Dr. Charles Spence: The Psychologist of Packaging

Through His Research into Consumer Preference, Dr. Charles Spence Aims to Elevate the Consumption Experience

Have you ever wondered if the color of a label on a beer bottle can affect what people think of its taste? If the beer’s label were, say, brown, would people claim it tasted one way, but then, if the same beer were put in a bottle with a green label, would people claim it tasted different? Surely something as innocuous as a label’s color cannot have an impact on our perception of the product contained within, right? We’re not so gullible, we’re consumers!

Dr. Charles Spence headshot
Dr. Charles Spence

If you think your sensibilities are so highly evolved that they cannot be influenced by something like a label’s color, you should have a word with Dr. Charles Spence, because he’s spent the past 15 years proving otherwise.

“It’s not legitimate to separate product from pack. It’s a total experience you’re after,” Charles says. “It’s an area more important than most people realize, yet you go to company after company after company, and packaging development is outsourced. The number of times you hear, ‘the packaging and product meet on the shelf,’ is too great. You have to consider it from the beginning.”

Designing the Doctor

Charles is an experimental psychologist by education but has always had an eye to… our eyes, and our ears and noses, and the senses we get from them. Specifically, he says he has always been interested in trying to take the latest insights about how the brain works and apply them to the design of everyday things.

Over the 20 years he’s been teaching at the University of Oxford, that has taken him through the design of warning signals for cars, the structuring of productive office environments and interface design. Since shortly after the turn of the century, his work has increasingly focused on the design of consumer packaged goods.

His first big foray into that universe was in 2003-2004, working with Unilever on its Axe brand, analyzing the sound made by aerosol spray cans and the texture of deodorant sticks, and how they influenced a consumer’s experience with the products. In the years since, his focus has shifted to packaging design, mostly in the food and beverage space. That’s included everything from feel, texture, weight, shape, sound, coloring, imaging, the logos and typeface—even some “out there” stuff like olfactory and edible packaging.

Dr. Charles Spence visual element alignment image
In one study, Charles allowed participants to rotate a visual element (the singular piece of dried pasta at the center of a box, and the triangle at the center of a wine label) to their preferred orientation. The results were published in 2015 under the title, “Evaluating the Orientation of Design Elements in Product Packaging Using an Online Orientation Task.”

“It’s been a missed opportunity—there’s been virtually no psychology of packaging study,” he says. “It’s just ‘the stuff that stuff comes in!’ But you walk down a grocery aisle, it’s one of the most visually dense areas you’ll ever come across.”

Common Sense(s)

“Visually” is how Charles Spence says packaging has been thought about for decades, and that makes sense, as he admits there isn’t much to be done in the way of shelf appeal apart from visual differentiation. His research has focused on “the experience of after a package is picked up,” and assuming a consumer has not grabbed the item in question and immediately ingested it, that leaves smell, touch and sound.

Of those, Charles says the lack of attention given to a package’s sound is surprising. “It is one of our dominant senses, and you think about how much money is invested in differentiating a package visually, but so little is spent on sonic differentiation,” he muses. What was previously a focus of marketing—namely through the catchy jingles in advertising—has now made its way to the package itself.

“We’re all Pavlov’s dogs—we hear the sound and we start salivating,” Charles says, recalling the Russian physiologist who conditioned dogs to salivate upon hearing a bell, associating the ringing sound with being fed. “Can we make that sound more unique or differentiating?”

In the food and beverage market, in which Charles estimates about one-third of products is consumed directly from its packaging, the attention to senses is even more important. Their study is crucial to developing signature sensory features, distinctive attributes that could be branded so a consumer, even with their eyes closed, could tell what a package is by its weight, or how it feels, or what it sounds like. But to truly accomplish that, a package cannot be an afterthought. It cannot be designed and then have its effect on consumers studied; it must be designed from the ground up with that data.