Five Principles for Effective Packaging Research

By Scott Young

Marketers are increasingly recognizing the influence of packaging in purchase decisions made at the point-of-sale. Consequently, many are now attempting to numerically measure the performance of packaging— and ultimately to gauge the return on investment (ROI) from their packaging initiatives.

Often, companies approach this challenge by applying the same research disciplines and metrics they use to assess advertising executions (copy testing). But because many factors make packaging (and point-of-sale marketing) quite different from advertising, this approach presents several challenges.

I’d like to offer five principles that will guide quantitative research studies in accurately gauging the impact of new packaging systems—and properly guiding critical business decisions.

1. Avoid side-by-side “beauty contests”

Packaging performance is about communication and persuasion (rather than aesthetics), but poorly designed packaging research studies can quickly descend into “art direction” rather than communication assessment.

When shoppers directly compare different packaging options on a side-by-side basis (current vs. proposed), it creates an unrealistic viewing scenario that they would rarely encounter in-store. As such, it often turns them into art directors (focused overly on aesthetics) or brand managers (over-emphasizing the differences between options), rather than shoppers deciding whether or not to buy a product.

Finding out that “80 percent prefer the new packaging over the old” has little connection to whether a packaging change will have any impact on sales.

For this reason, the single most important element of effective packaging research is a monadic study design, which simulates the introduction of a packaging system to see how it impacts shoppers’ attitudes and behaviors. In a monadic study design, each person sees/reacts to only one system—and findings are compared across “cells” (i.e. those who saw current packaging vs. those who saw proposed packaging). In other words, the evaluation of packaging systems is not about ascertaining what shoppers “prefer” or “like”; it is about gauging whether a new packaging system will influence their behavior.

2. Start on the shelf by gauging visibility and shop-ability

Packaging is unique because it “lives” on cluttered shelves, and has to work within the limited time (often only 10-20 seconds) that shoppers typically spend making purchase decisions. Given this reality, the first challenge of packaging is to be seen and to consistently create an opportunity to sell. Our PRS Eye-Tracking studies show that shoppers never see at least one-third of the brands displayed—and that being seen quickly (visually “pre-empting” competition) highly correlates with purchase.

The other side of the equation is shop-ability. For a smaller brand, it is a question of simply being found when a shopper approaches the category to look for it. For larger brands, the challenge is to facilitate shopping by quickly leading shoppers to their desired product and/or possibly driving an incremental purchase by highlighting a new or “trade-up” product. In either case, if shoppers do not find what they are looking for within 10-15 seconds, there is a good chance that they will grab another brand.

Unfortunately, there are few short-cuts to gauging shelf presence—and “quick and dirty” communication checks can be very misleading. Specifically, we’ve found that when packaging is shown in isolation (on a board or web screen), shoppers cannot accurately gauge its shelf visibility or shop-ability. In other words, packaging that is bold or unique may be described as “eye-catching,” but it will not necessarily break through shelf clutter. This is because visibility is largely a function of contrast in color or shape—and contrast is dependent upon which competitive packages are next to your brand on the shelf.

Gauging shelf presence via recall questioning can be equally misleading.  Fundamentally, recall is an advertising metric based on the idea that marketers need to implant a message that will be acted upon later. Obviously, this is far less relevant in a shopping context, where decisions are made in an instant and the challenge is to gain consideration, convey superiority and close the sale within a short time frame. On a more pragmatic level, recall is biased greatly by brand familiarity: If you show a shopper the detergent category, she is very likely to “guess” that Tide was there. Ultimately, there is no substitute for actually documenting what happens as shoppers encounter packaging within a shelf context (i.e. what do they see, actively consider, pick up and buy). It is important that major packaging decisions are guided by this knowledge, rather than what shoppers claim or what they recall.

3. Remember that the “norm” is competition

Packaging also differs from advertising in that it is typically positioned directly next to its primary competitors. In other words, packaging is rarely viewed or considered in isolation—and all communication is inherently on a relative or comparative basis (i.e. with your package in a person’s left hand and a competitive package in their right hand). In advertising, the emphasis is often on historical “norms” and absolute measures. For packaging, the most relevant norm is nearly always competition—and it is critical that a study gather directly comparable data regarding competitive packaging. In Europe and North America, we increasingly find that the store brand is a primary competitor.  Thus, the interviewing sequence must uncover a branded packaging system’s ability to differentiate and justify a price premium. As dominant retailers continue to expand across borders, measuring communication against store brands will inevitably become a more important global challenge.

