multisensoryBRANDPACKAGING (BP): Jill, tell us about your background and current position.

Jill Ahern (JA): My background seems eclectic, but looking back, it was all crucial in preparing me to be in the space I am today. My bachelor’s degree is in psychology, but I also studied theater, anthropology and family social science. My passion has always been about understanding the human condition and why we do what we do. But, my early career was focused on business strategy, working in both corporate events and open innovation partnerships, which gave me a solid understanding of business needs, decision-making and collaboration. I had the good fortune to work with clients in a large number of industries during that time, but I landed in packaging about eight years ago and have picked up technical and industry knowledge by osmosis and great mentors. The stars aligned in 2010 when I joined Packaging Technology Integrated Solutions, a division of HAVI Global Solutions, where I get to blend all three areas of my experience together: helping brands and suppliers create packaging that meets both business and consumer needs. As consulting solutions senior director, I lead the portion of our practice that is dedicated to customer and consumer insights for packaging, including research, testing, thought leadership and channel strategies in support of design and development.

BP: We know packaging is important to consumers. Give us your take on why.

JA: It would probably be easier to list what packaging doesn’t do since the list is so extensive! If you ask brand and marketing people that question, they’ll tend to highlight all the ways that packaging communicates, reinforces and educates consumers. The old adage that you “can’t judge a book by its cover” does not apply in packaging. When you stop to think about how we buy products, it is increasingly rare that you actually see the product. Food, beverages, electronics, personal care and household products are all contained within packages, often with seals that prevent us from actually seeing, touching, smelling and, certainly, tasting what is inside. So, packaging must take on the role of conveying that product experience in order to sell a consumer on the product.

Package engineers and developers will focus on the other side of packaging, which is product use and protection. However, simply keeping a product intact is no longer the extent of what packaging needs to achieve. One thing we know about the consumer mindset is that buyers generally do not disassociate the product from the package in the way that those of us in the industry do. How a product tastes, pours, squirts, sticks, sounds or whether you have to use a tool such as scissors to get it out are all packaging perceptions, but consumers tend to consider them as part of one long “product equation.” When combined with brand perception, sustainability and services, or media presence — these packaging performance attributes are absolutely critical to how products are perceived by the consumer.

Packaging actually shapes the selection, perception, use occasions, storage, disposal and nearly every other facet of a consumer’s relationship with products. If you think about every product you saw an advertisement for, used or consumed today, you probably saw or touched the packaging as much or more than the product itself — and so did every one of your customers.

BP: In your opinion, what part do the senses play in purchase decisions, and how is packaging not living up to its greatest potential for both consumers and brands?

JA: The power of human perception to discern and judge even the smallest change and nuance is nothing short of remarkable. Once of the most exciting parts of my job is the hands-on research with consumers, during which we get to learn not only what they really need and want but also where brands are either delighting or disappointing them. Packaging has incredible power to tell consumers about your product, but they will frequently tell us what they think a brand is telling them — all through packaging. Consumers make associations that are amazingly complex, all based on what they perceive. There has been significant research documenting sensation transference, where the package perception actually alters taste perception; we have confirmed this in our work as well. For example, sounds like the crinkling of flexible packaging or the hand feel of a carton surface cue consumers about the amount of care and concern the brand has invested in the product. We have actually done this type of research without any visual stimuli at all — only auditory, and consumers make judgments about a product based purely on the sound of the package. Consumers frequently say things such as, “If they care about the package being high quality, they care about the product being high quality, and that means they care about my family.”

It is so easy to overlook tiny details about how a package sounds or how it feels in the hand in favor of other really important things like driving down cost and getting the graphics right. But where packaging falls short is when we convince ourselves that consumers won’t notice or care about these gaps — they do, even if they cannot articulate them. This is a huge opportunity for all of us to do better at empathy and delivering on consumer needs, expressing our brands through packaging and delivering packages that add real value and convey the brand message through multiple senses. 

BP: In an age of showrooming and online shopping, how can multisensory packaging help brands connect with their consumers?

