How packaging gives Apple’s buyers a sensory experience that reinforces brand

‘Sensory experience.’ It’s not typically the first thing we think of when we think about marketing strategy.

Yet sensory experience is the first experience customers have with your product: how the package looks. That sensory experience continues as they touch it and look at the images and text. The label may help customers decide whether to buy, but if the packaging doesn’t engage them, chances are they’re not going to buy.

Apple is an acknowledged master at creating an iconic sensory experience that communicates its brand without any words or even a logo. Even a five year-old can pick out an iPhone from a retail display.

That’s because Apple makes its packaging as artistic and visually appealing as the device inside.

Every corner of the box is clean.

The color is an elegant, minimalist white.

Every part of the packaging is designed to be clean, simple and direct. The design is simple in a world of clutter and constant sensory over-stimulation. Apple’s iconic sensory experience is the literal expression of the absence of eye-grabbing colors and images – white. And that minimalism is exactly the thing that attracts the eye.

That sensory association is reinforced by what’s inside the box: something elegantly presented, cleanly designed and straightforward to use. Sure, you’ve researched the device’s specs and read reviews from dozens of other users. But the experience of buying anything with an Apple logo comes with a visual and emotional response – a sensory experience.

This is Mor, our machine learning software engineer, opening her brand new MacBook.

Apple packaging design

We all gathered around to share that un-packaging moment.

How does Apple create that experience? By giving as much attention to the ‘small stuff’ as they do the big stuff. The inexpensive box gets as much attention as the expensive devices inside.

To ensure that opening the box is a unique experience, Apple employs a designer whose sole job is packaging. The company also has a designer is devoted to opening hundreds of prototype boxes. That designer creates and tests endless versions of box shape, angles and tapes. This isn’t just about esthetics. It’s also about a package that’s easy for customers to open, easy for them to identify the component parts, and easy for them to start using. It’s a process that’s focused on the customer – not on, say, preventing shoplifting.

In His book, “inside Apple,” Adam Lashinsky’s says: “To fully grasp how seriously Apple executives sweat the small stuff, consider this: For months, a packaging designer was holed up in this room performing the most mundane of tasks – opening boxes.”

The end result of this focus is that wonderful experience of unpacking an Apple product.

Apple unifies the design elements of the device with the packaging design into a ‘whole’ experience that is greater than the sum of its parts – Apple’s “gestalt.” That experience, in turn, reinforces the Apple brand.

Apple packaging designA 2014 study, “Impact of Product Packaging in Consumers’ Buying Behavior,” published in the European Journal of Scientific Research describes this response: “…the packaging is perceived to be part of the product and it can be difficult for consumers to separate the two (the concept of gestalt).”

The same study also found that package color has the single biggest impact on buying behavior, followed by package design innovation and then packaging quality.

Visibility is directly connected to purchase levels, reports Scott Young at Perception Research Services (PRS). It’s a key reason 80 percent of new retail products fail. Visual contrast to other brands is the key, says Scott. “As a rule of thumb, color is the strongest tool – and the smaller the brand, the more important it is to ‘own a color’ on shelf. While there is no ‘magic color’ for creating contrast, we can say that the best solutions often involve ‘breaking the rules’ (i.e. visual norms) of the category. Wrigley’s 5 chewing gum is an excellent example, as it broke from category norms (of colorful packaging suggestive of flavor) to create contrast and “own” the color black with the gum display.

Well-designed packaging also gives a brand greater reach than advertising because, unlike advertising, the sensory response to the packaging is recalled every time the product is used – as our earlier example of opening a new Apple MacBook illustrates.

PRS also found that “less is more” when it comes to text on the package, shown in eye-tracking studies. Shoppers look at a package about 5 seconds deciding whether to pick it up. More messages on the package mean more messages competing for the same 5 seconds of attention – making it less likely any one message will get through to shoppers. Again, Apple is the master here, showing just the essentials on the box and avoiding clutter that will detract from the brand.

To communicate how Microsoft needed to re-think its packaging, the company’s packaging team made a humorous video showing how Microsoft would design the iPod packaging – and in the course of it erasing the signature design.

So how do you apply the package design principles that have been so effective for Apple’s brand to build your brand? Here are 4 tips:

  1. Design from the outside in. Put package design at the top of the priority list, not at the bottom. Spend as much time unpacking your boxes as you do figuring out how to pack them.
  2. Break the rules. Create a conventional package design and make a list of its characteristics. Then make a list of the opposites of those characteristics and experiment with using them in your package design. Use color in uncharacteristic ways – resist visual clichés such as using black to convey “high tech” or unbleached cardboard to communicate “natural,” says Ted Mininni of packaging and licensing design firm Design Force.
  3. After you decide what could go on the box, start taking things take off. Focus on differentiators that set your brand apart.
  4. Imitate the best. Creative Bloq has an extensive list of packaging design resources to get your creative juices running.