Moreover, because shoppers typically spend only a few seconds actively comparing products, it is important to measure a packaging system’s ability to communicate on an immediate and visceral level. In our experience, we’ve found that effective packaging systems typically create a competitive advantage by “owning” a key dimension (such as efficacy, appetite appeal or ease-of-use) through a unique physical appearance and/or by clearly highlighting a differentiating message. In terms of messaging, PRS Eye-Tracking of labelviewing patterns clearly suggests that “less is more.” As additional messages are added to a package, they detract from readership and involvement with other messages. The most effective strategy is to identify one or two truly differentiating claims and ensure that they come across quickly and consistently.

4. Show “full” packages, not individual design elements

To guide later refinements and optimization, there is a natural desire to want to quantify the impact of specific packaging elements (color, logo, cap, etc.).

However, showing shoppers individual design elements (such as five different logo treatments)—or even asking them to react to individual design elements (i.e. rate the product visual, rate the logo, etc.) immediately places them in “art director” mode, rather than in a shopping mindset. This approach can result in misleading findings because it operates on the implicit assumption that all design elements are equally important in shaping reactions to the packaging. Even more important, isolating design elements almost inevitably leads to a “design by numbers” mentality, which rests on the misguided assumption that packaging can be optimized by combining the “winning” approach to each element (the favored logo, the favored color, the favored visual, the favored cap, etc.). Packaging simply can’t be reduced to such a regression analysis.

To guide refinements, it is best to gather reactions to packages (or packaging systems) in their totality—and then to probe (via open-ended questions) and uncover which specific design elements are driving these reactions. Alternatively, we can test different versions of a packaging system (i.e. one with the green logo vs. one with the yellow logo), in order to isolate the impact of a single element on shelf presence and communication.  The primary objective should be to document the strengths and limitations of a packaging system—and to identify issues and concerns (“this message is not coming across”). This information can then be brought back to the marketing and design professionals, who may be able to develop several potential solutions to address any shortcomings. This is a far more reliable approach than asking shoppers to offer solutions (i.e. “Make it bigger” or “Change the wording”).

5. Don’t rely on a single number

As marketers seek to project the return–on investment (ROI) from packaging changes, there is increasing pressure to generate a “single number” to assess each proposed packaging system and guide their final decisions. Understandably, some are turning to simulated shopping (from physical or virtual shelves) in order to document changes in shopping patterns and market share (“Did a new system drive more purchases?”).

While simulated shopping has value, we’ve found that a one-time shopping exercise captures only part of the story—and that few packaging changes meet the standard of immediately driving sales gains. That’s because packaging does not typically work in such a direct manner. The reality is that a packaging change will rarely override years of buying patterns and lead many competitive users to switch brands. Instead, a new look can and should lead non-buyers to “look twice” at your brand—and perhaps to give it a try if it is on special or, perhaps, if their brand is out-of-stock. In other words, a more realistic goal is to “enter the consideration set” as a viable alternative for non-users.

To provide a more comprehensive projection of ROI, packaging research should combine simulated shopping with a series of exercises that document performance in areas that link to long-term business building potential. These dimensions include shelf visibility, aesthetic appeal, competitive differentiation and personal relevance.  Multiple measures ensure that packaging research works not only as a “score sheet” (by identifying “winning” and “losing” designs) but also as a valuable tool that provides the diagnostic guidance needed to create even more effective packaging.

Pulling it all together: toward improved accountability and insight

Across these principles, several unifying themes emerge. First and foremost, the key to effective packaging research is to keep the consumer in a shopping context. When a shopper is at the shelf, considering different brands for purchase, she is most likely to provide accurate feedback. However, when a shopper is removed from this context, she often leaves behind the shopping mindset and, instead, takes on an art director’s aesthetic mentality, which often leads to misleading research findings.

Second, it is necessary to recognize and account for the uniqueness of packaging, both in research methodology and its analysis. Specifically, the clutter of the shelf environment, the presence of direct competitors and the immediacy of the purchase decision make packaging quite different from advertising—and suggest that advertising research principles and metrics shouldn’t be “transplanted” into packaging studies.

Finally, despite the need for accountability and the allure of a “single number,” it is still critical to conduct and analyze packaging research in a diagnostic manner, which provides the designers with the insight to solve problems and to further fuel creativity, rather than destroy it. Ultimately, companies that invest in a more comprehensive approach to packaging research will be rewarded with more accurate ROI and business projections—and with the insight to create more effective packaging systems that consistently “win at retail.”



Follow Us

PRS Insights

Search Insights


clear search