Packaging Design – A very specialist skill indeed!

Packaging: the fifth P of Marketing

Packaging design is a specialist niche within the graphic design/branding field…. Read More
Wil Lyons explains why what’s on the box can be just as important as what’s in the box.

Depending upon which survey you read, at least 66% and perhaps as much as 80% of all grocery purchase decisions are made at the point of sale – right there in the aisle as you fill your trolley! Not that one buys four times more than originally intended (although a whole set of supermarket layout strategies are designed to help achieve that objective too!). These findings relate to brand selection. Thus you may plan to purchase sausages, tea and ice cream, but there’s a wide selection of each and four times out of five you’ll decide exactly which brands to put in the trolley only while in the shopping situation.

You can probably relate to that if, like most people, you come out of the supermarket with rather more than you originally intended and if, like most people, you browse to a certain extent while shopping rather than rigidly sticking to a favourite brand of absolutely everything. One U.S. survey has shown that, on average, people spend 10 seconds viewing each product category and in that brief time only get to see some two thirds of the goods displayed in that category. So fully one third of what’s on the shelf does not even get noticed. Thus, after all that product development, all that media advertising, all that distribution and shelf positioning – most purchase decisions are made in that last few seconds. The customer’s hand hovers briefly, then picks. Mostly, it picks out the product that best projects from the shelf, standing out attractively from the surrounding clutter.

Although more comprehensive marketing models have largely superceded the well loved ‘Four P’s’ of marketing, they still strangely gloss over what always was and still remains arguably the most important P of all – Packaging, and specifically packaging design.

On the face of it, such startling survey findings as those quoted above might be calculated to lead manufacturers, distributors and marketing companies to scale back a little on the enormous expenditures undertaken to differentiate their product through tweaking the recipes or product features. One might expect them to cut back on inordinately expensive advertising campaigns. Why not target the elusive half that doesn’t work for starters! Conscious that most purchase decisions are made in the final few seconds, a concerted effort to win the packaging endgame is indicated.

While the aforementioned findings and similar ones from many surveys world-wide are quite well known, it has been my experience that, thanks to the scant attention paid to the power of packaging in marketing training and literature, most marketers and designers alike have a poorly formed view as to what constitutes effective packaging design.

Intelligently conceived and well-executed packaging design is not just about art or aesthetics. Its primary function is to sell the product by means of visually communicating not just one ‘notice me’ message, but up to several distinct messages which range from statements about positioning and likely price to statements about quality, status, dietary considerations, environmental correctness and more.

Intuitively, it is difficult to appreciate the capability of a simple piece of packaging to convey a complex set of messages in an instant. Due to the sophistication of the human eye, however, it is indeed possible to achieve this. At its simplest, you can look at a flat, two-dimensional representation of any object on paper and instantly ‘see’ the real world object. You can glance at a painting in an art gallery and have an instant gut reaction. If you look away immediately, even though you have only seen the painting for a second or two, you will be able to articulate not just one, but several reasons for your reaction.

Subconsciously, the same process is at work as we fill the shopping trolley. In a sweeping glance we survey, say, the pre-packed cheeses. Sometimes we will know exactly what we want and will seek it out and select it. Mostly though, we like a bit of variety and will quickly scan what’s on offer – just whatever catches our eye. A brightly coloured generic or ‘own brand’ may catch the eye because it is designed to do so. It is also designed to suggest basic, processed, perhaps not of the highest quality, economy price. That’s fair enough and, if it suits your taste and pocket, go for it. Sometimes the marketing line associated with these products is that they can be sold cheaper because money is saved on packaging. Not so many customers believe that, or the competing brands would be wiped out.

There are a lot of cheeses in that chiller cabinet and, if you don’t want the economy brand, you may spot another whose effective packaging design has managed to rise above the clutter and attract your attention. The quality wrapper in traditional looking ‘natural’ material, the upmarket name, classical design lines and labelling combine to say – at a glance – ‘quality product, natural, trustworthy company, suitable for putting out before guests, bio-degradable pack, expect to pay more!’

The ability to effectively achieve that immediate complex of signals through a piece of packaging design is a specialist niche skill within the graphic design field. Really good packaging designers are hard to come by. Once found, they are highly prized by customers who have discovered the difference good packaging design makes to their sales figures.

There are important functional aspects attaching to packaging design. It should enable the customer to understand what the product is, how to use it, how it looks (when displayed at its most attractive of course!). It should possess appropriate functionality as a container, be it a cellophane wrapper, box, can, bag or bottle.

Structural qualities may also be built into the packaging design in ways which can enhance brand equity and which, indeed, can harm brand equity if the design is poor. If a Coca Cola bottle was stripped of its cap and labelling, you would recognise it anyway because of its distinctive shape; same goes for Aqua Libra, or Bovril. The customer is not thinking about design per se, but is nevertheless taking it all in. You don’t really think about structural design features when trying to get to grips with one of those ill-conceived milk cartons that put the milk everywhere but in the glass. You just avoid them in future. The result is that the marketers may not realise they have a problem.

Packaging does not exist in a vacuum. Ultimately all the other P’s must be right. If the packaging gives the customers a message which is at odds with their actual experience of the product, then the cognitive dissonance so beloved of the textbook writers kicks in and all the design in the world won’t save you. On the other hand, if your product does not send loud, clear and appropriate signals to your target market segment from its position on the shelf, then all the product design and advertising in the world won’t save you. Marketers can get the edge that really matters if they pay due attention to the power of packaging.