Vision Beyond Vision

Vision Beyond Vision

Companies are going beyond the visual aspects of packaging, catering to a full sensory experience

July 30, 2018

Going to the movies is no cheap outing these days. And whether or not I walk away feeling good about the insane amount of money I had to fork over to see the latest blockbuster, there is one thing I do know I will be completely satisfied with every single time—the popcorn. As soon as I walk into the theater, I am immediately greeted with the tantalizing smell of buttery, salty, delicious popcorn. My senses are further engaged by the unmistakable “pop, pop, pop” of a new batch being made. At this point, my mouth is watering, and I can practically taste the freshly popped kernels as I wait in the seemingly endless snack line to spend another obscene chunk of change. But popcorn has an iconic visual appeal and feeling, recognized by children and adults alike, that makes it hard to watch a movie without it. Even something about my greasy hands after devouring the entire tub elevates the experience for me, making it more nostalgic than messy.

  • Adding a picture of the product to its packaging shows customers what they’re actually buying, increasing their confidence in the product. (Photo courtesy of UNILEVER Ice Cream.)
  • (Photo courtesy of Roland Foods.)
  • Wine labels are a fine example of how artful texturing (e.g., foil stamping and embossing) can draw consumers through touch, as well as sight. (Photos by Alli Keigley.)
  • A simple scratch-and-sniff portion of the packaging can engage consumers through touch and scent. (Photo by Alyson Hurt/Flickr.)
  • Giving the customer something to unwrap, or unbox, adds interaction to the sensory
    packaging experience. (Photo courtesy of The Smirnoff Co.)
  • Convicts come to life on this wine label with the help of a smartphone app. (Photo by Alli Keigley.)

Just imagine for a moment that only one of your senses could be activated when you encounter popcorn. How would your popcorn experience change? We know from extensive research—if that’s what you call repeatedly inhaling a tub of popcorn at the theater—that the appeal of popcorn is so much more than just, say, the visual experience. All five senses work hand-in-hand to override common sense and cause you to break your entertainment budget by ponying up for an overpriced snack commodity. The art of making popcorn is so much more than a visual experience; it’s one that connects with its consumers through their five senses. And packaging, much like popcorn, should work to have the same effect on consumers.

Without question, the grandiose packaging on the shelves today captures a great deal of visual attention from those scouring their many options. Packaging serves as both the first impression for a product and the last opportunity to influence a consumer’s purchase decision. In order to do both, packaging designers have spent years focused on the visual appeal of the package (e.g., distinct color, design, logos). While we know the package’s appearance is of great importance, there is much more to the package real estate to be considered: taste, smell, touch, and sound. Today, companies are challenged to move beyond the basics by designing packages that captivate all of our senses.

Let’s start with taste. This is a sense that does not intuitively come to mind in relation to packaging, yet it can drastically influence the consumers’ shopping experience. The picture superiority effect, which means that for humans, pictures are brought to mind more readily than words, plays a large role in this. In fact, pictures can often effectively replace words altogether. While it may seem impossible for brands to fully convey the chocolaty lusciousness of their best-selling ice cream prepurchase, an incredible photograph of the product can come pretty close.

Take a look at Breyers’ tasty packaging design for their cookies and cream ice cream (below). The branding successfully utilizes the picture superiority effect with sensational photography and very few words. The packaging activates my taste buds and makes me feel as though a heaping bowlful is right in front of me, ready to be devoured.

In packaging, pictures are often used symbolically to communicate what words alone are incapable of. Especially in food packaging, the reliance on imagery is everywhere you look. Images for food packaging communicate qualities like sumptuousness and healthiness—a multi­tude of literal and implied messages that would take significant amounts of copy to communicate. The simple package (top right) very clearly displays the quartered artichoke pieces, letting the image tell a story that words could not.

Taste is a sense that is closely linked to sight. The visual aspect of the package elements influences the taste appeal through the use of vivid food imagery. And, no, I am not asking you to sink your teeth into the Cheerios box you bought for breakfast. But this sense can be related to packaging, as well. Take the development of edible packaging. With packaging waste continuing to be a major concern, the rise of this spin on packaging might be a turn in the right direction. For example, McDonald’s has introduced an edible fry container (selected locations), that gives you even more bang for your buck, while eliminating the iconic red sleeve. An article on The Culinary Exchange shows examples of some other edible packaging trends:

A European baking company, Dr. Oetker, has brought this trend to the sweets world with edible cupcake wrappers that are bake-stable and gluten-free. The thick wafer material is much tastier than paper, even though it may confuse your party guests.

