Sensory design in packaging

With packaging becoming increasingly important in the marketing mix, sensory design is a cost-effective and efficient way to gain customers and boost sales. Sarah Woods develops a feel for these tactile options

Sensory stimuli are integral to the way we shop and can be harnessed to increase sales considerably. Scratch’n’sniff stickers in the 1970s were a powerful marketing tool, and, at a more basic level, supermarkets often waft the smell of freshly baked bread through the store to pull customers in.

Through design, sensory methods can be taken up a notch or two from the traditional applications.

According to Point of Purchase Advertising International, 75 per cent of buying decisions are made in-store at point of purchase, so packaging featuring sensory elements can capitalise on that. A study by The New York Times’ market research department, meanwhile, found that, when given the choice between two similar food or beverage products, 81 per cent of consumers would choose one they could smell over one they could see.

All five senses – sight, smell, touch, taste and sound – are used to connect with the world around us, so it makes sense for brandowners to exploit them. ‘The more brands can appeal to them via packaging, the stronger the emotional connection can be made with the brand,’ says Kate Bradford, managing director of Parker Williams. ‘Combining sensory stimulation has a “super-addictive effect”, and a total sensory experience will vastly improve our ability to “memorise” a brand.’

Working in collaboration with manufacturer The Benson Group, design consultancy Parker Williams created packaging for Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference fudge using sight, shape and touch, for example. Graphics on the carton enhance the structural shape created by the lid, which reveals the colour and the fudge inside as it opens. The luxurious feel of soft-touch ink suggests the smoothness of the fudge’s taste.

The consultancy also worked on Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference crisps, which used different coatings on the packaging to segment the range visually and improve consumers’ perception of choice. Sound can evoke the taste and freshness of a product. ‘Think of the crinkle of a cornflakes inner bag or the opening of a bottle of wine,’ Bradford says. And sight is a key influencer on all the other senses. ‘It controls and enhances the total brand experience and will influence how we think something will taste, feel, sound and smell,’ adds Bradford.

Smell is also powerful, second only to sight, and able to conjure memories and trigger nostalgia cues. In the current economic climate, with traditional advertising taking a back seat to branded packaging as a marketing tool, the potential for growth of sensory design is evident.

‘Sensory design is a relatively untapped gem in the packaging design world’, says Pete Hollingsworth, managing partner of Vibrandt, the packaging and product division of brand consultancy 1HQ. ‘A surprising fact when you consider it is critical in markets where products are generic and packaging ubiquitous.’

Design group 1HQ created its own semiotics department around a year ago, with Diane Fox-Hill at the helm, to focus on how sensory techniques can change the world of packaging design.

There are certain rules involved, and combining senses in the right way is key, according to Vibrandt. Touch and smell together are very powerful, while smell can influence the perception of texture. Vision and smell combine well, as do vision and taste. Touch should be used to enhance a brand, because, as the brain links in, touch evokes the sense of taste, via vision. Addressing one factor without the other can contribute to an experience that is unbalanced.

According to the consultancy, Procter & Gamble stands out as a client that has invested in people to deliver ‘moments of truth’, centred on how the consumer reacts to the product on the shelf and how they react when using a product.

While it’s not necessarily a new way of designing, the techniques used in sensory packaging are likely to expand because of advances in technology. But sensory methods should not be regarded as more important than, or take over from, conventional design approaches. They need to work together to ‘drive brand understanding and enhance the customer experience’, Bradford warns.

For something that seems so natural, stimulating senses through design is a complex endeavour. Many clients may shy away from such practices for cost-saving purposes, especially in these financially straitened times. But implemented in the right way, brand owners can take advantage of our tactile needs. ‘We’re just at the beginning of the journey and that’s why it’s so exciting,’ says Hollingsworth. ‘All these multi-sensory elements have often been coincidentally built in, so why shouldn’t we design them in?’

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