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The Packaging Effectiveness Playbook


We’ve taken the empirical evidence and established learnings from the behavioral sciences and combined it together with our decade of global testing experience to produce the Packaging Effectiveness Playbook: The 9 secrets to designing packaging that wins at shelf and unleashes shopper growth.

There’s a mistaken belief that shopper decisions take place in a thoughtful, considered, ‘rational’ System-2 way. This in-turn leads marketers to attempt cramming in as many benefits and claims onto their packaging as possible. But the evidence makes it clear that the opposite is in fact true, with shopping decisions largely based on emotion and intuition, driven by ‘good enough’ System-1 thinking. This means that, for any given packaged goods category, most shoppers will typically spend 3-5 seconds at shelf deciding what brand to put into their baskets.

Given shoppers only mentally process so much — and do so at a mostly unconscious level — it’s with this frame of reference that a packaging design’s clarity becomes of utmost importance. Like any form of communication, marketers must ensure a packaging design doesn’t make people work harder than necessary to understand the proposition and its key benefits. Therefore, the noble pursuit of creativity and originality should be tempered, ensuring these efforts don’t detract from the packaging’s ability to communicate with crystal-clear clarity.

Ensure key claims are singular and prominent.

Across all communication touchpoints, marketers should keep our ‘tennis ball’ analogy in mind. It goes like this: if I throw you a single tennis ball, you stand a reasonably good chance of catching it. But I throw you two, three, or more — at the same time — it’s highly likely you’ll drop them all.

In the same vein, cognitive-inducing, cluttered, disjointed, and overwhelming packaging designs will be relegated to the ‘too hard’ basket by busy shoppers, quickly bypassing them in favor of alternatives which don’t require exerting as much mental energy and effort. Packaging is at its best when it focuses on conveying only one key message, claim, or benefit, and avoids ambiguity at all costs.

Consider the classic Oreo pack with its deep blue layers, prominent brandmark, and signature cookie. Beyond these elements making the brand unmistakable (the importance of which we discuss in our familiarity chapter), the simple visual splash and ‘milk’s favorite cookie’ slogan reinforces the single-minded proposition that milk and Oreo are the perfect accompaniment. It’s also a reminder that prominent visuals will generally attract the majority of shoppers’ gaze, with people’s eyes spreading to adjoining elements afterward (and any superfluous information beyond this being largely ignored). Therefore, let product imagery do the ‘heavy lifting’, and don’t overcomplicate a packaging design with more information than necessary.

Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Clarity - Oreo packaging

Callouts can shine, but also blind.

Overloading a packaging design with a laundry list of claims, ‘violators’, and other callouts is a guaranteed way to have the complete opposite of the desired effect. Beyond showcasing the brand’s distinctive assets (e.g. colors, typography, logo), the product name, a key visual, and primary benefit, the largely unconscious way packaging is processed means most other superfluous details will be filtered out by shoppers.

Ironically, excess clutter being filtered out is still a better outcome than shoppers outright rejecting a brand because the packaging is overwhelming and confusing! Regardless, marketers should take active steps to avoid either outcome. As consumers embark on a journey toward finding products which help them achieve their ‘goals’, the human brain is wired to take the path of least resistance. Therefore, marketers must be disciplined and resist the urge to create unnecessary complexity and cognitive overload.

Thinking specifically about ‘violators’ (e.g. ‘new and improved!’ or ‘reformulated’), care should be taken around the number which are added to the pack, their size, and placement. Firstly, question whether they’re absolutely necessary, meaning that the information they carry should represent a key benefit or point of differentiation. Thorough testing should be undertaken to ensure they’re not placed in ‘dead spots’ (e.g. isolated from other elements in the top left or right, especially if the pack features a strong key visual which draws the majority of eye-gaze) or overshadowed by competing messaging. The color of a ‘violator’ should also be carefully considered, given it may result in a loss of clarity if it: 1. detracts/clashes with branding properties; or 2. cues perceptions which are at odds with the brand’s established positioning (e.g. cheap, tacky).

Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Clarity - Callouts

However, minimalism and oversimplification also isn’t the answer!

The quest for simplicity, particularly in an effort to position a brand as premium and luxurious, also mustn’t be taken to the nth degree. With the trend toward minimalism having well and truly hit saturation point over recent years, it’s led some brands to prioritize chic stylings ahead of emotional visuals and conveying important drivers of choice. This has resulted in shoppers being left with insufficient detail to make an informed decision, thus providing a reason to reject the brand entirely. Canada Dry’s 2022 refresh showed how easy it is to get this balance wrong.

Newman’s Own is a company with a strong purpose, committing to donate all its profits to children’s charities. Understandably, the brand wants to shout about it from the rooftops. However, first and foremost, shoppers are goal-driven; they’re solving problems and finding products which can help achieve their desired state. This means that when browsing the condiments aisle, shoppers are likely seeking a tasty, versatile, and gourmet addition for their salads.

Therefore, by dialing up the charitable focus in their 2022 overhaul, it took attention away from more important drivers of choice around taste, flavor, and quality. The learning? Secondary benefits can be important drivers of choice, particularly when they help differentiate the brand (which is especially important given little separates most brands in most categories from a functional standpoint). But ultimately, these shouldn’t come to the detriment of primary purchase motivators.

Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Clarity - Canada Dry and Newman's Own packaging
Read the Newman's Own case study

Adopt a clear information hierarchy.

The prioritization and ordering of information, whether it be written or visual, is a crucial aspect of clarity. Packaging designs aren’t consumed like a book where people (across most cultures) read from left to right. So, while there’s no set way eye-flow progresses across a pack, learnings from academia and eye tracking research confirms two principles generally hold true:

  1. If relevant, people’s gaze will be drawn to an impactful key visual and they will then digest nearby information radially from there.
  2. In the absence of a strong key visual, attention will flow from top to bottom.

Oregon-based Dairy Co-op Tillamook provide a simple yet pertinent example of how shopper gaze is often first drawn to a powerful key visual. Featuring evocative and appetizing imagery of the ice cream to seduce shoppers, it clearly conveys the sandwich proposition and associated flavor cues. The packaging design then features a prominent brandmark across the top and variant descriptor along the bottom, together with a color-coded background to further discriminate variants. That’s it — nothing more. This layout delivers all the key information required for shoppers to make a quick but informed purchase decision.

In the absence of a strong key visual to draw attention, eye-gaze will generally flow from top to bottom. This is exemplified by Santa Barbara-founded and up-and-coming premium ice cream manufacturer McConnell’s. Headed by the brand’s red brandmark contrasted against a plain white backdrop and black lid, the packaging features little more than a prominent product descriptor positioned directly underneath. While not quite eliciting the same ‘drool factor’ as Tillamook, it certainly leaves shoppers in little doubt as to the pack’s contents or brand behind it.

Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Clarity - Tillamook and  McConnells packaging

A final checklist for ensuring crystal-clear clarity.

When thinking about what information to include on your packaging and the best way to structure it, keep the following things in mind:

  • Prioritize the most important lead claim (i.e. the primary driver of choice) and dedicate sufficient ‘real estate’ to it.
  • While all packaging must convey basic hygiene factors (i.e. what the product is and what it does), powerful imagery has the ability to do it all in one (which we discuss at length in our emotion chapter). Therefore, prioritize evocative imagery over written claims.
  • If necessary to include multiple claims, group them together in close proximity. This will enable them to be more easily retrieved than if scattered haphazardly (which risks confusion).

Is your packaging design conveying the product proposition and its key benefits with crystal-clear clarity? Get in touch to speak to a consultant about our packaging testing solution. Expert-led, evidence-based insights — which don’t break the bank.

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