Charles Spence, an Oxford University professor in experimental psychology, understands what makes food packaging important to customers more than most. While sitting in a pub one night twelve years ago, he recognized something intriguing about Pringles potato chips: They had a particular crunch. Spence wondered if the chip would taste different to people if the sound of the crunch was different.

Thus began an experiment that involved test subjects biting on identical Pringles chips, with varying sounds for each created through muffling and equalizers. The subjects reported that each chip had a different level of freshness, even though they were all the same. Spence concluded that the perception of food was influenced largely by multiple senses, not simply taste.

White Coca-Cola can

The same conclusion can be derived from food packaging. Spence carries a prime example of a failed packaging experiment in his office: the white Coca-Cola can. Intended to promote the preservation of polar bears, the white Coke can featuring simple illustrations of polar bears was met with unexpected complaints.

People didn't complain about the packaging design, but instead claimed that the product itself tasted worse and insisted that Coca-Cola had changed their formula. These complaints caused the company to pull the design.

The white Coke can is a prime example of how the visual presentation of food packaging can subliminally affect the flavor or texture of a product. Everything from the colors to the opening mechanism (e.g. the crisp snap of a metal can cap vs. a softer plastic opening) can influence customers' perception of the contained product, which is why companies need to be aware of what works best for their brand.

Some other examples that Spence came up with include the discovery that strawberry-flavored mousse tastes 10% sweeter in white containers than black ones, and that coffee has twice as much intensity and much less sweetness when served in a white cup instead of a clear one.

In order to ensure customers get the optimal experience with their products, companies need to pay attention to the color, shape and overall convenience of packaging to form the perfect presentation.

Sudden radical changes to working designs could negatively affect customer interaction, as Coca-Cola taught us, so familiarity in product packaging is just as important as practicality. In the end, customer psychology should play a major part in packaging design.


Ron Crews is the president at High Performance Packaging. For more information, please visit the website: