We engage with brands through several, if not all, our senses --that is, through the way they look, sound, feel, smell and even taste. An initial and decisive point of this relationship with human senses is …packaging, that can be seen in this context as a multi-sensory device capable of creating experiences.
This will be the theme of the webinar organized by EXPO PACK México and Mundo PMMI on September 1, with Carlos Velasco, PhD, co-author of the book “Multisensory Packaging: Designing New Product Experiences.”
Velasco is also the co-author of the book Multisensory Experiences: Where the Senses Meet Technology, published by Oxford University Press, and released globally last August 7th. In this work, Carlos Velasco and Marianna Obrist analyze the current global trend towards transformation and capitalization of the human senses use through technology. This exhaustive research work offers an immersion into the dynamic world of multisensory experiences. Velasco, associate professor at BI Norwegian Business School, where he founded the Multisensory Marketing Center, has a doctorate in Experimental Psychology from the University of Oxford (UK). He has devoted several years to multidisciplinary work that integrates psychology, marketing and human-computer interaction.
We interviewed Velasco about the release of his book, which covers key issues in packaging design and development, and which he will present at the webinar by EXPO PACK México: (Designing Memorable Brand Experiences through Multisensory Packaging).
Mundo PMMI: What is the practical application of "multisensory" science?
Carlos Velasco: What we try to do is gain a very good understanding of the workings of the human senses. In a specific field, we can for example enter the field of marketing and understand how that knowledge is applied in different consumption scenarios. We are talking now about machine-human interaction, and what we can do is anticipate so that any marketing strategy we use can be implemented before the technologies are launched. When a new technology is launched, such as virtual reality or one that serves to measure consumer behavior, we try to transform it by integrating human-machine interaction.
Mundo PMMI: Although multisensory experiences are part of people's daily lives, I would like you to specifically address their incidence in a daily activity such as the purchase of consumer products. How do human senses define consumer decisions?
Carlos Velasco: It is true that multisensory experiences are part of our day to day, and we could use the following parallel: if I walk through the forest, that is a multisensory experience because on the way I hear the sound of the birds, I see the trees, and I smell what is there. However, our proposal for multisensory experiences includes the fact that there is a designer behind them. It would be like a landscape architect who designs a walk through the forest and selects exactly the elements, which senses are involved, and this is basically what differentiates our multisensory experiences proposal.
To answer the specific question, we interact with the world around us through our senses, and products or services are no exception. Ultimately, consumers interact with products, services, and brands through “touch points” such as packaging, web pages, and advertising. Basically, all the elements that stand between the company and the consumer. The proposal that I have been developing for several years suggests that these “touch points” are multisensory devices that contain sensory characteristics that can be carefully chosen to generate specific experiences. If we think of product packaging, for example, it would be colors, shapes, sounds, textures, and in some cases even smells and flavors –which are critical to the failure or success of many of the products at the supermarkets.
A question we could ask ourselves at this point would be: If we wanted to communicate or design a premium experience, what aspects should we consider? Would they be things like what does something premium taste like? What does it smell like? What color does it look like? What shapes does it have? What fonts do you use? Based on the answers to these questions, action points begin to be identified. The color black, for example, is highly used in many categories to communicate high quality. The elements identified can be leveraged to begin creating the desired experience.
Mundo PMMI: In this type of experience, packaging represents an essential interaction point. What are the sensory stimuli that have the most impact on it?
Carlos Velasco: Packaging is key, and comprises very interesting multisensory devices. Something that I always tell my students is that until very recently product packaging was considered as something created exclusively to protect, preserve and transport products. Today, packaging is seen as a multi-sensory device capable of creating experiences. With good reason, some experts say it represents the last five seconds of marketing.