Similar to taste, smell may not be something that pops into your head when thinking about packaging. When it comes to smell, we typically think of flowers, freshly baked cookies, coffee, and popcorn (of course). But many innovative companies are finding ways to incorporate scent into their packaging. Recent scent research has found that 75 percent of all emotions generated each day are due to smell, and because of this, we are 100 times more likely to remember something we smell over something we see, hear, or touch.

For this reason, the scent of personal hygiene products is typically important for those who want to keep all of their teeth and not offend their neighbor. However, it is generally considered a faux pas to open a package of toothpaste or deodorant before buying it, so consumers are left to question the intensity of the scent. Scratch-and-sniff stickers can offer a solution by allowing consumers a sneak peek of their “Cool Rush” deodorant without angering store managers.

Along with the more customary household products that are typically infused with scent, some companies want to go one step further and put scent into products like ordinary corrugated boxes. I read about a company that hopes to create a memorable brand experience by having their corrugated boxes smell like freshly cut grass. Why freshly cut grass, you may ask? According to the local news source, the idea came from a sports shoe retailer that wanted to encourage their clientele to run outdoors in their new footwear by luring them in with the smell of freshly cut grass.

As you are surely seeing by now, packaging design should incorporate more than just visual stimulation, and touch is another sense that can be effectively used to captivate the consumer. Touch plays a major role in purchase decisions, since humans are highly tactile creatures. A study conducted by some of the top universities in the United States found that weight, texture, and softness of objects influences the way people perceive and interpret them. Packaging designers understand that the tactile experience should convey something special about the product or help it to stand out. This experience can be relayed on the package through the addition of coatings, finishes, and press effects. The wine category does a great job transforming static labels using high-quality printing and effects. A trip down any wine aisle showcases textured papers, decorative foil stamping, embossed letters, stamps, and other signature touches.

Seizing a fantastic opportunity to engage consumers with the allure of touch, Smirnoff launched new flavors of their Brazilian Caipiroska. The fruit-infused vodka line comes in three different flavors: lemon, strawberry, and passion fruit. Each flavor is wrapped to imitate the look of the corresponding fruit, and consumers get the unusual opportunity to peel their beverage before partaking.

Sound, the last of the five senses, can surprisingly come to life in packaging through immersion tactics. Applying this human factor to packaging results in a state of mental focus so strong that the observer loses awareness of reality, most often resulting in feelings of satisfaction and joy. While it is difficult to gauge which elements will create a truly immersive experience for each individual, immersion is a worthy goal to pursue. And the advance of packaging technology today allows for any number of creative endeavors.

19 Crimes was quick to take advantage of the evolving packaging technology with their interactive wine labels. When you place your smartphone in front of the label while using their app, the prisoner on the label comes to life and tells you their woeful tale. More than just a fun gimmick, giving consumers this kind of experience while they view your package design can greatly increase the rate of purchase. Kouki & Co. has created a conceptual snack brand that literally speaks to you (or serenades you). This visionary snack brand, cleverly named Sound Bites, was inspired by Oxford University’s research that suggests “sound influences the taste of food.” The premise of this brand is that food is “infused with” instrumental music or the sound of nature, with different instruments and sounds being used to enhance individual flavors. For example, brass instruments would coordinate with flavors that are rich and bold, while the ocean melody would be matched with flavors that are fresh and salty. Though we are still waiting for this musical package to hit the shelves and serenade us at our next dinner party, this could be the way of the future for food packaging. I know I will be keeping an ear out!

So, back to popcorn and the movies. Though you typically leave with an empty wallet—but full stomach—it is the experience that keeps you coming back. And the same goes for packaging. With consumers encountering more than 30,000 products within a typical grocery store, it is crucial that the packaging act as a vehicle for creating a memorable brand experience. Think of a piece of popcorn. Visually, it may not be overwhelmingly appealing, but we all know and love it because of the experience we connect with it. For you to remain in the game—at the risk of sounding corny—your packaging should pop off of the shelves.

Since a major challenge of edible packaging is the strict hygiene requirements during production and distribution, the use of this type of packaging may be best suited for restaurants and takeaway consumption, where this type of food is typically stored in the container for a shorter period of time. Do Eat has jumped on this bandwagon with the creation of “IncrEDIBLE” packaging for sandwich sleeves and confections. The reportedly neutral-tasting packaging is made from water, potato starch, and vegetable ink. Visit to check out this unique packaging.

Julie Rice is the academic director at The Packaging School and Research Director at Package InSight, LLC. She can be reached at 330-774-8542 or

Alli Keigley is the production coordinator at The Packaging School. She can be reached at 864-360-3115 or

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