At the beginning of the 20th century, Italian companies often deployed a simple visual shorthand to suggest that their products were of high quality: they slapped a red star on the label. One such company was San Pellegrino. Founded in northern Italy in 1899, today it produces more than 1bn bottles of sparkling water a year, each one covered in red stars. “There’s no real justification for it,” says Clement Vachon, head of international relations at San Pellegrino: the stars are there simply because they always have been. Yet they may offer a subliminal advantage over the competition.
Over the last decade, psychologists at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University, led by Professor Charles Spence, have been investigating the relationship between visual stimuli and taste. In a typical study, researchers created a range of fictitious new drinks-brand designs, where elements such as shape and colour were systematically varied. They asked volunteers to classify the designs in terms of the attributes they expected each drink to have – whether, for instance, they imagined one might be sweet or sour, fizzy or still.
Preliminary research identified what designs the participants associated with particular tastes. Then people were asked to sample an unfamiliar mix of sweet, sour, fizzy and still fruit juices from different types of packaging, to find out whether the expectations set by the bottle influenced how they experienced an unfamiliar product. The researchers concluded that people tend to associate angular shapes with carbonated and bitter-tasting food and drink, and assume that rounder shapes will carry still water or sweet drinks.
These associations seem like a form of synaesthesia, where the senses are crossed in surprising ways. When Duke Ellington heard Johnny Hodges, a saxophonist, play a G, he experienced the sound as a “light blue satin”. But whereas synaesthetic associations differ from person to person, the links between shapes and tastes seem consistent. That’s where San Pellegrino may be on to a winner. The researchers at Oxford found that incorporating a star into a design helps connote the arousing experience of drinking carbonated water. If, on the other hand, you’re flogging a sweet drink, rounded shapes are better: think of the red circle in the 7Up logo or the flowing typeface of Coca-Cola.
Most consumers don’t realise that packaging can have such an effect on them. But next time you go to the drinks aisle at the supermarket, open your eyes and you’ll see stars.•