Multisensory packaging design

Carlos Velasco, Charles Spence

Our conception of product packaging has shifted from considering it merely as a means of protection, transportation, and conservation to a brand experience device. But how to design the ideal multisensory packaging?

In recent decades, our conception of product packaging has shifted from considering it merely as a means of protection, transportation, and conservation to a brand experience device. In fact, not so long ago, some marketers started calling packaging the “permanent media” or “last five seconds of marketing”. Some even advocated for the inclusion of packaging as the fifth “P” in the traditional marketing mix of price, product, promotion, and place.

Today, packaging is considered as a powerful element in branding. It serves a range of functions including communication, value creation, persuasion, as well as being an element in experience design. Importantly, packaging is multisensory in the sense that consumers see, touch, hear, smell, and in some cases, even taste it (as in edible packaging). With this in mind, researchers and practitioners in multisensory marketing are now increasingly considering the multisensory aspects of packaging as a means of transforming consumers’ search behaviours, expectations, interaction and usability, and their perception of the product itself.

Visual modality

Until recently, the majority of the research, theory, and practice has focused on the visual modality. This should come as no surprise, given that packaging shape, colour, typeface, and imagery, are critical for product identification and experience. For example, it has been suggested that unusual packaging colours, relative to the product category, can help a brand to stand-out on the shelf (such as Gatorade’s clear electric blue drink). Researchers have also suggested, though, that using congruent product colours can help consumers’ find the product faster (say, using burgundy when searching for BBQ-flavoured crisps), and in turn, enhance the fluency with which they can be processed by the consumer.


Packaging sounds can become key brand differentiators

However, there is increasing recognition of the importance of other sensory aspects of packaging such as its sound, textures, and smell as well. After all, packaging sounds can be diagnostic. Just think of how people sometimes shake packages of cereal in order to hear how much cereal is left. On the other hand, packaging sounds can become key brand differentiators (as in the distinctive sound of the Snapple bottle top). Note, though, that one needs to be careful when considering the different sensory aspects of product packaging as it is possible that one “overloads” the consumer with too much sensory information (“sensory overload”). For example, Frito-Lay’s Sun Chips compostable, biodegradable, packaging in 2010 was uncomfortably loud (> 100dB). This product ended-up in a drop in sales, and the new packaging format soon being withdrawn from the shelves never to be seen or, more importantly, heard from, again.

Interaction by touching the product

Touch also offers key packaging touchpoint, given that the consumer nearly always touches and/or haptically-explores packaging while they interact with a product. For example, heavier packages positively influence the perceived quality of the product, as well as the intensity of fragranced products. However, there are many other tactile aspects of packaging that can influence the consumer experience, such as, for example, the roughness/smoothness of its surface texture, as well as its material properties. Some firms have even gone beyond and have aimed to develop signature packages that can be identified by touch (an early example of this is Coke’s bottle).

As yet, olfactory-enhanced and edible packaging are relatively underexplored territory. However, there is undoubtedly increasing interest in how the senses of smell and taste can be stimulated more efficiently in packaging. For example, a few years ago, Pepsico patented an aroma delivery system using encapsulated aromas in the necks of their PET bottles. As for edible packaging, there are also examples such as KFC’s partnership with Seattle’s Best Coffee to release an edible coffee cup.

But how to design the ideal multisensory packaging?

According to multisensory marketing research it is important to consider that:

  1. Most of our everyday experiences are multisensory and, as such, different senses and their interaction mechanisms should be considered when designing packaging experiences. Furthermore, it is important to consider how the senses interact, our tip to build on the emerging field of crossmodal correspondences research and, by so doing, maximize processing fluency (sensory incongruency can work as well, but it is just a much trickier marketing strategy to pull off successfully.
  2. One should not overload consumers with sensory information but instead try to find the optimal configuration of the available/manipulable sensory information.
  3. Prototyping and studying different multisensory packages with consumers in order to identify the ones that help firms reach their specific brand aims, building on the latest insights from neuroscience-inspired design. This can be done by capitalizing on online testing methodologies to rapidly and efficiently evaluate a number of different potential design solutions.

If you are interested in using packaging as a multisensory device to transform the consumer experience, you can read more about it in our newly-released edited volume: “Multisensory packaging: Designing new product experiences” where the latest research on packaging and the senses is critically reviewed.


This article was first published in BI Marketing Magazine.

Published 21. August 2019

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