One of the characteristics that generate high impact is what we call sensory dominance. Certain senses can dominate consumer experiences with different types of products to a greater or lesser degree. For example, if I am going to buy shoes, what research tells us is that initially the most important thing is how the shoes look; that is, vision would be a very important sense when buying them. Once the shoes are bought, the tactile sense gains more and more importance since, if they are not comfortable, they will not provide a satisfactory experience. That somewhat reflects the idea that certain senses dominate more than others. Other aspects about which we have certainty is that color is one of the most determining factors when it comes to communicating meanings and creating experiences. This is not new, and is particularly relevant in food and beverages. Color is essential to communicate what flavor a product is, what kind of experience can be expected, if it is going to be positive or if it is going to suddenly generate particular emotions, among many other things. But there are other characteristics that, despite being less studied, are also fundamental. This is the case with shapes, and one of the first examples is Coca-Cola. The first guideline that the company that designed the Coca-Cola packaging received was: we need a container that can be recognized in the dark and when it is broken. This is an example of what we call “sensory signatures,” things that differentiate a product so much from the competition that they can even be patented. I must specify a small detail on this point: not all companies have the capacity to carry out this type of development. What you are trying to do is find the best configuration of the sensory elements that a brand has at its disposal to create the best possible experience.
Finally, the latest element that is gaining more and more visibility in research is sound. Historically, this sense has not been considered as essential when interacting with product packaging, but a growing body of research shows us that sound makes a very important difference. I consulted for a Japanese multinational company, and one of the questions they asked me was, “In a market as competitive as beer, in which there are so many high-quality products and there are more and more craft beers, what is the best way to differentiate yourself?” We thought about it and said, “How about differentiating the brand through sound?” The sound produced when opening a packaging --what happens to sound when one opens a can, or a bottle of beer? We did research in four European countries and realized that characteristics such as volume and tone of the packaging’s opening sound can change the experience and perception of product quality. Sound is something that brands are increasingly taking into account, especially in a world so loaded with visual stimuli.
Mundo PMMI: Are there elements that can give more relevance to one sensory stimulus than another? I wonder if it is possible to enhance, within this same consumer-packaging experience, some sense that traditionally has not had much relevance.
Carlos Velasco: One of our findings is that even though there are senses that dominate certain aspects of the experience, this dominance can be a double-edged sword, so to speak. Let's go back to the shoes I mentioned. The focus may be on the visual, and this can define the strategic direction. But there are bolder brands that may dare to say: "If vision is the most important sense in this part of the experience, what would happen if we differentiate ourselves in another way, since all brands are focusing on that?" Some brands could then invest more in other stimuli, so that the experience becomes more strongly differentiated from the competition. This is something that could happen.
One of the recurring topics that companies ask me about is how to awaken all the consumer's senses, and how to make the experience something very stimulating. To this I answer with the question: Is it possible we could overburden consumers? Because there is also what we call “sensory overload,” over-stimulating the consumer. An illustrative example: snack brand SunChips decided to change the packaging of their products to be compostable, but in doing so they did not anticipate that the sound of this new packaging would be very loud (about 100 decibels), and its impact was so high that they had to return to their previous packaging. This shows that consumers can be overloaded if their sensory limits are not considered.
Mundo PMMI: What kinds of technologies can be adapted to leverage the senses and persuade, and in which applications are they more appropriate?
Carlos Velasco: The answer to this question is twofold. One is the technologies that are already in the marketing process and are gaining more and more strength. These are technologies that help us communicate sensations much better. But there is another group, technologies that are not yet fully available, but that some researchers and some companies are already exploring. Among those already developed, the most interesting for me is augmented reality, since it has two characteristics. First, it visualizes products in a much more realistic way; and second, it does so through projection. For example, a package can have things added to it or be projected into a physical space. In this way, something that is not digital can be augmented with any type of digital information, which greatly enriches the experience when we talk about textures, music, colors and many additional things. There are already several experiments with this technology in the market, especially in digital/virtual stores, where packaging and products cannot be touched or viewed as closely as in a traditional supermarket. In this case, augmented reality allows us a better interaction with the product, seeing it from different angles, getting closer, seeing the information and feeling the textures through what we view.
