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Customer sensory experiences, behaviors at cartoon-themed restaurants

Ethan Cheng

Ethan Cheng

A faculty member in Western Carolina University’s Hospitality and Tourism Management Program is conducting research examining various factors that can influence customer sensory experiences at themed restaurants and affect their behavioral intentions.

The study by Ethan (Yi-Sung) Cheng, assistant professor of hospitality and tourism management in WCU’s College of Business, takes a specific look at themed restaurants built around cartoon characters and animated shows or movies.

Cheng and colleague Kuo-Chien Chang, a researcher at the Institute of Business Intelligence and Innovation and the Department of Leisure and Recreation Management in the Chihlee University of Technology in New Taipei City, Taiwan, have co-authored a paper on the research. Titled “How Sensory Perceptions and Sensory Brand Experience Influence Customer Behavioral Intentions in the Context of Cartoon-Themed Restaurants,” the paper has been published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management.

A themed business environment helps present unique characteristics of a brand, which can be particularly important in the hospitality and tourism industry, Cheng said. Themed restaurants are a good example of the gradual theming of many products and services in hospitality and tourism, with individual restaurant themes influencing the design, music, food and service of an establishment to create a distinctive experience for customers, he said.

Examples of themed restaurants range from the sports vibe of ESPN Zone and rock ’n’ roll aura of Hard Rock Café to the video arcade environment of Dave and Busters and the kid-friendly pizza party atmosphere of Chuck E. Cheese.

“Themed environments are useful from a marketing perspective because the offered service is an experience that is consumed while it is created. Cartoon characters are popular choices for such themed environments because cartoon characters are both familiar and memorable with well-established brand images and good visual appeal,” Cheng said. “Theming influences the design, music, food and service of the restaurant.”

For their study, Cheng and his co-author examined how and when sensory brand experience affects the relationship between sensory perceptions and behavioral intentions, and they further investigated the moderating effects of innovative image and perceived food healthiness on this same relationship.

The researchers examined data collected from nearly 600 customers of a targeted cartoon-themed restaurant. They focused on patrons of a cartoon-themed restaurant in Miaoli, Taiwan, with the approval of Japanese entertainment company Sanrio, whose decor and dining design primarily feature Hello Kitty and related popular cartoon characters.

In the survey, customers were asked to respond to a variety of questions related to their visit to the restaurant, with responses measured on a seven-point scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.”

The results indicate that sensory brand experience mediates the relationship between sensory perceptions and customer behavioral intentions, Cheng said, a relationship that was further moderated by innovative image and perceived food healthiness. Specifically, the positive correlation between sensory perceptions and behavioral intentions was highest for high levels of innovative image and for low levels of perceived food healthiness, he said.

“In themed restaurants in particular, sensory experiences can contribute to the creation of immersive experiences for customers. Through all five senses – sight, smell, sound, taste and touch – restauranters can seek to influence the emotions and behavior of their customers,” Cheng said.  “This study also argues that along with understanding customers’ sensory perceptions toward cartoon-themed restaurants, customers’ demands in the post-pandemic era should be considered in terms of innovative image and perceived food healthiness.”

Themed restaurants can tend to focus more on the visual and aural elements of the dining experience and less on the quality and healthiness of the food being served. This is an important factor because consumers have become more conscious about their health and immunity since the height of the global COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

"A big market segment of cartoon-themed restaurants is parents with young children, who tend to prioritize their children’s health. However, customers who come to cartoon-themed restaurants may think that eating healthy is less fun, which is one of the possible reasons why lower perceived food healthiness may affect customers’ behavioral intentions more strongly,” Cheng said.

"Some children may respond negatively to what they perceive as healthy food because of negative experiences when they were forced to eat certain foods by their parents. Because parents and young children are cartoon-themed restaurants’ primary customers, helping to resolve this conflict could be a good business move. It is worth incorporating the trend of healthy eating into the theme, menu design, meal presentation and marketing of cartoon-themed restaurants,” he said.

For example, in the restaurant whose customers were surveyed for the study, offering a Hello Kitty cup for vegetable soup or a Hello Kitty plate for a fruit salad could make healthy eating fun for younger diners, he said.

Cheng also pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the closure of many themed restaurants. “Any trend-based business requires careful research and monitoring to ensure sustainability,” he said.

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