Looks good, tastes good
Research shows that the same orange juice can taste and smell different when presented in different packaging. Stergios Bititsios says the implications for NPD are huge.
Measuring whether someone likes a product will not tell you whether it has the ability to forge a strong and long-lasting relationship with the consumer. Think about it this way: you are not good friends with someone just because you like them. There is more that defines and maintains the relationship. It is the perceptions, or ‘conceptualisations’, we form about someone and associate with them that are the true drivers of friendship.
Likewise, when deciding whether to commit to a brand or product we take into account a range of different things beyond the simple determination that we ‘like’ something. One of these factors has to do with the packaging. At MMR Research Worldwide, we have shown that packaging in its own right has the power to influence brand and product perceptions. But more recently our experience in packaging research and sensory science led us to asks if packaging can also influence how consumers perceive the sensory qualities of products.
In other words, a pack’s format alone may affect the way we judge the aroma, flavour and mouthfeel of a drink product, for example. If true, this would add a new dimension to the field of packaging research and innovation.
Testing the theory
To test whether this was the case, we designed an experiment which included the use of our in-house, trained sensory panel and, at a later stage, the participation of everyday consumers.
We selected ambient orange juice as our product stimulus and we collected five different types of packaging: a clear glass bottle, a clear plastic bottle, a translucent plastic bottle with handle, a can and a carton. We removed the branding from the packaging samples to shift the focus onto format rather than logos, graphics and branding.
We acquired an existing, branded ambient orange juice that comes in a carton container and invited our sensory panel to objectively profile it. The permanent panel consists of carefully screened and trained individuals whose increased sensory acuity allows them to detect and describe the sensory qualities of a product, regardless of product category. We deliberately avoided revealing the brand and packaging to eliminate bias.
After analysis and evaluation of the aroma, flavour and mouthfeel of the selected orange juice the panel extracted the following attributes:
Overall orange strength, fresh, artificial, plastic
Overall orange strength, citrusy, zesty, fresh, artificial, sweet, acid, bitter, plastic
Smooth, thick, dry
We then invited 100 consumers, divided into groups of ten, to evaluate the product against the sensory attributes identified in stage one. Although we had only the one product to test, consumers were told that they would be evaluating a range of six different orange juices.
In every session, each consumer was first provided with a 100ml sample, served in a clear glass - no packaging - and a list of the attributes. This was to calibrate consumers’ taste buds and to make sure that they could relate the listed attributes to the product under evaluation.
Once this phase had been completed the consumers were ready to proceed to a full product evaluation exercise. The samples were served one at a time, as before, in clear glasses and poured out of sight of the consumers so they could not see the original packaging. Consumers were asked to slowly drink the juice and rate the intensity of the listed attributes on a five-point rating scale.
They were then asked to repeat the process for the remaining five samples. The difference was that the next five samples were presented with packaging. Every group saw the packaging examples in a different order. Rotating the order in which the packs were presented was essential from a research perspective, as it ensured that no pack was constantly seen first or last which could have skewed consumers’ responses.
The glasses of juice were distributed and the pack placed, as if casually left behind, at the edge of the table. The consumers were not prompted to either look or interact with the packaging.
Analysis and results
We analysed the consumer data and found differences in the way consumers responded to the different samples, despite the fact they had consumed the same product. When we examined the data further, we found statistically significant differences between three key attributes: ‘overall orange strength in taste’, ‘tastes citrusy’ and ‘feels thick in mouth’. All are extremely important in the orange juice category.
Overall orange strength in taste:
The sample that consumers thought came in the translucent plastic bottle with a handle and the one they thought came in a carton scored significantly higher on ‘overall orange strength in taste’ than the rest of the samples. The sample that was presented without packaging came last with a statistically significant difference from the rest.
All the samples that presented with packaging scored significantly higher than the sample without packaging.
Feels thick in mouth:
The samples consumers thought came in the clear plastic bottle scored significantly higher than the rest.
We also plotted the six samples and the selected sensory attributes on a map to indicate the relative position of products and their attributes in the consumers’ perceptual space.
At the end of each session we also collected anecdotal evidence to back up our statistical analysis. We asked consumers to tell us from memory which samples they liked and disliked the most and why. Below are some descriptions expressed in consumers’ natural language:
No packaging: Less artificial, fresher, not overly sweet, easy to drink, smelled of freshly squeezed oranges.
Translucent plastic bottle with handle: Less strong, sweet, artificial, acidic, bitter.
Glass bottle: strongest orange taste, overall strong taste, bitter, feels weaker, diluted, understated.
Clear plastic bottle: good balance of sweetness and acidity, natural, flavourful and balanced, most orangey, real oranges, acidic, bitter.
Carton: bland, plasticy.
It is astonishing to see such great differences in perception knowing that the products were identical.
Undoubtedly, then, packaging format plays a key role in how consumers perceive the intensity of the flavour, aroma and mouthfeel of a product. The implication for R&D and marketing teams is that every time a new product is developed, packaging should be explored and developed alongside it. The pack must be in line with the sensory qualities of the product if manufacturers want to make the most out of their new proposition.
In the case of ambient orange juice, if a manufacturer wants to develop a more citrusy product, translucent plastic seems like a more appropriate packaging format, while glass sits at the other end of the scale. Similarly if ‘thickness in mouth’ is seen as a key product attribute then clear and rigid plastic is the right packaging material. And this is before we explore the surely significant role of shape and graphics.
These findings can be generalised to include other product categories and senses - i.e. the sound of a crunchy chocolate bar, the visual texture of a dishwashing tablet, the tactile texture of a cream. All these sensory qualities can be potentially ruined in consumers’ minds if not captured in the packaging design process.
Clearly, packaging can be used as a vehicle not only to communicate brand values and product benefits but also to control sensory perceptions. The results of this study flag up the importance of packaging in the consumption experience and clearly stress the need for in-depth consumer research throughout the packaging innovation process.
Stergios Bititsios is associate director, packaging and design, at MMR Research Worldwide