sale right and not surprising as we're talking, for example, when you on your e-commerce website and end up buying the product. So it's how do you reinforce all of those key sensory property that you hopefully know as well as you should do some research and find out how they communicate to be the key brand equities functionally, emotionally, more and more, you know, functionally in terms of hands and so forth, but also sustainability and whatever else it is that's important to you. How do you emphasize those and really links them so that you really create a real connection and impact on the consumer? So we're doing more and more sensory journal mapping and as I said, way beyond and I think because we do it outside of food and drink, somehow people say it makes a lot of sense. And then we bring it back to the food and bring clients to. I don't know if that answer your question.

John: It's very interesting. I mean, you know, the fact is that when packaged as a sensory experience, that there's always a tendency to focus on the look at the package, maybe the color shape of the logo, this kind of thing. But the package itself is a sensory experience.

Valerie: You know, we have a lot of panels that are being trained to assess the sensory experience of packaging as well and it's interesting because you kind of blur the lines between what does a sensory panel do. This is what does a consumer do. And so one of the things that we developing very rapidly is actually is, it's sensory trained user promo. We need people to use that product and you know some time if it's just a drink or food or chocolate, whatever we can use sensory panels that we have commercially. But if it's something for a specific type of hair, for example, we need to have curly hair or people that are going to be using it and if it device, like vaping or whatever, and you need people that use that are willing to use or have the right characteristics. And so we use them obviously going to select them like sensory panelist but we also come then go into how does a product performed for them, so it's really picking that up, but then you can get the full experience from them buying or unpacking or whatever, liking or pouring, whatever your product to all the way into the after effect. If you think about hair product, you know, it's not just when you apply the elements as well. How does it look after you've slept on the floor, look after a few hours to do something to hold your hands? So, yes, it's interesting and when we call it taking sensory out of the lab, it's really looking at the full experience. How does it matter to your consumers if you use it in that case?

John: Okay, well, yeah, that's very, very helpful. I mean, I think one of the things I admire about MMR is you all have a very comprehensive view. I feel like it's not just new things in isolation, but seeing the interactions between all of these different measurements are being made. The different tools that are available. And I've always appreciated that about your company. Something else I would say that I admire watching during the pandemic. I mean, we are fortunate at Aigora that we are pretty much all digital. We can work with historical data. But the pandemic happened. We actually got more busy, not less busy. But for companies that are collecting data, there were some real challenges. And I admired watching you all work through those challenges because you can see through your LinkedIn posts and whatnot that there was a lot of kind of reconfiguration that was having to happen very quickly. So I think it would be helpful for you if you don't mind talking a little bit about some of the innovations you came up with, some of the changes you made and how you coped with what was really a very difficult situation.

Valerie: Yeah, I mean, it continues to be interesting and challenging. I mean, we obviously rose to the challenge. And like you, John, we are quiet for a few months on the sensory. We were literally quiet for 2-3 months, and then we've actually been busier. So like you, we are lucky, it's been a success story for us. But, yes, we had to obviously on the sensory panel, trained panel, our clients, that we had to get them started working outside the lab. We'd already started working on the personal care categories. We were already doing that. So we had figured out the technology on which software and some of the tricks abroad. How do you manage your whole panel? Because the training, the interaction is very important in the way we do sensory. How do you manage that remotely? And we manage all our panels, we managed to take out of the labs and get them running system so then it's also about having a creative team. We have a team of really talented sensory scientists, but they're also very creative. I think that's probably the culture that fostered that and so it was using the delivery service, doing drive through. We've done drive through coffee testing because it needed to be tested and they couldn't come. And then we had to bring them back and bring them back in. We haveabout 20 decriptive panel from all around the world with completely different laws and guidelines, etc and different states of pandemic. And so at least we could learn from each other in that respect. But there was definitely a market where we had to be first but we had to live with how do you do sensory testing? You have to wear a mask and we think and again, it's working altogether, collaboratively, using the as you say, using the technology. You have to have teams and embrace the quality of people that you're not going to look really quickly and what's available. But it's the same as a technology company have to learn really quickly. I remember teams of years ago, it was not as good as it is now. And the same Zoom did a lot of things. And so everybody had to learn really quickly and for us to accelerate some of the things that we would have probably developed. Interestingly, what is done is multipliers of capacity that we have from our sensory panel because now we know they can do things at home that they have to do things at home. So it's kind of given more opportunities to do that and then we actually completely set up new panels during the pandemic remotely. And I was running a training a couple of weeks ago and I realized I have a panelist which only moderated remotely. So it's a new world, it's a new way, but it's possible and it gives you not only a new challenge but also new opportunities and new capabilities.

