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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tactile Clues for Mainstream Consumers?

By Chris Hofstader

Our Norwegian friend, Lisa Yayla, owner and unofficial reference librarian of the Adaptive Graphics mailing list, a really interesting, low traffic discussion list hosted at Free Lists where members write about various tactile and audio adaptations to bring information to people with vision impairments, sent along a pointer to a very interesting article from Business Week.

As anyone who knows me or reads Blind Confidential with any regularity will know, I prefer technology transfer, bringing ideas from the mainstream to solve problems for people with disabilities, I, therefore, found this article about using tactile sensations for marketing of mainstream products very compelling.

Typically, my thoughts on adapting graphical information in a manner that will deliver a high level of semantic information to we blinks runs toward the very technical but this article describes a fairly low tech concept that can work for businesses, the average consumer and people with vision impairments alike.

The article, titled, "Feeling Your Way in a Global Market," speaks directly to the psychology of transmitting semantic information through the sense of touch as a global method of marketing products. The article specifically mentions the traditional Coca Cola bottle which "was designed approximately 90 years ago to satisfy the request of an American bottler for a soft-drink container that could be identified by touch even in the dark." A few years ago, Advertising Age ran an article on some of the world's most recognizable trademarks the list included both the Coca Cola and Tabasco bottles - items which can be identified purely by shape.

While reading the article from Business Week, I thought of other products that incorporate their trademark branding into the shape of their package. I can immediately tell the difference between Gulden's and Grey Poupin mustards by the shape of their jars, no matter whether I'm grasping the jumbo Catholic family size or the miniature container that comes with room service in hotels. The distinct square bottle of A1 sauce, the upright package of Pepperidge Farm cookies (I am partial to the Sausalito), Vlasic Pickles, Heinz Ketchup (or is it Catsup), Godiva Chocolates, and numerous other brands can be identified entirely by touch.

Even though I haven't had an alcoholic beverage in nearly a decade, I can still tell a Budweiser product from Miller, Mickey's Big Mouths from Sam Adams, a Molson from a Labatt's and so on. Finally, although I will probably never drive again, I can tell a Mercedes, BMW, Ford, Ferrari, Jaguar, Lincoln and other automobiles apart by their hood ornaments (I doubt though that this technique will serve one as an efficient way to find a car in a crowded parking lot).

Even some generic product packages, used by numerous businesses that sell nearly identical items, often describe their contents by the shape of their container. These include: the nearly universal shape of tuna cans, egg cartons, traditional milk bottles, most CDs, most shaving cream cans and a lot of others which are not springing to mind right now.

The article quotes a Norwegian author, Marieke de Mooij as asking the question, "We do not have one adequate global language by which we can reach global consumers. Because formal languages are culturally derived, the growth of global brands would seem to be inherently limited by the absence of any common global language. However, given the ability of the proximity senses - touch, taste, and scent - to establish bonds between consumers and brands at the sub-cultural level, could one of them - say, touch - potentially serve as the lingua franca of global branding?"

I can't quite imagine a world where products identified themselves by taste as I cannot imagine walking through the local grocery store and licking every item I come across. I also cannot think of a world described using the olfactory sense as I can't imagine how a Sears washer would smell differently from a Maytag. But, using more tactile clues a brand can distinguish itself both visually and by touch without the consumer either needing to see the package or read its label. I often fear that iconography will return our populations to illiteracy as, prior to the leap in the popularity of reading, businesses would represent themselves with a sign shaped in a manner that described their purpose; thus, a cobbler would have a boot shaped sign and a bar room would have a stein. But, more products that could be identified by touch would be a great convenience.

The article continues citing many references from anthropologists, marketing experts and even Karl Jung who wrote about the primitive psychology of the tactile sense. It also questions whether certain sensations would work more effectively in different cultures - a concept that seems not to have been researched yet.

The article continues by describing that the two industries that use tactile identifiers in their packages most often are fragrances and toiletries. They also point out that these two product categories are far less likely to be purchased online, hence, untouched, by consumers. Fragrances, something I enjoy quite a lot, always come in distinctively shaped glass bottles (ok, Brut and Aqua Velva come in plastic but they also smell like New Jersey). I can often guess when handed a bottle of cologne that I haven't previously touched whether it comes from Armani, Gucci, Davidov and a number of other designers based upon the general "feel" of the bottle. Armani products tend toward the sublime, Gucci toward the Bauhaus and Davidov products tend to feel "frosty" giving their entire product lines a similarity even when the overall shape changes from one item to another. The Business Week article suggests that fragrance companies do this to deliver a sense of luxury and, as the contents cost very little, a designer bottle is probably their largest cost center.

Toiletries, on the other hand, are not luxuries. According to the article, though, consumers like to touch them before making a purchasing decision. The author suggests that this relates to a subconscious tactile sensation rather than the overt in the luxury fragrances or chocolates.

A world with a common tactile language would make shopping and identifying items at home much simpler for we blind folks. Today, we can go through the tedium of creating Braille labels for different items but, unless the product is one to which we expect to return a number of times, the task is overly cumbersome (I always label a music CD or DVD but couldn't imagine labeling a soup can for instance). Various high tech products can help identify items as well. A talking bar code reader, like ScanTalker from Freedom Scientific, can come in handy but, compared to a collection of Braille labels, it requires far too much time to find a specific recording in a collection of thousands. Products with different shapes, though, like Gulden's and Godiva are quick and easy to distinguish from everything else.

The article mentions a lot of different techniques that can be done with modern materials to create distinct tactile identifiers. Apparently, all kinds of textures and, of course, shapes can be done with different types of plastics. I wonder, though, how subtle a change in texture can effectively communicate information in an identically shaped bottle.

One failure of tactile branding that I can think of that is not mentioned in the article is the problem of stacking shelves at Wal-Mart and bundling large quantities of oddly shaped objects shipped wholesale. Even the most radically contorted fragrance bottles ship to stores in regular shaped rectangular boxes. How would a world of oddly shaped groceries, low margin products to begin with, justify the cost of additional packaging and shipping charges?

Problems aside, I think the article is a very interesting read and recommend it to anyone interested in such things. I always find such things written for an entirely mainstream audience that can have an application in the blindness world to be exceptionally interesting. Whether the idea of a highly tactile future will come true or not will ever happen can be left to conjecture, the idea is definitely very cool and worthy of contemplation.

Blind Confidential serves as a commentary on issues regarding people with vision impairments. No topic is too controversial for this online resource.

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