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Appealing To the Senses
Aromatic Packaging Is Just the Start Of Futuristic Sales Ploys

By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 19, 2006; F01

AriZona iced tea has spent millions of dollars creating its eye-catching packaging. It has also spent millions of dollars developing different flavors of tea.

Now the company is testing a way to bring the two together by embedding appealing aromas in the packaging itself -- specifically, inside the cap -- to improve the taste of its beverages and the drinker's experience.

AriZona Beverage Co. is at the forefront of a new wave of high-tech packaging in consumer products. As people increasingly ignore commercials and spread their attention across many types of media, traditional television, radio and print advertising is losing effectiveness, and marketers are looking for new ways to get noticed.

One promising way appears to be targeting as many of the five senses as possible via the package itself.

Soon, just strolling the aisles at a grocery, drug or big-box store could cause sensory overload. Manufacturers are spending more to design packages that blink, beep, yell and waft scents at shoppers. Though some companies have created paper-thin, flexible video displays and tiny speakers, aroma seems to be the biggest payoff in packaging, thanks to its powerful link to memory and emotion.

Companies are incorporating scents directly into plastic bags and bottles, so a consumer can smell shampoo or chocolate without opening the top. Newly developed scented ink, meanwhile, is allowing ads and catalogues to capture a consumer's attention with an unsuspecting whiff, using a technology beyond your father's scratch-'n'-sniff.

"Consumers have to be given a good reason to buy a product," said Chris Lyons, publisher of Package Design Magazine. "Certainly, knowing or having a sense of what it smells like can help that."

Other packaging innovations are underway, such as labels that change color to indicate ripeness of fruit or a temperature change. A disposable, self-heating cup (introduced last year with a line of hot coffee beverages by famed chef Wolfgang Puck) will soon be available with soups, tea and hot chocolate.

Coming down the road are computer chips embedded in packaging that can communicate with a shopper's PDA or cell phone to give additional product information. Miniature sound systems on boxes and bottles will give people spoken tips and ideas. And German electronics giant Siemens AG has developed a flat electronic display that can be applied to boxes like a label, allowing for tiny lights, miniature games or flashing messages.

"The idea behind it is to print on cereal boxes, for example, or anything like that, so when you go to the supermarket, your kids see some kind of blinking display. It catches your attention," said Till Moor, a spokesman for Siemens in Munich. He said the company's first customer for the technology -- which is unidentified for competitive reasons -- will start using it next year, and more widespread consumer applications will be seen in 2008.

The innovations are not without opposition. Some consumers bristle at the addition of aromas to printed material, though scented ink is far more subtle and less invasive than a typical perfume ad in a magazine.

And there are groups with privacy concerns trying to prevent manufacturers from using radio frequency identification technology (RFID), or what they call "spychips." Tiny RFID chips on packaging receive and send radio transmissions that can be used to track packages and, opponents say, consumers as well.

The move toward high-tech packaging is part of an overall retooling to make it more attractive, functional and consumer-friendly -- think easy-to-open plastic coffee canisters. And manufacturers are redesigning their products more frequently -- about every 18 months now, versus the old standard of once every four years.

But bigger, flashier changes are around the corner.

ScentSational Technologies of Jenkintown, Pa., has developed a process for embedding scents in plastic as it is being molded using food-grade aromas approved by the Food and Drug Administration. But while aromas in packaged foods can break down and start to smell different, the ones ScentSational uses stay fresh because the molecules are, essentially, encased in plastic, the company said. The plastic gradually gives off aroma "volatiles" that last about a month and give scent whatever food or liquid is nearby.

The company is working with various consumer product manufacturers, such as AriZona iced tea, executives said. Several shampoo, lotion and cosmetics makers are using ScentSational technology to create bottles that allow a consumer to smell the product by just sniffing the plastic top. ScentSational chief executive Barry Edelstein said about 90 percent of consumers shopping for a new shampoo open the top and take a whiff.

ScentSational is also developing scented caps for bottled-water companies, which it claims creates the sense of drinking flavored water even when the water is plain. It has created chocolate-scented tops for sippy cups, giving regular milk the illusion of being chocolate milk. Another project takes a bag of cookies and adds a plastic lining permeated with the smell of cookies coming out of the oven.

"You open that up, you're getting that fresh cookie aroma," Edelstein said.

ScentSational will not reveal the names of brands or companies it is working with for competitive reasons. Edelstein said the company has deals with "a majority of the leading food and beverage companies out there" and will have several product introductions this year.

"It's not that they're trying to be secretive -- they want to maintain a competitive advantage," said the company's chief technology officer, Steven Landau. "They don't want to give away the secret sauce."

Procter & Gamble Co. is a good example. "We're certainly aware of the importance of scent and aroma to the brand experience, and we are certainly aware of these technologies," said company spokesman Terry Loftus. "But, for competitive reasons, we don't want to discuss if or how we might use these technologies in the future."

Loftus did say, however, that P&G is putting more emphasis on package design and trying to get its products noticed in the store. That's become more important, Loftus said, with so many new products coming to market.

Olfactory scientists say using scent is smart marketing. Of all the human senses, smell has the most direct pathway to the emotional center of the brain.

"The olfactory system, anatomically, is right in the middle of the part of the brain that's very important for memory," said Donald A. Wilson, a neurobiologist who studies olfaction at the University of Oklahoma. "There are strong neural connections between the two."

The nose is also closely associated with the autonomic nervous system, he said, so scents can easily trigger subconscious physical responses, even when the aroma is so slight it's hardly noticeable.

"Odors can change your heart rate; odors can cause you to start salivating," he said. "You know that smell means cookies, and there's a very short link from the parts of the brain that control those things. "

That may help explain why Yankee Candle Co. is so excited about the scented ink made by New York's Scentisphere. It hit the market in 2004 but is only now gaining wider use. Yankee Candle catalogues with the scented ink have contributed to a sales increase of more than 20 percent.

"That is significant -- if you can get a 10 percent increase in sales on something like this, you're doing very well," said Dana Springfield, general manager of consumer direct at Yankee Candle. The aroma-infused ink raised printing costs by 8 percent in the current catalogue, which used eight scents, so "the math works out quite nicely," Springfield said.

Other high-tech packaging efforts often aim to educate or instruct consumers. On some packages, for example, the pear industry has started using a label called RipeSense that changes color to show consumers when pears are ready to be eaten. It's necessary, the company says, because people check for ripeness by squeezing the delicate fruit, which damages it. More labels are coming soon for kiwis, avocados and fruit with pits. Other companies are developing labels for meat and seafood that will change color if the package wasn't stored at the right temperature at any point along the delivery chain.

Even with such innovations, though, it can be difficult to get consumers to notice the technological advances in packaging. Bob Groux, managing partner of WP Beverage Partners, which makes the Wolfgang Puck self-heating coffee beverages, said marketing is the biggest challenge.

"The pluses of the product are phenomenal. The challenge of the product is [that] educating the consumer costs lots and lots of money," Groux said. He said he's spent millions of dollars promoting the new line of drinks.

So although mothers may hate the idea of more bells and whistles attracting their kids' attention to certain products in supermarkets, for a company such as Siemens, consumer resistance is a distant consideration.

Since unveiling its new, relatively inexpensive flat electronic display technology in December, Siemens has been contacted by huge consumer-products companies and publishing giants that want to use it on magazines, said innovation manager Axel Gerlt.

"It's futuristic, but it's realistic," he said. "It's both."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company