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Hey brands – you have to fight for people’s attention!

South Africans, yes, spend more time ‘connected’ than any other nation, making it particularly difficult for manufacturers to break through with their newest grocery lines. Here we look at how innovation can ‘pop’ more and be remembered. Spoiler alert: being liked is no longer enough!

With every year that passes, life isn’t just speeding up, it’s filling up. How any of us manage to squeeze the distractions of daily life into our waking hours is nothing short of miraculous.

From endlessly scrolling social media to binge-watching entire TV seasons. From streaming any number of the 50 million songs on Spotify, to the ever-growing list of podcasts and audiobooks – which are all on the rise according to industry figures. Add in the long hours spent gaming and tentative hangouts in the Metaverse, and you can see why brand campaigns and product launches are becoming harder to land.

According to new figures from Exploding Topics who track this kind of thing, the average global citizen’s daily screen time – defined as screens connected to the internet – is 6 hours 58 minutes.

For the average American, it’s 7 hours 4 minutes. For South Africans, it’s a staggering 10 hours 46 minutes – including over five hours on smartphones alone and means our country has the highest screen time consumption of any nation in the world!

For brands fighting it out in the nation’s supermarkets, the quest for people’s attention is about as difficult as it gets.

One further impact of spending all this time on screen is that our brains are being conditioned to expect heightened stimulation in real life (IRL). It’s a plausible explanation for consumers growing appetite for new experiences, and the rise of sensory-led product innovation.

PepsiCo, makers of Lay’s Potato Chips in South Africa have acknowledged this, reporting that Gen Z is actively leaning into elevated sensory characteristics such as texture.  

For manufacturers in South Africa and beyond, the impact of the digital age means rethinking concepts so that they lead with the unexpected, and products that pop with amplified sensory theatre to satisfy people’s innate craving for stimulation.

Put succinctly, in 2023, product experiences must not only be liked, but they must also be entertaining sensorially.

All the world is a stage, and every company is competing for people’s time – and as the VP of IBM recently put it, ‘the last best experience that anyone has anywhere becomes the minimum expectation of an experience everyone has everywhere.’ Game on.

Sensory theatre

A recent development in sensory product theatre is Nitro Pepsi. Not yet available here, it has been described as the biggest disruption to the cola category in its 130-year history.

Sensory specialists at MMR Research Worldwide, a leading global sensory and consumer research firm that has offices in Durban, describe the product as ‘altogether more substantial’ noting that every sensory modality of the beverage has been enhanced.

South African spirit brand Six Dogs has brought added sensory theatre to the gin category with Blue – beautifully made with blue pea flower. When mixed with tonic, the beverage transforms into light pink.

A peak product moment comes early on when the tab is cracked open, firing a distinctive, lower-pitched sound compared to regular Pepsi. The pour is hard, but remarkably quiet and smooth. The visual effect is not unlike that of pouring a glass of Guinness.

Nitro Pepsi is a great example of an uprated category experience activated by sensory theatre.

Not all examples are as ambitious, but with South Africa’s private label grocery sector approaching 25% of total basket value sales, branded players must be more open to more disruptive innovation and more exciting sensory experiences that step up the fight.

Recently, Clover raised eyebrows with its Polony Cream Cheese aimed at vetkoek and kota lovers. While not pleasing all the people all the time, the product has brought a little shock value to a usually quiet category.

And in the world of snacking, manufacturers are increasingly adopting a more experimental approach to innovation, with brand mashups (like Simba and KFC), limited runs, and extreme flavours.

With private label no longer seen as a false economy by consumers in South Africa, Jacqui Horsley, MD at MMR, points to opportunities for brands to turn up the volume of the product experience.

“Increasingly, manufacturers are asking us to help identify where in the user experience can they excite more and beat the opposition,” she says.

“For companies engaged in product renovation, we’re often tasked with identifying what consumers love most about a product and finding ways at making this even more potent – more unmissable. The ambition is to give customers more to lose by trading down.”

Perceived reality

According to MMR, one of the most exciting opportunities in sensory-led product design is the ability to elevate consumers’ perceived reality of an experience. This is because the human senses are intimately entwined, and so information received by one sense can ‘bend’ how information is decoded by another.

For example, boosting initial aroma for a new RTD rooibos beverage will almost certainly drive-up perceptions of taste. Developing a reassuring ‘click’ sound for the opening and closing mechanism on a personal care product will most likely raise reported efficacy.

“If our manufacturers are to thrive in the experience economy, they would do well to develop products that are not just liked, but capable of delivering peak moments for consumers” asserts Jacqui, alluding to the work of psychologists who report that people tend to remember the peak of an experience and how the presence of a peak can lift residual memory of an entire experience.

With brands under pressure in South Africa in 2023, the message is that there is more we can do to activate sensory theatre – with the power to woo heavily distracted consumers in their direction – and in ways that they will actively remember.

Join the discussion! MMR will be hosting “Growth Makers: Africa” in Johannesburg on Tuesday March 7.

The free-to-attend initiative is aimed at FMCG professionals and aims to help counter the low attention economy and its impact on brand plans.

Seats are limited, so get registering here!

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