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A sixth sense for what consumers want

Company grows by helping businesses sniff out buyers' preferences

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Gail Vance Civille, president of Sensory Spectrum Inc., says her company's growth has rebounded as companies invest in R&D again.
Gail Vance Civille, president of Sensory Spectrum Inc., says her company's growth has rebounded as companies invest in R&D again.

A coffee lover will sample a new latte and rave about its aroma and flavor — or pour it right down the sink.

But few can explain precisely how the coffee inspired their pleasure or dismay. Teasing out which sensory attributes will tickle or turn off the consumer is the work that Sensory Spectrum Inc. does for major consumer products companies like Unilever, Kraft and Pepsi in their quest to find products that customers will buy.

With annual revenues in excess of $5 million and facilities in New Providence and North Carolina, Sensory Spectrum is now poised for a major growth spurt. A new contract to run the sensory department of a Midwestern food company is expected to bring in about $500,000 in annual revenue. And it very recently got approval from the state of New Jersey to conduct consumer taste tests of alcoholic beverages, a new business line the company estimated could yield $100,000 in annual revenue.

"We'll be able to help companies make better-tasting gin or smoother vodka, or find exactly the right flavor," said President Gail Vance Civille, who founded the company in 1986. If a company wants to make kiwi-flavored vodka, "We will help them pick out the best kiwi flavor, test it with consumers and make sure they'll have a product on the shelf that people want."

Sensory Spectrum's growth is influenced by cycles in the consumer products industry and the economy. Civille said when the recession hit in 2009, sales fell 20 percent, but the company still turned a profit.

"We work on the R&D side, and in large companies, when there are budget cuts, the first place that gets cut is R&D," she said. But Civille said growth resumed in 2010, when revenue rose more than 11 percent, then advanced another 10 percent in 2011.

Analyzing the subtle sensory notes in black coffee was a recent project for a panel of the company's sensory experts, who sniffed and tasted teaspoon after teaspoon of the hot liquid. They were searching for more than 30 possible aromas and flavors that can be found in coffee, including chocolate, raisin/prune, tobacco, cardboard, cereal, wood, citrus, wet soil, vanilla, and rubber. Civille said it takes a sensory expert to isolate qualities that doom a brand to consumer oblivion, or make it fly off the retail shelf. "Consumers perceive these attributes, but they can't articulate them" — and they vote with their wallets if their sensory experience disappoints, she said.

Sensory Spectrum employs 40 full-time sensory experts, and another 200 who work part time. These are food scientists, chemists, biologists and psychologists. "We are doing what we call 'serious science' plus strategy — and we are very serious about the science," Civille said.
To those who dismiss tasting and smelling as "soft" science, she said, "If you go to a doctor, and the doctor palpates your stomach, looks down your throat and listens to your heart, that doctor is doing three sensory tests. And you believe it because of the doctor's training and years of expertise. And that's what we are bringing to the evaluation of these products: a lot of training, expertise and experience." The company works on a wide range of consumer products, from foods and beverages to skin and hair care, paper and fabrics.

Civille "is a globally respected authority in sensory science," said Michael DuBois, director of the Rutgers Food Innovation Center, in Bridgeton. DuBois said Sensory Spectrum uses sophisticated methods to collect and analyze data, "resulting in some pretty powerful guidance to the product development process." He said product attributes can then be refined "to make the products more in step with the consumer's expectations, and help ensure that a new product hits the bull's eye in terms of being exactly what, on average, the consumers most like."

Civille was a chemist whose formal food science career started in 1965 when she landed an R&D job at General Foods. But she traces her sensory training to her Brooklyn, N.Y., childhood in a "Southern European family that talked about food all the time — every holiday, every meal, we talked about food."

Civille, 69, plans to work for at least another five years, "for as long as I can taste." Her father, Casimer Vance, passed away last year, and "until he was 90, he could taste the difference between foods. Most people lose it at 80. But he could always taste the most minute, small flavor."

None of her family is involved in the company. Civille is working on a succession plan with her staff, some of whom have been with Sensory Spectrum 20 or more years, "and will probably continue to run the business."

She once explored selling the company, but decided against it. "I don't want to sell the business to people who just want to make money," she said. "We want to have fun and invent new things and make money. I don't want to have it disappear from being the center of excellence that it is."

E-mail to: beth@njbiz.com

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Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald reports on health care, small business and higher education. She joined NJBIZ in 2008 after a 34-year career at the Star-Ledger and has been reporting on business in New Jersey since 1978. Her email is beth@njbiz.com and she is @bethfitzgerald8 on Twitter.

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