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SCOTT JAGOW: Alright, so you're in the cookie aisle at the grocery store. How do you decide which ones to buy? The way the package looks? Do you remember the way they taste? How about how they sound? For one German company, it is the way the cookie crumbles that counts.Kyle James reports from Berlin.
KYLE JAMES: For Steffen Heise, who's head of R&D at Germany's biggest cookie maker Bahlsen, it's an auditory nightmare.
STEFFEN HEISE: Imagine you would see a cookie on a plate and it looks to you very crunchy, it appears crunchy and when you eat it you would find something very soft and unpleasant.
That's why his company has a team of five people working full-time on making sure that cookie sounds just right when it's bitten into.
Heise says in today's crowded marketplace, focusing just on the taste and feel of the cookie isn't enough. So Bahlsen is concentrating on a long-neglected aspect to set it apart from competitors: sound.
Different products need different sounds, he says, depending on the customers they're trying to reach. The company uses special microphones placed inside testers' ears to record crunching, then tweaks the dough recipes to get just the crunch they want.
Products aimed at young people, like the cookie we just heard, should be crisp, loud and exciting. For the older crowd, a more delicate crunch is called for.
STEFFEN HEISE: Elder people in general are not very interested in additional noisy or stressful situations. They want to relax; they want to enjoy their food. And they don't need any action while eating.
He says it's all about getting subconscious cues in consumers' heads so the next time they're in the cookie aisle, or the beer aisle if you're a brewer, they'll reach for your product.
Brigitte Schulte-Fortkamp teaches psychoacoustics at Berlin's Technical University.
BRIGITTE SCHULTE-FORTKAMP: If you have the specific sound you know when you open this bottle you will already be happy before tasting the product itself. It's not really a conscious process; it's as many other things around us, you will be influenced without knowing that.
Sound design in the food industry is relatively new. But it's gone into a wide variety of other products for a while now. Engineers tinker with everything from the buzz of an electric razor to the slam of a car door.
But companies also use it to communicate a corporate message. Carl-Frank Westermann from the company MetaDesign has done sound work for Audi, Lufthansa and Siemens.
CARL-FRANK WESTERMANN: We want to interpret the brand in the acoustic way so that people who hear it say 'oh, that is for me, premium, or that is for me, trust.'
Like the audio signature his team designed for insurance giant Allianz. It just oozes dependability and reassurance.
Unlike my vacuum cleaner. Its high-decibel whine just gives me a headache.
But according to Professor Schulte-Fortkamp, companies could make them quieter. But when they tried it, the vacuums didn't sell as well. People equated the noise with suction power. Loud they've stayed.
In Berlin, I'm Kyle James for Marketplace.