Successful FMCG products are becoming more elusive. Failure rates remain stubbornly high and own-label continues to make serious inroads in many categories, growing at three times the rate of brands according to the recent OC&C study published in The Grocer.
Retailers are more controlling, rationalising ranges and impacting brand equities with price cutting and promotions. Alongside this, consumers are ever more empowered, digitally savvy and financially cautious. So, where is it all heading?
There is a feeling in marketing circles that agility is key. The four Ps appear to have been transcended by content, social, viral and experiential, taking marketers’ focus with them. In pursuit of engagement, cash and creativity are poured into events and communications with response measured using new-age methods such as implicit, facial coding and neuroscience – all purporting to measure emotion.
These all have their place, but there is a significant opportunity being missed by brand owners. As important as brand content is, there can be no closer engagement between consumer and brand than the direct experience of using the product and pack.
We strongly encourage brand owners to make the most of this all-important connection point, taking ownership for the way these physical embodiments of the brand communicate and deliver the intended brand experience.
While some forward-thinking organisations are changing, ownership of product often sits with development teams, who are quite distinct from the commercial units that own the brand and sales models. We think this is sub-optimal. By treating these elements of the mix independently there is a missed opportunity to develop a more coherent brand, one which connects deeply with consumers on an emotional and functional level, such as brands like Guinness or Innocent.
We believe consonance is one reason these brands succeed when so many others fail. We would like to see marketers playing conductor for brand, product and pack equally.
The case for sensory branding
Professor Byron Sharp, director of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science and author of How Brands Grow, argues in his book that the traditional model of positioning and differentiation is outdated and, in fact, it is salience and distinctiveness that grow a great brand.
Consider a brand like Ella’s Kitchen, which disrupted baby food with its organic positioning and functional pouch which, combined with a well-aligned graphical execution, made it a category flagship. The pack format differentiated it at first but other brands were quick to follow. However, Ella’s Kitchen continues to buck the downward category trend because its branding message is so relevant and easily decoded (organic, caring, primary colours, childlike typography and disruptive but functional pack formats). The brand offers a high level of distinctiveness, thus engaging at a deeper level.
In our opinion, there is real merit in the notion of distinctiveness and particularly the idea of distinctive brand assets, such as Apple’s signature white headphones. But as is typical with many brand and marketing manuals, Sharp’s How Brands Grow makes little mention of the product itself.
We propose a future where the physical product and pack become distinctive assets in their own right, reinforcing and enhancing the overall brand experience. We call this sensory branding and believe it is a really effective way for brands to put distance between themselves and own-label, which will always have to contend with the equities attached to the retailer brand. We have seen this aligned approach create products that people do not just like, but love, which might sound like fluffy marketing-speak, but as outlined by Millward Brown’s Peter Walshe in his Admap magazine article 10 Traits of Megabrands, ‘brand love’ is a key measure of success.
Sensory branding in practice
The ‘multi-sensory brand experience’ as most people know it is still in its infancy, brought to life through branded retail spaces, PR stunts and custom serveware. But the majority of brand experiences – or consumption occasions – take place in the supermarket, at home or in the office without an iPod playing whale noises or a team of brand imps wafting clouds of fragrance around.
So in that moment of truth, what do you want your customer to feel? Advertising agencies are often briefed on the emotional outcome that the creative should achieve, but how do you brief a product formulator to create a ‘happy’ deodorant? How do you make a pack more ‘honest’? This is where sensory branding leaves sensory marketing behind.
To achieve it we need to understand the emotional and functional messages that products and packaging communicate. It is like semiotics but goes further, drawing on sensory, statistical and qualitative expertise to deconstruct those messages and understand the sensory characteristics that drive or reinforce them. It is all pulled together to convert consumer expectations into targeted briefs for product developers, packaging designers and creatives.
These teams can then work in harmony with marketers to ensure sensory delivery of the product and packaging (where structure and form play an important role) is working to reinforce their intended positioning. The outputs also enable marketers to build further engagement by leveraging active sensory terms in their communications.
One historical example is Bournville Deeply Dark, launched by Cadbury in response to increasing demand for dark chocolate. In a peer-reviewed article for industry journal Food Quality and Preference, we investigated Deeply Dark’s place in the category and found that in blind taste testing, Deeply Dark had the highest liking score out of 12 brands tested, including category leader Green & Blacks, which was rated very poorly. Consumers then conceptually profiled the chocolates, and separately profiled the packs.
The conceptual information revealed a significant disconnect between the Deeply Dark product and its pack. The pack promised strong, challenging and confident, but the product delivery was sweet, soft and milky. By comparison, the Green & Blacks product and pack were closely aligned. We are convinced that this dissonance prevented Deeply Dark from delivering a truly engaging consumer experience – resulting in its withdrawal from the market some months after launch. Meanwhile, Green & Blacks continues to lead the premium sector 10 years down the line.
We passionately believe that sensory branding can create a deeper emotional connection with consumers and distance brands from own-label. By collaborating more closely with product and pack developers from the outset, marketers have a real weapon at their disposal to deliver and reinforce brand equities and drive engagement with consumers.