Most brand owners today recognise the benefit of defining and applying a consistent approach to the aesthetic design of their products and packaging. The most enlightened brand owners also see the value of defining a considered multi-sensory experience for their products.
We have all come to expect a satisfying clunk to the car door, a pleasing ‘ker-lick’ to the stereo control, and it is no longer only Volkswagen winning loyalty (and a considerable premium) with a few judiciously placed panels of soft touch material. The feel, sound and even smell of a car’s interior experience has defined automotive marques since long before they called themselves ‘brands’.
This distinctive sensory footprint now has currency not just in cars, but in everything: from hotels to whiskies; airlines to perfumes and even the world of FMCG. Imagine ketchup without the ‘slap’, Bisto without the ‘Aaahh’. Yet, although we live in ‘sensory times’, many brands fail to exploit the power of a multi-sensory experience to engage audiences, and progress customers along the path to purchase. So if you don’t already have a sensory equity like Alka Seltzer’s ‘plink, plink, fizz’ or Schweppes’ ‘Schhhh’, where do you start?
Using the senses
First, the basics: we have five senses but do not use them equally. David McCandless, in his book Information is Beautiful, cites research from Danish author Tor Nørretranders and describes the balance of the senses as ‘sensory bandwidth’ or ‘processing power’.
The majority of this bandwidth is taken up by vision. Sight occupies 10 times the bandwidth of touch, which in turn uses 10 times that of hearing and smell. Yet throughout a user’s journey, all five senses are ‘on’ all the time; although at different stages, we are stimulated to give different senses more or less priority. Analysing the priority given at different sensory touch points in the consumer journey reveals opportunities for optimisation according to different balances of sensory dominance.
The power of visual appearance at the first moment of truth is well understood. Here semiotics help us use cultural codes and cues to read subtle messages through form, using the silhouette, surface transitions, colour and key features of the object to convey power, speed, elegance, femininity and so on.
Budweiser’s ‘bow tie’ can shows the power of using shape to differentiate the beer can from the standard form of almost all other cans. It does so in a way that links to the brand’s previously under-utilised ‘bow tie’ icon, helping to re-establish it as a distinctive and relevant equity for the brand. This link is not just to the graphic icon, but its shape encourages us to follow the brand’s call to action and ‘grab some Buds’.
As we move to the second moment of truth, our sensory priorities shift as more of our other senses come into play. Touch, sound, smell and even taste become more engaged as we pick up and begin to interact with objects. This is when the sensorial ‘brand in the hand’ truly comes in to its own. By carefully choosing materials, finishes and textures we can control our tactile responses, creating rich and meaningful interactions with the products in our daily lives.
The inclusion of the soft touch material moulded into the sides of the Veet EasyWax device not only provides a functional benefit through better grip, but becomes a literal touchpoint through our finger tips, suggesting long-lasting smooth skin – the product’s core benefit. This added sensorial feature also increases the luxury qualities of the product, enabling it to establish a premium proposition.
Messages delivered through all five senses can be harnessed to design the sensory experience of the brand. To these we would add a sixth property, kinaesthetics – the cognitive and physical reactions to movement that provide a dynamic way to explore sensory experience through products in use. Think of the effortlessly smooth and controlled glide of a ‘soft close’ kitchen drawer or the snappy response of the Motorola Razr when you pop it open.
During the development of the new Lynx/Axe body spray, a key challenge was to deliver a smooth, high-quality feel every time the pack was used, and to do so consistently throughout the products life.
To engineer this sensorial experience, we worked in close partnership with the packaging development team at Unilever’s Deodorants Global Design Centre in Leeds. By exploring the feel of the opening and closing experience that we wanted to deliver, based upon a concept by Seymourpowell, we were able to define the exact kinaesthetic profile of this experience using tunable mock-ups. These rigs enabled us to measure the ideal sensory properties and test them in our lab, for example the release torque within the form factor, so that finally we could deliver this experience consistently and efficiently through high-volume, low cost components.
So, how do we go about designing a multi-sensory brand experience?
There are four steps you need to take: define it; create it; test it and apply it. First, define what sensory messages your brand wants to convey, and decide which senses to stimulate at what point in the user journey. Next, bring the sensory experience to life by creating prototype experiences; then test them with consumers, and finally apply it through a controlled production process to ensure that the experience can be consistently reproduced.
In our experience, successfully realising sensory design requires a simultaneous focus on big ideas that bring the brand concept to life, and tiny details that make a difference to a product’s sensory interactions and create relevant sensory experiences. We also consider other categories where these codes may be relevant, and look at what cues we can borrow. For example, to deliver a luxury experience in a mass-market personal care brand, we might borrow sensory cues from cosmetics or fine fragrance packaging.
And it doesn’t start and end with packaging. Relevant sensory experiences include everything from the wobble of the shelf-hanger to the click of the ‘Order Now’ button. Every brand touchpoint conveys a sensory message, whether digital or physical. The question is how to prioritise, then what to control, coordinate, and leave to chance.
Adopting a multi-sensory approach to brand design opens up a wealth of opportunities to influence the way people experience your products and packaging everyday. Controlling these sensory interactions can deliver an engaging and stimulating brand experience at every point in the user journey and create valuable equities for your brand along the way.