John: Yeah, definitely. That's interesting. I mean, we have six employees I've never met in real life at our company.

Valerie: I had a team of seven people and one of them I sent from New York to where they are, but I haven't met them yet. I feel I know them so well.

John: Yeah, exactly.

Valerie: Now I'm fully recognized. I can't wait to go in and see them. Fly across states and see them because the plan was for me to go there every months.

John: So that brings us really to follow up question, which is now that things are opening up, what do you see? What have you kind of innovated during the pandemic that you plan to keep? I mean, is it going to be or will you be going back to a central location or is it pretty much that the system is working now? There's no reason to change it back.

Valerie: So, yeah, what I was talking about specifically the sensory panel we had to do the same with the consumers, right? So when we reopen all our sensory panels, we have to close the European ones because of the situation on Christmas. But all our customers are now going back in the lab as a hybrid. So, yes, it change in a way whether it's going to be a hybrid model. So, yes, it's going to stay like that because, as I said, it open some opportunities of doing more or doing different or, you know, some of the things we're doing sensory, it's important to do them in the lab control to be together. But some of the things people want to do is they are low and they are just doing their thing. Why can they do that somewhere else? That is, why can't we do, you know start a sensory panel in a place where we are not physically there or we can't. We've done it. So now that opens a lot of opportunities too and it's the formula for consumer research, obviously. So not for everything, right? We were talking about coffee and ice cream and whatever, but there's going to be things like you need the control and you need the proximity. But there's plenty that we've been doing because we had so that we can keep doing.

John: Yeah, that's fascinating. I actually think in the long run, assuming that, you know, the world goes back to some sort of normal, that this will have been a net positive. I mean, I know it's been a great tragedy. However, I think a tremendous amount of innovation is happening at the same time. So we will see.

Valerie: I think it makes us think about our processes also because we work to do so much that we were doing face to face, not just in meetings, but, you know, the training, recruiting, as you said, and so yeah, how do we improve those meetings? So we're working a lot on improving all our training processes and how do we make things and nobody wants to watch hours and hours of training video when you start a new job. So how do you combine that and make it a mixture of videos and a face to face and personal? But yes, I think it's accelerated a lot of things that we're going to probably happen at some point.

John: Right. It's like five to ten years got condensed to one. It kind of seems that one. Okay, so actually, amazingly, we're getting close to out of time here. So I just one more question I want to ask you, which is just about what you're excited about over the next 2-3 years, either when it comes to research or in terms of consumer engagement with your clients, the things that you think are going to make a big difference when it comes to consumer science more generally. So what are the other tools that you think are very exciting or the topics that you think people should be paying attention to that you think are going to make a big difference in the near future?

Valerie: You know, funnily enough, it's going back to what you asked me as a first question about how do we get, you know, a wider audience to realize the power of sensory and sensory experience? I think that's one thing that I'm excited about, obviously, with my sensory hats on because, yes, it's everything that we do. Everything that we buy is a really strong sensory experience yet and a lot of the decisions that are made that's not always appreciated. And I think the more people understand, what does it mean, what the sensory experience and how can you deconstruct that to really understand what is a pinpoint or what is a delight to so that we can really help you maximize the impact and how your product resonates with your consumer by really delivering your brand fully. I think we still have plenty of work to do with that. I mean, what I've seen in our clients, big clients, they all want to be digital first try and make sure that they get collecting much better data. I'm interested in seeing what we can predict. It's a holy grail to predict what the product that consumers like they going to run. I think that will always be room for, I was going to say face to face may not be face to face but for research with the consumer, with understanding what they perceiving, what it means to them, how much they like and how well does it fit with what you're trying to do as a brand. Well, yes, I'm sure there's going to be exciting things about the predictability of everything that we do. I think I'm probably want to leave that to the younger scientist. But I think there's still a lot that we can do to get people to really realize the power of the sensory experience and communicate with them. And one thing that we always work on that I think hopefully you'll agree on when you see presentations by MMR, how do we make the results even more accessible and impactful and how do we make research results a lot more exciting and impactful and business relevant? So what I see from the client perspective is I want to be the one more quickly agile. So how do you bring it all together from a giant for us doesn't just mean automating things and doing them quicker, but also getting things right first time not going through loops and volumes of research wrong. So how do you bring the product to the consumer research expert with the marketing function and the packaging experts and everyone to work together and thinking about the tools and agile way of making that work much quicker and making it work much more globally, a lot of our clients are global. But you know what I mean, as a wide scale to make sure that you're going to create impact quicker, more efficiently, and work a lot more cross-functional, that's really what I see happening around us.