On the other hand, there are technologies that we call sense enablers. Several companies are working on developing new ways to further connect our senses with the digital world. One thing that is clear is that consumers now live in what I call a mixed reality. We live part of our time in things that are not digital, yet we always have something digital close by, be it a cell phone, a computer, etc. Many researchers are therefore considering how to develop technologies that help us generate a better experience in mixed reality, integrating non-digital and digital elements (as in augmented reality). There are examples of researchers working on devices that can be connected to a cell phone and offer a smell, or for example allow the sending of a text message with smells. What would happen, suppose, if a restaurant menu is sent with this type of device to connect to the cell phone, and in doing so gives an idea of the aromas that can be expected from restaurant food? These are the kinds of alternatives some companies are experimenting with and are currently under development.
Mundo PMMI: Do you talk about this type of technologies in your new book?
Carlos Velasco: Precisely, it is a journey in which we talk about completely non-digital multisensory experiences, mixed reality that involves digital and non-digital elements, and arriving at the latest research in virtual reality.
Mundo PMMI: Augmented reality is a technology that, although already quite visible, still has a huge field to explore, specifically in relation to packaging. What could you tell us about this?
Carlos Velasco: Definitely, there are so many things to do in terms of product packaging. That is why last year I published, together with professor Charles Spence (University of Oxford), the book "Multisensory Packaging: Designing New Product Experiences," a collection of experiences from various researchers around the world, in which we show that this is an area of investigation that is gaining more and more strength due to the amount of opportunities it provides and how little we still know about it.
Mundo PMMI: Do you think that the cost factor can be a deterrent among CPGs and packaging developers/designers?
Carlos Velasco: As technology advances, more opportunities appear. Companies are investigating how to implement strategies that involve digital components, such as augmented reality. Now that consumers are so interested in topics like sustainability and Circular Economy and the impact the use of certain materials has on it, we see a little more interest.
This can be accomplished in as costly or inexpensive ways as desired. There is currently a lot of research on what kinds of experiences or attributes are associated with what kind of sensory information. This information is available in academic centers and, based on it, prototypes can be developed, which makes the process less expensive. There is also a more structured process, in which the work team designs a research plan within the organization, in such a manner that every step is supported by new rounds of evidence from consumer research.
Mundo PMMI: What should be considered in the design stages of a product or a package to promote multisensory experiences?
Carlos Velasco: The key question here would be, what experience do I want to communicate to my consumers? This can include the way in which the consumer receives your product, the way the brand will be perceived, the feeling experienced by the customer, what attributes I want to convey, what is the image I want to have on the shelf, ease of packaging use, etc. Once the comprehensive experience you want to create is clear, it is important to define the role of the senses within it, and ask questions related to the way the senses work. For example, what is the flavor of that experience that I want to communicate? What colors does that experience have that I want to communicate? What shape, smells and sounds? To define this, clarity in sensory language is required. From there, taking the consumer's perspective as a starting point, prototypes begin to be created for different alternatives that can generate these sensory information relationships. It is a task carried out with designers, brand managers and other important actors, and ideally there is then a final evaluation to verify that the objective sought is being generated for the consumer.
Mundo PMMI: What areas of the CPG should participate in these processes?
Carlos Velasco: I recently did packaging and design work with a leading Norwegian salmon production company, and we realized that there are many factors related to the process. At one point the designers are involved; at another the people who draft the advertising guidelines; at yet another people who work with social media. The important thing is to align the people involved in the process in such a way that the multisensory world that we want to create is focused not only on packaging but on all “contact points,” so it becomes possible to create the world of experience for the product. This means meeting with everyone on the team very early, even before inquiring into what kinds of sensory characteristics are associated with the experience. It is necessary to involve the designers’ ideas in the research process. In this way, tasks and links are generated between different relevant areas within the process. In general, the areas of research and development, design, technical and marketing participate. The latter is the one that ends up providing guidelines for where we want to take the project; after this, research and development and the technical area get involved to evaluate the existing possibilities.
