Sensory Touchpoints: Magic Moments Through Packaging
By Ken Miller and Jim Warner
Package structure can make a multi-sensory impact to enhance the “moment-of-truth” experiences consumers have with your brand.
It is evident that consumers are looking for a stronger emotional connection with the products they buy. In a world of commodity offerings and a mind-numbing array of choices—with each new product seemingly derivative of the last—consumers have come to expect a deeper experience. And who can blame them?
Some might argue that the way to offer more profound meaning in the products we market is to enhance relevance through personalization—“just for me, just the way I like it”. But that’s not necessarily true. Even the power of customization is diluted by the sheer volume of marketing messages rushing by at such a pace that attention and recall survive on life support.
However, there has been a great deal of recent research on the emotional impact derived from an appeal to the senses, particularly the non-visual. Many have concluded that aroma, for instance, has much higher recall over time and that it taps directly into the part of the brain that governs memory and emotions. It’s also been proven that aroma can trigger powerful physical impulses.
As you would expect, this type of evidence has spawned a small revolution in marketing science, often dubbed “sensory branding” or “experiential marketing”. Much of the current discussion centers on building the brand, reinforcing brand attributes and enhancing the brand signature through sensory cues.
But those are long-term measures. What about the real-life moment-of-truth interactions your consumers have with a product at each point of contact? How can appealing to non-visual senses—taste, aroma or  touch—enhance the experience consumers have with a product right now? By that I mean the multi-sensory impact they get on shelf, and the experience of opening, assembling and applying or consuming the product. In these instances, it’s not about the brand. It’s about the package—and specifically, the package structure.
Sensory credibility
Have you ever watched a child open a fresh box of Crayola crayons? We have. It’s a magical moment to see a child’s excitement build in anticipation of exploring his or her creative impulses. Sure, it’s a box of wax sticks. But the act of peeling open the paperboard box, smelling the wax, feeling the pointed sticks in your hand and viewing the colors in their stadium-seated splendor—that’s sensory marketing. And much of it is achieved through package structure design.
There’s a huge marketing advantage to leveraging the senses across all the product touchpoints. Because the message is innate and undeniable, it’s instantly credible. These multi-sensory touchpoints take place between the marketer and the consumer with an intimacy that mass media can’t replicate. These moments occur in the store, in home and in use in ways that are governed by the consumer, but revealed by the marketer. Therefore, they are experienced on the consumer’s own terms, and build a trust grounded in a true, natural and genuine interaction.
Verbal messages, whether heard or seen, just can’t break through in the same way. Perhaps they are suspect, viewed as marketing hype, or perhaps there are simply too many of them to distinguish and process.
But let’s not confuse this deep multi-sensory appeal with what passes for experiential marketing today: lights, bells and whistles that go off in the aisle or packaging impregnated with an alluring smell. These are distraction techniques meant to cut through in-store visual clutter and sameness. Instead, let’s talk about leveraging the senses strategically to transform the experience of using a product throughout every interaction. Let’s examine how those disparate interactions can become cumulative, and how they can profoundly impact the role consumers allows a product to play in their lives. Most certainly, it’s about the package.
Packaging touchpoints
Though many marketers continue to believe that package structure serves only a practical purpose, separate from the key benefits of the product. The package protects and dispenses the product, ensures efficient filling, shipping and stocking, and provides a useful communications billboard. But shouldn’t it be integral to delivering on your product’s consumer promise?
Think about a simple bottle of soda for a minute. How can all of the senses be leveraged to calibrate the store-to-sip experience in the marketer’s favor? Consider the following sensory touchpoints: How does the bottle feel in my hand? Can I feel and sense how cold it is? Do I interact with its contours in a subconscious way? What role does the label material and texture play? What does the cap feel like when I grab and twist it? What sound does the bottle make as I open it? Do I feel that sound? What does the first perceptible aroma tell me about the taste to come? How does the “finish” or lip of the bottle feel against my mouth? What refreshment cues are communicated in how the bubbly concoction flows from the bottle? And you thought it was just a bottle of soda!
One might argue that the cosmetics industry has made the most headway in living up to the potential of multi-sensory touchpoints, using ergonomic package design, sensual forms and textures, and, of course, aroma. But we would argue that this category has only blunted the tip of the lipstick when it comes to truly leveraging the sensory landscape. Today’s basic jars, tubes, sprays and applicators present tremendous opportunity to upgrade the store-to-skin experience through multi-sensory cues.
How now brown box?
So, how can brand—or sensory—marketers leverage all that nature gave us to transform the experience consumers have with the products they buy? How might these tools be used to encourage their purchase in the first place? Think about the following:
• Consider your package less as the first line of defense for your product, and more as integral to the brand experience. How can the package make an attractive promise on shelf, and even begin to deliver on it before it’s opened? How can the package become a true partner with the product formulation to provide a higher-order impression through sensory feedback that spans the entire in-use dynamic?
• Consider ways in which package structure design can send a message regarding what the product stands for and how it will work. Intuitive opening devices and proper product presentation are a treat to the senses, which are always wary in a first interaction. Allow the package to present parts, instructions and other contents in ways that anticipate how consumers would and should interact with it upon opening and assembling or set-up.
• Consider how the senses can build credibility for your product in a natural, inherent way. A comprehensive sensory strategy involves orchestrating sensory impressions from store to skin (or stove or sink) in ways that allow consumers to experience them on their own terms, in the natural course of interacting with your product. Rather than manipulating through verbal messages, build trust by planting cues and ceding control.
Leveraging our senses is not just about brand building. It is about the true, rubber-hits-the-road experience consumers have with your product at every touchpoint. And it’s about allowing consumers to build trust in your product at their own pace, while leading them through that process. In the end, it’s about bringing your product’s “plop, plop, fizz, fizz” and “snap, crackle, pop” to life.
Big Chunk Family Crock
Ready-to-serve soup is a prime candidate for leveraging multiple senses from store to bowl. The “Big Chunk Family Crock” suggests a home cooking experience every step of the way, even in the microwave. Bold, in-mold texture promises a chunky goodness that’s almost too big for the crock. And, it provides a more secure grip for this family-sized container: The lid has a knob-like handle, reminiscent of the pot lids in your cupboard. But, it’s suppressed to allow easy stacking in the store and at home.
The worst part about opening a typical can of soup is the feedback from pulling the metal lid and then looking at the tepid broth, with no sign of the good stuff lying at the bottom—not the most pleasant experience. This crock has a plastic lid and film barrier—much more pleasant to remove—that replaces the sound of ripping metal with one suggesting freshness and quality. The plastic lid also has a ladle attached underneath. When opened cold, the ladle pulls some of the good stuff up, stirring it and making the soup more attractive. Then, the soup can be stirred in intervals during heating, drawing up soup and chunks from the bottom to generate aroma and eye appeal. Once the soup is cooked, detach the ladle from the lid and use it for easy serving.
Multi-Sensory Bliss
Another example: Apple Computer has been able to breed intense loyalty through integrated, multi-sensory design, and packaging is critical to the experience. When you open the box containing your new Apple product, what do you see? Exactly what you need to and in the order you need to, presented attractively and intuitively. This first touch is a delight, exceeding expectations for the set-up experience and becoming a benchmark for the quality of all product interactions to follow. Apple’s choice of packaging materials, textures and finishes, combined with a focus on intuitive usability delivers a singular multi-sensory experience. How does your carton compare?