Branding and package design, done right, enhance product experiences by engaging all the senses.

The Five Senses - Sight, Hearing, Touch, Smell, Taste create immersive branding experiences

We believe consumers should buy less, but buy better. The mindful consumption of exceptional foods and beverages enjoyed through all of our senses – visual, verbal, taste and aroma – elevates us, improves our well-being, and increases our satisfaction. Branding and package design, done right, enhance product experiences – immersing us in the brand essence and even improving product flavor; seems a stretch, I know, but stay with me to learn more. These elevated experiences drive brand loyalty and improve profit margins by delivering more value. And, they make people happier.

Our store shelves are jam-packed with food and beverage products in an overwhelming range of flavors, styles and price ranges. Choice can be empowering, but when faced with undifferentiated options that appear interchangeable, we are driven to purchase too much, value each purchase less, and take for granted the meals, snacks and drinks we consume.

Consumers are distracted by the demands of hectic lives, and numbed by the visual noise in the store aisle. In every section of the store, packages shout for our attention, while not telling us anything meaningful. We are either distracted by novelty and buy things we don’t really want, or we buy the lowest priced item in the set because we can’t tell any real difference between the too-similar options on the shelf.

Consumers do not value purchases made based on novelty or low price in the same way we value an investment in quality. Because we don’t value them, we don’t fully enjoy them or form an emotional connection with them. If an emotional bond is not made between us and a brand, we ultimately derive less pleasure from eating or drinking the product. No lasting impression is made, and we’re left feeling unsatisfied.

Making a Sale Doesn’t Make a Connection

It wasn’t always this way. The thoughtful growing or gathering of food, its preparation, and its enjoyment has been at the core of human experience for millennia. Food and drink is essential for survival, and it has powerful emotional meaning. Every culture has a palette of flavors and textures central to its sense of community, celebrations and cultural identity. We are meant to relish food and drink.

Today we are incredibly privileged to have easy access to abundant food and beverages, but that same abundance and ease has led us to take them for granted. This, in turn, has driven marketers to focus primarily on standing out amidst the noise in hopes of landing their brands in a shopping cart. While this may generate an initial sale, it does little to deliver a meaningful product experience, or to drive repeat purchases. A loss for both the consumer and the brand owner.

Farmers’ markets, celebrity chefs and the slow food movement have shifted consumers’ focus back to quality over quantity. At a farmers’ market or a fine restaurant, the color, texture, smell and story of a food is integrated into the buying experience, which translates into a satisfying multi-sensory experience at the table.

The in-store purchase of a packaged food item is very different. Our ability to touch, see and smell the food itself is reduced. In order to connect with consumers and truly delight them, our packages must do more than simply grab attention and generate a sale. It must create a visual, tactile and emotional experience for the consumer that enhances both the product and brand.

Great Design Adds Meaning – and Improves The Product

We’re on a mission to create food and beverage brands that truly delight people, using the textures, imagery and language of the package to make them slow down, pay attention and savor what they consume.

Cognitive scientists tell us that flavor perception depends on all of our senses – not just our taste buds. Cornell University Professor of Food Science, Terry E. Acree, Ph.D., says “…we are beginning to understand that flavor depends on parts of the brain that involve taste, odor, touch and vision. The sum total of these signals, plus our emotions and past experiences, result in perception of flavors…”

When a consumer looks at and touches the package, they are beginning to form their flavor perceptions. Our choice of imagery triggers emotions and associations that impact flavor. We can, through design, influence how things taste.

We can also make the brand experience more meaningful and more memorable by engaging all senses: “Bonding with a brand, like bonding with people, requires a multi-sensory experience. The more sensory touch points… the more powerful the bonding memories will be…consider every possible sense to ensure a systematic integration of experience. This will stimulate the imagination, enhance your product, and bond your consumers to your brand,” says Martin Lindstrom, in his book BRAND Sense.

An Immersive Brand

When I think of brands that use packaging to deliver a multi-sensory experience that impacts flavor and loyalty, Altoids™ comes to mind. Its metal tin with embossed retro type feels substantial and unique. It promises a powerfully minty experience with its crisp red and white color, borders that flare out into sharp angular points, and engaging language: “The Original Celebrated Curiously Strong Mints.”