Mundo PMMI: In the new book you wrote with Marianna Obrist, you refer to “intelligent technological design.” Could you briefly explain this concept?
Carlos Velasco: What we propose in the book is that our experiences range from those that do not involve technology to others that totally use technology, such as virtual reality. One of our proposals is that people who design technologies should understand very well how the human senses work. In other words, augmented reality comes to us and we see what we can do with it: this is fine because it is often scalable. But if you think the other way around, we would evaluate what kind of experiences we want to design, and based on that we would design the necessary technology. That's what we mean by smart technology design.
Mundo PMMI: With the current exponential growth in e-commerce, intelligent technological design would be very useful in online sales.
Carlos Velasco: For these technologies to become massive, we need to understand much better how the senses work and how we can stimulate them. On the other hand, we have the issue of controlling development costs for the equipment with which we develop the technologies, because ultimately this is a factor that can make them more or less attractive. This is the type of thing currently happening in laboratories. In my work related to this field, I try to find connections between these developments and things that are happening with consumers, in a way that encourages a more seamless technology transfer between development and implementation.
Mundo PMMI: If we look at the future from the perspective of multisensory experiences, what scenarios could an expanded capacity in all senses offer us for a more fully enjoyable life?
Carlos Velasco: The book released on August 7th closes with a phrase by the American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau: "The world is just a canvas for our imagination." With this thought we want to tell readers that no one can avoid being surrounded by sensory stimuli, and ask them, what would happen if we become more aware of all those elements that surround us? How would they affect our experiences if we designed them?
We can say that people are already doing what was once science fiction, for example adapting their homes with intelligent lighting systems that connect remotely with devices to synchronize computers and household appliances. What happens when you have control of and can access artificial intelligence, in such a way that sensors identify someone's heart rate or sensations with a watch and, when they get home, the light or music adapts to their state of mind? It sounds a bit futuristic, but if you think about it, that's where we're headed. Today there are many sensory technologies that allow us to control environmental stimuli, and if we become more aware of them we will have a greater impact on how we want to live, and therefore improve our quality of life in many ways. Obviously, all this generates important ethical reflections, on privacy, data protection, and controllability, among others. In the last chapter of the book we discuss the implications and responsibilities related to designing multisensory experiences.
Looking toward the future, many things will be influenced by multisensory experiences. We recently carried out a study on experiences and food packaging for space travel, where food is often bland, soft and with little flavor due to the physiological changes caused by gravity. Well, what we were looking for with the study was to find how we could design new technologies and food experiences based on understanding how the senses work in space. The future will bring many challenges. Humanity is engaging them, and they make us think how far we can go when considering human senses.
Mundo PMMI: From what you just said, the dimensions for creating multisensory experiences are immense.
Carlos Velasco: Yes, it is about a multi-dimensional perspective. As we did our research, we discovered there is a hugely interesting parallel in some instances of astronauts' senses in space and the way people's senses begin to change as they enter old age. This is very relevant for packaging design, for example, in countries like Japan and Norway, where the population is aging. There is a lot of thinking about how to design packaging for elderly people, who seem to have a slightly lower taste perception and have specific usability needs. This makes us think about designing packaging or the food experience for them, for example by compensating the salt or sugar levels to increase perception, not by adding salt or sugar but by changing the music they listen to while they eat, or modifying the shape of the plate, or creating a new style of packaging or changing the colors involved. There are many interesting design areas, based on the understanding and application of multisensory experiences.
To learn more about this world of opportunities offered by multisensory experiences, register now for the Webinar in Spanish “Diseñando experiencias memorables a partir de los empaques multisensoriales” (Designing Memorable Experiences from Multisensory Packaging), which Dr. Carlos Velasco, PhD, will present on September 1, within the framework of the Second Series of EXPO PACK México 2021 and Mundo PMMI webinars. To register click here.