Why You Like What You Like

Smithsonian Magazine: 

For most of us, a pickle is a pickle. It is something that rests snugly beside a sandwich, or floats in a jar on a deli counter. It is rarely something that occasions cryptographic analysis. A number of years ago, though, Howard Moskowitz, a Harvard-trained psychophysicist and food industry consultant, was asked by Vlasic Pickles to crack “the pickle code.” Losing market share to Claussen, the Vlasic executives wanted to take a hard look at a question that was, surprisingly, rarely asked: What kind of pickles did people really want?

Sitting in the wood-paneled Harvard Club in Midtown Manhattan, where he can often be found, Moskowitz tells me how, at Vlasic’s behest, he stopped in Detroit to take part in a brine-tasting experiment in the airport’s Admirals Club. “We came out with an experimental design of 45 different combinations of garlic, salt, spices and oils,” he says. The test prompted the executives to come up with pickles that were far different from the current offerings. It forced them to think outside the jar.

What was most surprising, says Moskowitz, is that many people in later taste tests seemed to gravitate to pickles that were spicier than what Vlasic sold. “You could relate the ingredients and their interactions by a mathematical model to the amount of liking,” he says. “So you had an optimum pickle.”

And when Vlasic subsequently released its line of “zesty” pickles, he says, “you had the best-selling thing in history. We didn’t expect that.”

Read the whole story: Smithsonian Magazine

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