Sound palate: Finnair's "Hear the Taste" Bisensory Experience

Illustration by Óscar Matamora

Could a new class of ingredients, acoustic in nature, make up for muted taste sensations in the aircraft cabin while telling the story of a transnational journey?

Chefs labor to craft dishes with balanced flavor profiles. Salts, fats, acids, heats – so they say – work in concert for a dish to hit the right note. In the air, where passengers’ sense of taste is hindered by background noise and cabin pressure, it’s even harder to find the perfect pitch.

Finnair has given it a go with “Hear the Taste,” a bisensory experience that in its first iteration paired items from the airline’s “East Meets West” menu, created by chef Steven Liu, with soundscapes composed of his recordings of nature in Nordic Lapland.

The result was a sonic-gustatory duet offered on flights between Europe and China throughout 2018, which was “both effective in improving taste and inspiring a Nordic-Chinese journey for the listener,” says Antti Suomalainen, client services director and sound experience advisor at Ultra Nordic, the audio branding agency responsible for producing the soundscapes.

The Nordic-Chinese connection has long been a pillar of the Finnish flag carrier’s identity, says Hanna Seppä, the airline’s senior brand and marketing manager, discussing how the initiative fits into its broader strategy. Finnair was the first European carrier to fly nonstop to Beijing, in 1988, and the carrier currently services seven Chinese destinations. “We have a long history with China, and we continue to have a strong focus in the Chinese market,” she says.

“Sound is a powerful tool for building an emotional connection with a brand, creating unique memorable experiences that differentiate you from the competition.” – Antti Suomalainen, Ultra Nordic

As an example of how the airline is continuing to link East and West, this time through the layering of auditory and gustatory textures, Suomalainen points to the sonic accompaniment to Liu’s sweet corn and chicken soup. “The lead instrument for the soundscape is a cupola, which combines an Eastern-like bell instrument (similar to a meditational bowl) with a more Western steel clang (like a metal kitchen pan),” he says. In terms of the science behind the sound design, select harmonic frequencies work to emphasize the dish’s sweetness, while bubbling sounds boost its freshness.

In April, Finnair expanded the experience to earthbound eaters through a WeChat mini-program that uses image recognition technology to identify certain ingredients, approximate their taste profiles and then pair them with Nordic soundscapes. “We wanted to provide every consumer in China a possibility to add a Nordic twist to the food that they are enjoying,” Seppä says. The airline is seeing 51 percent brand awareness as a result of the initiative.

Hear the Taste is now in its second iteration, with a Swedish-themed experience that couples chef Tommy Myllymäki and pop singer-songwriter Per Gessle from the musical act Roxette. But the airline has by no means exhausted what it can accomplish with sound in terms of branding, Suomalainen says, adding that everything from an airline’s online channels to the landing experience can be given a sonic lift.

“Sound is a powerful tool for building an emotional connection with a brand, creating unique memorable experiences that differentiate you from the competition,” Suomalainen says. With airlines like Norwegian Air, Royal Air Maroc and Finnair already investing in their sonic identities, travelers may begin to expect a branded sound bite at every touchpoint soon.

“Sound Palate” was originally published in the 9.2 April/May issue of APEX Experience magazine.