Rise in multi-sensory packaging in the food and drink sector

By Paul Gander

- Last updated on GMT

Multi-sensory packaging to engage customers is becoming increasingly popular
Multi-sensory packaging to engage customers is becoming increasingly popular
Apart from the visual, the role of the senses tends to be underplayed and underexploited in food and drink packaging, as Paul Gander sniffs out.

There is a scene in the film Minority Report where Tom Cruise’s character picks up a cereal carton, activating music and animation across the surface of the pack.

He tries to stop it, fails, and ends up throwing the carton across the room in irritation.

This science fiction example illustrates the type of multi-sensorial stimulus that will doubtless be available (and even possibly affordable) for consumer packaging in only a few years’ time. It also demonstrates some of the pitfalls involved in features of this sort.

What it does not show is the amount of low-tech multi-sensorial engagement which already goes on around food and drink packaging, usually without consumers being aware of it.

The conscious parts in packaging design and branding tend to emphasise colour, graphics and shape as visual phenomena. But a focus on touch, hearing and smell yields some intriguing results.

“Companies are waking up to the multi-sensory nature of the food experience,”​ claims Professor Barry Smith, director of the Centre for the Study of the Senses at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study.

“If information from all the senses is processed by the brain to give an overall ‘rating’ of the experience, then engaging with this multi-sensory aspect becomes even more important. All of these cues are being taken in, but on quite a subtle level.”

Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, does a lot of work in this area. “We are typically not consciously aware of these features,”​ he says.

“This can make the impact all the greater. For example, there is evidence that scents that we are not aware of can have a greater impact than others that we are conscious of, and so discount.”

Smith points out: “High-end hotels play with olfactory branding, sometimes combining low-level atmospheric music with, say, lavender scent pulsed through the air conditioning. It’s subtle, and usually not consciously detected.”

In packaging, brand-owners have encapsulated the scent of individually-wrapped detergent tablets in the adhesive on the carton flap.

In food, says Smith, a similar approach has been taken by Mars Ice Cream. Here, the fact that frozen chocolate and caramel does not have a strong aroma has been overcome by encapsulating scents associated with the product inside the seal.

Sounds (back to top)

Both Smith and Spence carry out sensory consumer research on behalf of brand-owners. Spence, for example, works principally with drinks manufacturers on elements including the sounds of opening and pouring a product.

Again, consumers are often far more discriminating about sounds than they consciously realise. Spence has, for example, carried out research to show we can distinguish the sounds of different types of liquid – hot and cold, still and carbonated – being poured.

When it comes to pouring, certain sound wavelengths (such as 5–6Hz) are more pleasing to the ear. Brewers, such as AB InBev with Beck’s, are said to have capitalised on this preference when designing the neck-shape for their bottles, he says.

Smith talks about ‘sonic branding’. We can all think of examples, from the ‘pop’ of a Pringles can to the rather different ‘popping’ of a Snapple or Grolsch bottle being opened or – more generically – the sound of sparkling wines being uncorked.

The challenge, he says, is to establish and somehow own a distinctive ‘sonic brand’. “It’s great branding, if you can achieve that,”​ he explains. “If you use that in your advertising, for example, it can contribute to a sense of anticipation about consuming the product.”

This is precisely what Grolsch appears to be doing in its latest ‘Sound or Sculpture?’ advertising campaign. It includes a cinema spot featuring an elaborate bottle-shaped sound and light installation, finishing with a loud ‘pop’ as the distinctive swing-top stopper opens.

When it comes to touch, Smith explains, a smooth or silky pack surface may suggest a similar sort of product mouthfeel. “Or a carton for fruit smoothies may be textured with a slightly waxy finish, just like fruit itself is,”​ he says. “That’s a quick way of creating that association.”

Independent and retailer brands use paper-plastics laminates in categories as diverse as bread, cheese and pasta, even though the paper appears to make no functional contribution to the pack.

As happens with some crisp bags, the appearance of paper can easily be reproduced through print effects. But when it comes to touch, the best way of reproducing the feel of paper, with its associations of freshness and artisan origins, is to use the stuff itself.

Sense of touch (back to top)

Of course, the sense of touch is not just about the hands. When design company DrinkWorks put together a pitch for the The Coca-Cola Company’s Powerade bottle, it played on the gripping and squeezing action, moulding into the plastic a contoured pattern of ridges. But arguably the greatest innovation with the pack came with the dispensing system.

“Having talked to consumers, it was clear that the delivery of this sort of drink is always the same,”​ says director David Batchen.

“People want as much refreshment in the mouth as possible. We developed our system called Big Mouth.”​ The system effectively sprays the drink into the mouth through multiple apertures and “exaggerates the taste experience”,​ he adds.

Embossing on metal, plastic or glass is likely to be ‘picked up’ by the eye before it is more literally picked up. One recent example was the Groovy Can produced by Ball Packaging and Heineken.

Glass and metal manufacturer Ardagh carried out consumer research with what is now the Retail Institute at Leeds Beckett University on single-serve glass beer bottles. It concluded that “embossing round the bottle is a key influencer of appeal and liking​”.

The way that the neck shape and crown affected the drinking experience was also important, and the 330ml Cobra bottle scored well on all these criteria.

Ardagh’s European head of marketing Sharon Todd says: “In general terms, consumers seem to like the feel of glass in their hand. Plastics may look comparable at first glance, but once the pressure has gone from the drink, it doesn’t have the same firmness or robustness.”

The crossover between the visual and the tactile is also evident in Ardagh’s glass bottle for Harrogate Spring Water. Visually, this award-winning pack creates a scintillating embossed surface; but that same effect has a definite tactile appeal in the act of pouring.

If this multi-sensory approach is such a potentially rich vein of product branding, and businesses are actively researching different options, why do we hear so little about it? One reason, of course, will be the need to protect competitive advantage.

Fear of misleading (back to top)

Smith at the University of London suggests another reason: “Companies are often scared of saying they are working in this sort of area in case consumers come to believe they’re being misled. But I think there’s a clear difference between ‘leading’, in the sense of paving the way for the product, and ‘misleading’.”

In fact, there are apparently contradictory effects at work here. Smith talks about ‘congruence’, and the importance of visual, tactile and other sensory cues helping in predictions about the product inside the pack.

The satisfaction of having these elements of congruence confirmed can be turned on its head, if the product does not in fact tally with those predictions. One simple example might be fruit-flavoured chewing gum presented in the white, blue and sometimes green packaging we associate with mint flavours.

Between these two extremes, there is a wide field where the consumer is susceptible to suggestion. In other words, visual, tactile and other cues can be used to reinforce or steer messages about quality, flavour, texture and the overall experience of consuming the product.

Meanwhile, what of those science-fiction sensory elements based on consumer-activated electronics? Novalia is a company that has worked on projects such as the Audioposter, which uses touch-generated sound.

Given his experience in print and converting, the company’s Chris Jones is cautious about the potential of packaging in this area. “I struggle with packaging overall,”​ he says. “It’s a challenge to add any cost.”

In a final thought, Batchen at DrinkWorks believes that as far as consumers are concerned, the sixth sense is delight. It is, it seems, becoming increasingly difficult to delight consumers using visual effects alone.

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