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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.

When it comes to the role of color in achieving packaging success, it’s a bit like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Typically, color is the first thing shoppers take notice of when scanning supermarket shelves. This gives color an almost unrivaled ability to attract eyeballs and get the product into shopping trolleys. Color makes you more recognizable and thus easier for busy shoppers to find and buy you. However, color isn’t without its potential pitfalls; therefore, marketers should tread carefully when considering a particularly unique or striking color (which we’ll touch on again later).

Unlike any of the other 9 factors for packaging success, color is unique because it provides a kaleidoscope of opportunity for brands — playing an almost equally-important role across all three core effectiveness pillars (Captivate, Connect, Compel).

The psychology of color.

It’s first important to take a step back and delve a little deeper into the psychology of color. Biologically speaking, color has a direct line to our feelings and memory thanks to the limbic system in our brains. In layman’s terms, it’s sort of like a color-coded hotline that has the ability to trigger an almost endless range of emotional responses.

For example, warm colors like red and orange ignite excitement and energy (like a hot summer’s day), while cool colors such as blue and green instill a sense of calmness and relaxation (conjuring up images of serene oceans and lush forests). Given color has the ability to influence humans on such a primal level, it offers brands a myriad of opportunities for creating effective packaging designs — if harnessed successfully.

Is it as simple as picking a color that catches shoppers’ attention?

Navigating the jam-packed aisles of the supermarket could be likened in some ways to a round of speed dating, with every brand trying their best to out-do one another, draw shoppers’ gaze, and present themselves in the most appealing way possible. Therefore, it pays to be the peacock on shelf — avoiding getting lost amongst the flock of competitors.

Given how overwhelming a routine expedition to the supermarket can be, it’s unsurprising that color is one of the most effective levers at a marketers’ disposal for cueing busy shoppers.

Sometimes, choosing a color can be as simple as picking the boldest and brightest hue – like the eye-watering fluorescents of Vanish and Tide. When this is extrapolated across multiple shelf facings it creates a powerful brand block, acting as a visual signpost for busy shoppers. Having a color which unconsciously links to the brand speeds up recognition and makes buying decisions easy.

Choosing a color which juxtaposes with the wider category can also be an effective strategy. Take for example eco-friendly cleaning brand Method, whose vibrant and abstract designs stand out from the more traditional and conservative approaches adopted by category stalwarts.

Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Color - Vanish and Tide

How is color best deployed by up-and-coming brands?

When it comes to newcomer brands aiming to disrupt category conventions, the role of color becomes even more important. In the absence of established memory structures, new entrants have to work extra-hard to give busy shoppers — who are locked into ‘autopilot’ mode — a reason for veering off course. It's especially tricky in established categories to overcome the pattern-recognition machine that is the human brain, with shoppers trained to seek out what’s familiar.

U.K. cereal category disruptor, Surreal, has shown one way color can be effectively deployed by a newcomer brand. Ditching the category’s typically bold and loud color tropes, Surreal instead opted for calming pastels. This signaled to shoppers that Surreal wasn’t your regular cereal brand, while simultaneously reengaging younger consumers for whom the category has lost relevance. While sometimes necessary for a newcomer to take calculated risks, testing should be undertaken to ensure the choice of color will deliver on objectives and positively influence behavior.

Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Color - Surreal Cereal
Read the Surreal case study

Your color should harmonize with other visual elements.

A color we’re particularly fond of down at Cubery HQ (for obvious reasons!) is yellow, with it being shown to be particularly effective at catching the human eye. Its longer wavelength makes it easy to spot — even from great distances. But before you rush out and bulk-buy yellow ink cartridge, it’s not always just a case of going all-in on a single color. Rather, how complimentary the color is with other hues and visual elements is what ultimately results in packaging magic. This is often the difference between a design which cuts through the visual clutter at shelf and that which gets lost within it.

For example, the 2021 pack refresh of U.S. beer giant, Miller Genuine Draft, set out to utilize a much greater visual contrast of colors, with a black backdrop and red ‘sun’ replacing the incumbent’s predominantly gold aesthetic. This resulted in much greater visual engagement at shelf while having the added benefit of enhancing quality and taste perceptions.

Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Color - Miller Genuine Draft
Read the Miller Genuine Draft case study

Avoid getting lost in color.

There are, however, considerable risks associated with color choice that also need to be considered. Too many or too eclectic and you open the door to visual chaos, with clutter and distraction leading to confusion. Given the behavioral cues and heuristics consumers rely on for narrowing their shortlist at shelf, this almost always results in your brand being quickly eliminated from shoppers’ consideration sets.

The 2019 collaboration between Australian ice cream brands Drumstick x Messina successfully attracted shoppers’ attention through a bright pastel color block at shelf. However, the abstract explosion of colors didn’t strike a chord with the masses, leading to confusion over both the proposition and pack’s contents. This ultimately detracted from purchase consideration.

Color is also a frequently used mechanism to help shoppers navigate different variants within a product line. Along with these colors needing to be different enough to aid easy decision making, it’s also important to ensure this added visual device doesn’t clash with design elements deployed more widely across the product range (an issue we explore further in our uniformity chapter).

Read the Drumstick x Messina case study

Color can be used to disguise a product which lacks aesthetic appeal.

The brand team down at Mountain Dew are all-too-familiar with this predicament — given the product itself is an off-putting yellow liquid. In a clear plastic bottle it doesn’t exactly get taste buds racing, but when a green-tinge is applied it suddenly becomes cool, fun, and refreshing. Sustainability matters related to colored plastics aside (which saw Sprite recently ditch its green plastic), there’s no doubting which colored bottle sells more.

Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Color - MTN Dew

Color can powerfully influence the ideas seeded in shoppers’ minds about the product.

While it’s important to think about color from the perspective of something which will work to deliver on the first thing packaging must do at shelf (‘Captivate’ shoppers), what can’t be forgotten is that it plays an equally important role in ‘Compelling’ behavior. Color helps craft and amplify the desired associations and ideas in shoppers’ minds, ultimately motivating choice.

Bright colors can be effective at conveying excitement and happiness (being frequently adopted by energy drinks brands), while muted tones can instill a sense of calmness and relaxation (which makes them particularly suitable for beauty and skin care brands).

Humans also have more primal associations with color. With green conjuring ideas around nature, sustainability, and freshness, it’s frequently used by brands attempting to position themselves as healthy and wholesome (e.g., Whole Foods Market or The Body Shop). Black on the other hand cues perceptions of exclusivity and sophistication, with brands using it to convey a sense of premium quality and luxury (e.g., pretty much every high-end retailer in existence!). Then there’s the bold, brave, and energetic red, a mainstay of some of the world’s most iconic packaged goods brands such as Coca-Cola, Heinz, and Kit Kat. Brands using red are often seeking to convey passion and excitement.

Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Color - Coca-Cola, KitKat, Heinz Ketchup

Be mindful that color associations aren’t always universal across cultures and geographies.

For example, white symbolizes purity, elegance, and cleanliness in Western cultures. However, in some Eastern parts (such as China and Japan) it holds connotations with death and mourning. These nuances necessitate thorough testing prior to rolling out a packaging design across international borders.

Once you’ve identified your color, the last step is to roll up your sleeves and play the long game — developing it into an ownable branding property.

So, you’ve picked your color; it’s visually striking, conveys the brand’s desired personality, and there’s no chance you’ll be getting confused with competitors. Great! You’re well on your way to building a strong brand and crafting an effective packaging design.

Now’s the time to nurture and support it, sticking with it through thick and thin. If everything goes well, relentless consistency will eventually pay off and the color will develop into a ‘distinctive brand asset’. While familiar colors can help make your product instantly recognizable, its role isn’t just limited to helping busy shoppers easily find you. Equally important is building and activating memory structures around the brand, ultimately making purchase decisions a ‘no brainer’.

Not sure whether your pack’s colors are going to strike the right note with shoppers and positively impact behavior? Get in touch to speak to one of our consultants about our packaging testing solution. Expert-led, evidence-based insights — which don’t break the bank.

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