Opening and closing the tin is a ritual, and an important part of the consumption experience. The metal is cool to the touch, and clicks as we open it, releasing the scent and revealing a paper inner wrap cradling the mints. These elements add layers of interaction, slowing the user’s process of taking a mint and increasing his anticipation. The package elevates the breath mint experience to a pleasurable ritual to be savored, a mini journey for the consumer that bonds them to the Altoids brand. An Altoid is not just a breath mint, but a robust, cool, refreshing moment.

How different would the Altoids experience be in a cardboard box? A plastic dispenser? That metal tin makes us stop, pay attention and relish the mint flavor. There’s even a satisfying click as we close the tin, punctuating the moment. From the time we pick up the tin and place a mint on our tongue to the moment we close it, we are engaged in a congruent series of sensations that wrap us in the world of the Altoids brand.

Competitors Don’t Matter, Really

How do we create this kind of immersion? For starters, don’t look to the competition for clues to building your own brand vision. Yes, the competitive set helps us identify the norms in our category, and find unclaimed, ownable territory. It gives us important context. However, focusing on the competition at the beginning will only distract us from building something truly unique and intriguing. Instead, we must turn our imagination to envisioning the compelling brand world we are creating, and then map out the immersive path we’ll lay to take the user to that destination.

What sights, language, aromas and tactile sensations evoke that destination? What emotional triggers unlock the doors to the world of this brand? What metaphors can we leverage? We must envelop the product in congruent cues that build an engaging world. We must align visual content and style to create a powerful experience.

Cognitive science tells us that human beings assess new experiences by referencing their past experiences and making connections between things that are similar. We also use our mental and emotional archive to identify what is unexpected, and this grabs our attention. We make associations between the new and the familiar in order to build our understanding of unfamiliar things.

As designers and brand builders, we can leverage this natural process by digging into our own mental archive of relevant past experience. Ask yourself – what colors, textures and shapes convey smooth, creamy flavors? How are those colors, textures and shapes different from crisp, refreshing experiences?

Only after developing our unique brand concept should we consider it in the context of competitor propositions, the buying and usage environment and user lifestyle. Then, we ask:

  • Is our brand experience and the promise of that experience truly unique, immersive and congruent?
  • Is it desirable and differentiated?
  • Does it trigger the imagination and the right connections between this brand and our past experiences?
  • And, most importantly, does it engage the emotions and senses in a way that furthers the brand experience while standing out and feeling relevant?

Rather than mimicking the competition to achieve relevance, or reacting to it in order to stand out, we must look within the essence of our brand itself for opportunities to achieve our goals.

Leveraging Shared Archetypes

In addition to our individual archives of past experiences, we use shared archetypes to understand our world and our place in it. How we perceive ourselves, what we aspire to be, what feels comfortable, and what we find intriguing all determine which archetypes we identify with most strongly.

In wine labels, for instance, there is the “stately/classic” archetype that uses a white or cream background, vineyard or chateau imagery, and simple elegant typography. These labels test very well when we measure whether consumers perceive them as elegant, high quality or expensive. They match our archetype of “quality wine.” At the same time, because this archetype is the predominant solution used in the market, it offers little in the way of intrigue or stopping power.

Similarly, most chocolate bar wrappers are dark brown, often with an accent of metallic gold. This means “flavorful chocolate” to our brains. Dark brown foods are rich, earthy and indulgent. This archetype is important to keep in mind when designing chocolate packaging, as long as we don’t stop there.

We should use archetypes as one of many tools to trigger the right associations for our brand. These archetypes point consumers in a general direction that helps them place the brand in context. However, in today’s crowded market, even the most heritage-based brand cannot afford to depend solely on recognized archetypes to achieve a meaningful brand essence.

Let’s Make them Care

Let’s create packaging design that inspires consumers, not just to make a purchase, but to purchase better quality food and drink – and then truly relish it. In doing so, we enrich people’s lives.

By studying how the human brain works, we can use design to help overwhelmed consumers purchase things they truly value. Good design slows down our consumption, stimulates our imaginations and makes us mindful of our experiences. By engaging all of our senses, it even improves our flavor experience.

We help consumers care – not only about food and drink – but also about the brands that deliver this multi-sensory, immersive experience. We help form a bond, and bonds drive loyalty. Fully engaged consumers may buy less, but they’ll invest more in the brands that bring them satisfaction. So brand owners win, and consumers win.

PhilosophySterling Creativeworks
Subscribe to receive branding insights and new work. We promise not to overload your inbox, and we won’t share your contact info, ever.

Receive quarterly branding insights and new work.


© 2014 Sterling Creativeworks | 707.257.0207