How Multisensory Innovation can Propel Beverage Growth in a Chaotic Market
Even amidst rapidly changing consumer behavior, political unrest, unstable supply chains, labor shortages, rising costs, increasingly segmented markets, and unending technological advancement, beverage brands must continue to find innovation and growth to survive. But if they're not exactly sure where they're headed, how do companies know where to start innovating? Andrew Wardlaw, Chief Ideas Officer at MMR Research, the world's leading consumer and sensory research agency, says leading beverage brands will see, touch, taste, hear, and smell their way through the chaos by elevating customer experiences through the five senses.
We talked with Wardlaw, who has championed the consumer narrative at some of the world's largest, most successful CPG brands, about how sensory-based product innovation strategies can help beverage brands find focus and achieve growth in uncertain times.
Is now a good time to invest in new brand innovation, even with all the shifts in the market?
There is no reason to wait. While some areas may settle into more predictability, many changes and trends are here to stay. Consumers' attention will become increasingly fragmented while their product expectations continue to grow, regardless of market conditions. During the 2008 financial crash, consumers traded up in the food and beverage sector, making products with premium innovation twice as likely to succeed compared to "standard" products. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, 82 percent of the spirits sector's total revenue was from selling high-end, super-premium spirits brands.
Rapid change allows creative brands to build new value in the competitive beverage market. Companies can take advantage of new opportunities by innovating their customer experience.
You suggest we're in an era where product experience innovation will outperform brand building and advertising. What does that mean for beverage companies?
Scott Galloway, business professor and author of 'Post Corona,' argues that shifting away from advertising-funded media is making brand building harder. More fragmented media channels mean less brand power. Marketing campaigns and advertising aren't performing like they used to. Even brand purpose doesn't increase customer loyalty without an exceptional product experience. These changes signal a move from the brand age to the product age.
The product age holds a lot of potential for the beverage industry, where successful product innovation can level the playing field allowing new or smaller companies to compete with larger brands with established recognition. The more customers turn their focus from brands to products, the more room there is for positive, memorable product experiences to drive repeat purchases and create loyal customers.
How does sensory branding contribute to memorable customer experiences?
Our perceptions are our reality. We perceive the world through a mysterious force that can bypass our conscious awareness - our senses. The human retina sends messages to the brain at 10 million bits per second. Scents can trigger a nearly instantaneous emotional reaction.
In addition to helping customers, sensory cues can support perceptions of superior product delivery. For example, whisky is perceived as higher quality when served in a heavier glass. Products with heightened sensory profiles generate more memorable experiences. For example, many consumers would be able to identify the "pop" of an opening Snapple top or the scent of a nearby Cinnabon stand.
Sensory branding is about appealing directly to the senses through your brand, pack, and product innovation approach. Companies can engineer sensory characteristics into the customer experience that will amplify the brand idea - sometimes without the customer being consciously aware of it. An energy drink might work on modifying carbonation levels to elevate the brand's concept of "invigoration." Engaging consumers on a sensory level drives results. Multisensory marketing can boost campaign effectiveness by up to 70 percent when done effectively.
How can beverage brands succeed with sensory-focused innovation?
Effective sensory branding means the sounds, smells, taste, and touch are unique to the brand and recognized by the consumer as part of the brand. It's about creating more distinctive sensory assets and bringing them into a fluid, holistic user experience where every touchpoint links back to the central brand idea.
Disruptive sensory-led innovation can draw upon what psychologists call the Peak-End Rule, which states that people tend to remember the peak of an experience and how it ends. Exceptional peaks have the power to elevate our memory of an entire experience.
Brands can also focus on supercharging the signature parts of their sensory experience to reinforce the brand promise, making the whole experience more significant than the sum of its parts.
With beverages, It's not just the liquid that’s ripe for sensory innovation. As Nitro Pepsi illustrates, there is power in the perception of a product's packaging. Nitro Pepsi uses "nitro-tech" to deliver a dramatically different cola experience. The nitrogen-infused cola is softer than a soft drink – it's creamy and smooth with a mesmerizing cascade of tiny bubbles topped off by a frothy foam head.
The Nitro Pepsi can shifts the reference point towards premium beers rather than soft beverages. The peak moment comes immediately when the tab is cracked open. The Nitro can fires a distinctive, lower-pitched sound than a regular Pepsi – followed by an entertaining gush of air. The pour is quiet and smooth, delivering a visual spectacle similar to pouring a Guinness while feeding perceptions of a more refined, more adult cola experience. Nitro Pepsi is an example of product innovation that involves all five senses working together to deliver an intentional, differentiated, holistic customer experience designed to succeed in a multisensory world.
What does the future hold for sensory branding innovation in beverages?
Consumers will continue to seek elevated sensory experiences from beverages. As we re-surface after the pandemic, people value experiences more. WGSN, a leading consumer trends forecaster, predicts that Sensory Seekers will be a significant post-pandemic cohort. Sensory Seekers crave the experimental and the new and want to expand their world through food. They look to reject the status quo and embrace the discovery.
Jennifer Creevy at WGSN asserts, "people are looking to get back to living in the moment, and despite feeling constrained by the rising cost of living, they are looking for ways to experience awe and wonder."
As the 'experience economy' infiltrates beverages further, Sensory Seekers will look for more potent sensory encounters over more diverse channels. Ericsson predicts the "Internet of the Senses" will bring visual, audio, haptic, and other technologies together online to deliver sensory-focused communications in new and exciting ways.
Whether with packaging, marketing, or new product innovation, beverage brands must be ready to break convention and move from a culture of sensory optimization to strategic sensory innovation that pushes boundaries and elevates the brand experience.
Andrew Wardlaw is Chief Ideas Officer with the world’s leading consumer and sensory research agency, MMR Research. Previously, he has championed the consumer narrative at General Mills, Johnson & Johnson, and Ella’s Kitchen. At MMR, his mission is to inspire brands to create more impactful brand experiences by paying more attention to ‘heightened product theater.’
Want to learn more about sensory innovation?
Check out, Are you Making Impact? MMR’s latest series of live masterclasses on sensory research and CPG innovation to analyze the shift in consumer expectations, explore sensory-led innovation techniques, and see examples of 'best in world' product experiences.