6 rules for packaging research

Advertising is no longer the determinant of choice – perhaps it never has been.

Back in the day, TV advertising share of voice was dominated by grocery brands. That’s what marketing was all about.  Whilst the Unilevers and P&Gs are still close to the top of the list, you now have to go down as far as 47th to find an individual food brand, Coca Cola, just behind Co-Op, in a list dominated by service brands and retailers. Right there is the rub. In many areas of food shopping retailers have become preeminent, fresh food being the most obvious example, but also luxury and what you might call speciality ingredients are dominated by own label, as is value.

In some categories, the retailers aren’t averse to mimicking the brand leaders, in many others, they have run off with the ball altogether. It would be wrong to think that in these sectors they are reliant on a branded precedent. What they have done with enormous success is to use packaging design to sell the product.

Without any other support, apart from some POS (point of sale) and of course an excellent product, the retailers understand that you have to make the pack do all the work.

It’s also worth noting that in the past there was limited choice. The brands were slugging it out on the TV and if they were successful, consumers would buy the brand leaders without giving it much thought, on autopilot.  Now we are offered almost unlimited choice and we may frequently be seeing products and brands for the first time. Like the autopilot, we make snap decisions about what to buy, but where I differ from the Ehrenburg Bass philosophy is that, like judging people, we have a remarkable capacity to weigh up different alternatives based on very little information.

As a result, here are 6 principles to follow:

The Whole Impression
When people look at a pack on shelf they take in an overall impression. It includes the context the shape and overall look, as well as imagery and copy. It is wrong to separate out the elements in order to understand what is working. It is the general impression that forms the basis of whether it’s right for a given consumer.

Pictures are more important than words
People don’t read packs, certainly not in any predetermined order. The process of looking is more to pick up signals that allow us to quickly pigeonhole, and in this respect imagery is more powerful than words.

Consumers aren’t art directors
There’s a tendency for respondents in qualitative research to start with an opinion, perhaps a negative one and to move on to attempting to resolve it ‘if they were to move this over there and change the colour’ etc. It’s important to keep the respondents on what’s relevant to them and avoid at all costs a beauty parade.

Respondents can’t tell you what they want
Being invited to comment on design is an unusual process. It’s important to provide methodologies and stimulus that help respondents articulate what they feel, especially visual and projective techniques.

Design influence is mostly emotional and subconscious
Decision making about design is a feeling process. It mostly goes on without ever being interrogated. The Daniel Kahneman system explains the idea beautifully being made up of presumptions, pattern recognition, generalisation and so on. When asked about it, people show a not surprising desire to rationalise what is going on. This kind of post-rationalising is unhelpful when it comes to design. You need to get under the skin.

Design should match the positioning
Mostly people buy within a repertoire. They are looking to be stimulated. This is where design can be at its most influential, using the store environment to prompt new choices or slight variations on a current choice. It’s entirely down to the pack. Here is the opportunity to reflect all that we know about consumer needs and desires into one visual whole. A big logo and not much else may impress the sales team but it doesn’t say much about how the brand is going to fit into my life. 

So the rules of engagement are different and relying on the persuasion to buy a brand going on elsewhere than either in real or virtual stores, is no longer the case, quite simply the pack is the primary salesman. These rules need an entirely different approach to both design and the way we research packs with consumers.

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