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Turning off, turning on

Traditionally the on-trade has been all about building brand image, while the off-trade has been treated just as a distribution channel. Are brand owners missing a big trick here?

Pete Hollingsworth FutureBrand

We are experiencing an ever-shrinking on-trade with consumers drinking more at home to pay less and save more. Traditionally the on-trade has been all about building brand image, while the off-trade has been treated just as a distribution channel. Are brand owners missing a big trick here?

Pete Hollingsworth, managing creative director at global design agency FutureBrand, thinks so. In this exclusive report, he explains how he believes brands can bring the sensory experiences from the on trade, and advertising, into the off trade

With so many brands fighting for attention in the off-trade, it’s time to think about how to maximise brand impact and create greater brand differentiation. The question for us is how can design play a role in capturing the core essence of the on-trade experience and release this into the off-trade.

If the on-trade is about bringing your brand to life, creating theatre and a multi-sensory experience, then surely we can bring multi-sensory experiences to the off-trade through design.

At FutureBrand we believe that the opportunities for growth in sensorial design in the drinks industry are huge. We operate in an increasingly fragmented media landscape where traditional advertising is losing ground, legislation provides more constraints and there are fewer opportunities to connect with consumers in the on trade. In our world, branded packaging – primary and secondary – has the potential to build the brand in the off trade, particularly as it provides 24/7 interaction with the consumer, with multiple touch points from shelf, to home, to use.

What we need to do is bring the sensory experiences from the on trade, and advertising, into the off trade:

  • Sight – bar furniture, mood lighting, brand collaterals, the product pour, these all contribute to anticipated taste perceptions
  • Sound - convivial bar chatter, chink of glasses, bar calls, the pouring sounds
  • Touch – the feel of the bar top, the coolness of the condensation on the glass, the mouth sensation
  • Taste – the first gulp, the sips, the CO2 exploding on your taste buds
  • Smell – hops, yeast, citrus, leather and wood

Think smooth, velvety Guinness for example. Imagine picking up a multipack that has used a soft silk print finish. Not the usual varnish or laminate. Here the consumer will receive a direct sensory link to the product, a physical embodiment of the product. Why is this important? Senses trigger memories, recall brand experiences. And combining certain sensory points in the same product can result in indelible brand associations, strengthening loyalty and helping to drive increased sales. Combining stimulation in equal volumes of 2 senses e.g. auditory and visual, has a super cumulative effect. It can hugely enhance the sensory experience. Shoppers instinctive reactions take over and how their senses are stimulated determines their decisions.

Higher margin, luxury products tend to employ more sensory thinking. High quality textures. Weight is a significant feature. As is smell. Think Johnnie Walker Blue 200. The box is heavy and is leather bound. The leather smell gives the perception of depth of the whisky taste. The decanter and baccarat crystal screams special. Gift packaging and special editions also tend to combine more sensory cues. Why not make everyday sensory?

Premium and luxury cosmetics brands create multi-sensory and experiential environments in department stores and travel retail, such as Chanel. And there’s a raft of digital and interactive technologies that are being exploited in big retail brand stores like Nike and the iPhone launch in O2 that bring brands to life in multi-sensory way, using sight and touch to reflect the brand and product experience. In our investigation into how well the alcoholic drinks category does multi-sensory, we were quite surprised that there were few brands that seemed to be taking advantage of this area and feel that there is so much opportunity for brands that start to combine the senses for consumer and commercial benefit.

So why use touch to enhance your brand? Shape is not just how a pack looks, it’s how it feels in the hand. With developments in substrates and coatings, we are at the beginning of exploring new and exciting brand linked surface textures. As the brain is integrated, touch evokes the sense of taste, via vision, thus creating anticipation and greater desire of the product inside. Cadbury Dairy Milk’s shift from shiny packaging to smooth and silky to touch is more representative of its smooth taste and texture. In Starbuck’s there are bins of coffee beans that you can run your hands through and put real coffee beans up to your nose. The Brahma beer bottle reflects the high energy sensual spirit of Brazil, that you literally caress in your hand.

Smell is our most powerful sense; it creates emotive memories and can trigger fantastic nostalgia cues. The majority of all our emotions we experiences are generated by smell. We breathe 20,000 times a day and with each breath comes olfactory stimulus. A recent study discovered that when given the choice between two similar food or beverage products, over 80% of consumers would choose the one they could smell and see over one they could just see. Supermarkets have been fanning the smell of freshly baked bread throughout their stores to both attract you to the bread counter and make you hungry so you tend to buy more. In Abercrombie & Fitch, the association of their clothing with their fragrance is so strong because a subtle amount of their fragrance is infused into the atmosphere in their store. Impulse purchase of their fragrance is at the highest levels, and the fragrance still lingers when you open your bags of clothes at home.

Sight is a key influencer on our other senses. If you see a bright orange soft drink pack, you will expect a high orange taste. Shape and visual textures will influence how we think something should sound. Likewise sight will influence smell cues via colour. Bright green must smell of lime / citrus / pine freshness. What we see will directly raise our expectations of how things will feel. Our sense of sight clearly controls and therefore can enhance the total brand experience. In terms of taking the on trade into the off trade, we think there’s no better example than Absolut Disco. A single representation of fun bar and clubbing experiences. Notably, it looks better on its own on a black background, rather than en masse on shelf when it starts to look more mass and mainstream and less exclusive and special. The question is how can we achieve both sales and sensory objectives in the off trade?

Sound can evoke the drinking experience of the product. Think about champagne, with its fantastic popped cork sound encouraging us to celebrate and the ritual of untwisting the secure wire all add to our sensory excitement. It is possible to leverage pack acoustics for any brand, from a gentle click to a Schweppes-like fizz. Pack-acoustics create cues of delight and anticipation. Sound also alludes to quality. Think of a Lexus, Mercedes or any premium car door closing. They have distinctive sounds of perceptible depth helping to reinforce the quality perception of the cars and therefore the brand. Gift boxes that ‘click’ closed have the sound of quality.

Taste cues evoke not only the taste of the product but the strength, temperature and mouthfeel – the whole taste experience ultimately making your mouth water, so that you have to pick it up. Beads of condensation say cold and refreshing. M&S-style product photography is simply mouth-watering. At the upper end of vodkas, the frosted glass suggests ice cold and in doing so, super pure. With a mix of illustration and product photography, Walkers Sensations take you on a dreamlike taste journey that truly gets your tastebuds going.

In the off trade there are many opportunities to build sensory into your brand – at point of purchase, in the primary and secondary packaging and in its display (taking into account retailer costs and restrictions!); taking it home and; the in home experience from putting it away or on show, to opening it, pouring it and consuming it.

The way forward is to build a multi sensory dimension into the brand positioning. Brand marketers need to move away from thinking of just a USP. If we are to embrace our senses, then we need to think in a holistic selling proposition. The start point is a sensory audit for the brand. It’s only when we understand these that we can start to exploit our senses in the off-trade.

1 February 2010