JA: Retail shifts do have a tremendous impact on how we package consumer goods, and they are expected to have even more impact in the coming decade. In recent years, so much of the packaging focus for marketers has been on a “get it in the cart” mentality. When that cart is virtual, our world looks a little different. But really, if brands are committed to delivering value to the consumer and to retail customers, we need to think about the system as “different” versus “broken,” which is how many seem to be looking at it today. Consumers are still going to buy the goods they need, but what is important to them will change as retailing takes on new formats. Today, we focus a tremendous amount of packaging resources on “selling” and “educating” consumers at retail.

Within just a second or two, a successful package should be able to attract attention, explain value, and close the sale. In the lifecycle of a package, that first moment of truth is only a small segment of the package lifecycle, but it is critically important to the brand owner and retailer, so it tends to get a significant amount of attention. In an online environment, this portion of packaging’s role is somewhat diminished, since the shelf may not contain the physical product. However, the package still needs to perform all of the other parts of its job, and some of them take on heightened importance in online shopping. Product protection actually becomes even more important since there is frequently an added step in product transportation — shipping to consumers. Also, the consumer/package interaction is now compressed and may begin in the home rather than in the store, so functionality and disposal of the packages will likely be more important elements of functionality. Thinking about the entire system, focusing on the consumer’s new reality, and better collaborating with retailers will be critical for brands to make a successful shift from bricks to clicks.

BP: What steps can designers, marketers and brand owners take to leverage their own packaging for the greatest impact?

JA: Start by rethinking almost everything. One of the biggest challenges for established products, packages and brands is being comfortable or complacent, or relying on “how you’ve always done it.” While there are certainly iconic packages that are so beloved there would be an outcry if they were changed, those are rare. Clients often tell us that they believe they have equity in packages that doesn’t really turn out to be consumer equity but rather a brand’s reluctance to change. One of the biggest advantages new brands and private label have is freedom. They are not tied down by legacies, purchasing agreements or capital investments, and they are using that to their advantage. They can be much quicker to see an opportunity to delight consumers with packaging and be in a position to seize it.

But regardless of company size or segment, the real work of creating breakthrough packaging starts with first understanding needs and then figuring out how to meet them. As with any innovation, bringing value through packaging starts with empathy and ends with delivering on the brand promise and filling an unmet need. So many well-intentioned projects start with asking the wrong questions, including “Would you like this better?,” which should only be asked very late in the development process. We need to start with observing, understanding, recognizing and empathizing —- and only then move to solving.

BP: Tell us about a great example of brand packaging that engages the senses.

JA: There are some amazing packages in the market today; it’s always hard to call out single products as there are so many. Also, to be fair — there are economic realities at play in this equation; at higher product price points and margins comes more opportunity to include sensorial elements that add cost to a package. Also, there are packaging formats that tend to naturally create sensorial opportunities. However, looking at leader categories can provide inspiration. The beverage category is one area that is overall doing a great job of creating new experiences through the senses. The sounds associated with bottles opening and corks popping are ones that have significant emotional connections and natural cues for refreshment and product integrity; this is often used in advertising. Craft beer and wine are doing some very interesting things with not only visual design but also tactile elements by changing the bottle shape, label materials, and adding temperature indicator or chill-retention features.

Our consumer research indicates that one of the most sensorial product categories at present is premium tea. The sound, aromas and multiple tactile cues seen on tea packaging all play a role in the growing popularity of tea. Premium teas are often packaged in tins that, upon opening, have a unique sound and tend to waft the scent of the contents from their seals. Embossing, metallized inks, and even the use of materials such as wood contribute to the visual and tactile sensorial delight of this category. Again, not every category can support such premium packaging, but we can look to the inspiration in some of these applications. Regardless of the product category, all designers can think about how products might benefit from similar integration of multiple sensorial elements, and they should recognize that consumers truly connect to the package and product when their senses are engaged.

BP: Jill, is there anything else you’d like to add?

 JA: Sensorial packaging is about creating experiences. We often want to put a price on these features, and that is a reality of the system in which we live. But I encourage everyone to reflect on the experiences that they value in their own life, whether it is what you wear, drive, eat or drink. We are all constantly in pursuit of a better experience, and when we design packaging — we can help to create that for a consumer. If you can make a day a bit brighter, more serene, or help someone feel more confident or pampered — then you did more than just sell them something in a package. And that’s precisely the reason I love to go to work every day.