John: That definitely resonates with me, especially the cross-functional and I feel like right now so many things are coming together really in a lot of technologies accelerating that. So, yeah, I definitely agree. Okay, so Valerie, let's get your advice because I think that you are, I mean, I really admire your passion for the field and your excitement. Every time I talk to you about sensory, I get excited. Okay, this is a great field. I mean, I love sensory anyway, but you maybe love it even more when we talk. So I think it'd be great to hear your advice for young researchers. How would, you know, what would you say to them either to inspire them or to give them some ideas about how to advance their careers? What would your advice to the young researcher?

Valerie: Sure. You know, when you were just reading my bio, obviously annoyed but last week, I did a sensory update outside of MMR so that we now have over 40 sensory scientist now and I wasn't on my own. A couple of people when I spoke to, what I realized is that I never set off to thoughts of a team that was going to grow so quickly. And I thought I was always very motivated to solve the next challenge. So I would say that, you know, how are you going to solve the next challenge? Focus on that one step at the time because if you do your best and if you're passionate about it, I mean, it's funny how people see my passion. For me it is just who I am, probably from where I come from and my interest in the way that I grew up and what I studied. So it's who I am. But I always thinking about what are people feeling, thinking, how is it affecting them. So I think as a young researcher, you know, it must be hard and we find it harder and harder to recruit sensory scientists because, of course, you know, people are being told to go into data science or whatever happens. Right? But we need them. We're growing and we need them. So there are still a lot of jobs that require those skills. So I would say, yeah, you know, I mean, we are going to generate data, but you don't have to be a data scientist to generate data then do things with them. If we still need the people that question that I'm curious about how things happen in a consumer mind. So, you know, follow your passion and if you don't know what your passion, follow what you like to do.

John: Yeah, I definitely agree. There's not a discussion about following your passion. Some of them say it is bad advice. I disagree. I think you have to do the things that you are enthusiastic about. I really think that's true.

Valerie: But it's helpful to know what your passion is. I would I've been able to say that was my passion when I started. I mean, I really liked it as a subject, but then I like so many other things. I love art. But it's like I follow all of the things that make you happy. Bring a smile when you're doing all that's really absorb you. Right? It's the flow, right. When you have this intersection where it's like your mind is completely absorb and your little challenge if you find those things that really keep your mind focused and keep you engaged. But yes, I would say, you know, for me, it's not like I ever wanted to be a sensory scientist, I work all over the world. I never set out to do that. But by doing things I like, I'm trying to solve people's problem.

John: Right focus on the next challenge. That solves the next challenge. It's very good advice. Okay, Valerie, this has been a real pleasure. How can someone get in touch with you? For someone who wants to apply for a job at MMR?

Valerie: Yes, please, we have a few positions now. So on LinkedIn, you know, you can be at the MMR page or you can find my profile on LinkedIn or the MMR website.

John: Okay, we'll put a link to your LinkedIn on the show notes so people can click through and find you. Okay, this has been great. Thank you so much, Valerie.

Valerie: You're welcome, my pleasure. Always.

John: Okay, that's it. Hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you did, please help us grow our audience by telling your friend about AigoraCast and leaving us a positive review on iTunes. Thanks.

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