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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.

If you’ve ever heard us speak on the topic of marketing effectiveness, you’ll have noticed the word ‘emotion’ mentioned with great regularity. But that of course won’t come as a surprise to most marketers, given pioneers such as Les Binet and Peter Field (of ‘The Long and the Short of it’ fame) have with great authority established that eliciting an emotional response is one of the most powerful mechanisms at a brand’s disposal for achieving profitable long-term growth.

For audio-visual communications the task is seemingly straightforward; numerous tactics can be employed by advertisers to elicit an emotional response, including humor, storytelling, and universal human truths.

However, is it possible for the good old humble packaging design to reach these same lofty heights? Can emotion be an effective mechanism for grabbing shoppers’ attention and arousing their curiosity? The answer to these questions is obviously of great importance given packaging is the last — and sometimes only — touchpoint consumers interact with. It therefore needs to work as hard as possible to get the product into shopping baskets.

While packaging design is a bit more limited in the tools at its disposal, eliciting an emotional response in a shopper setting is absolutely possible, and it should very much be at the forefront of marketers’ minds when undertaking a packaging redesign. From colors and visuals to messaging and stories, drawing people in through an emotional hook gives brands a fighting chance of stopping preoccupied shoppers in their tracks.

Emotion-evoking visuals provide greater ‘bang for your buck’ than explicit product information.

Whether it’s in the time-constrained, fast-paced supermarket environment or crowded e-commerce setting, the average shopper doesn’t absorb themselves in every last detail of a packaging design. Typically, at first glance, shoppers will gloss over the small print and secondary callouts such as nutritional information, provenance, and sustainability claims. That’s not to say these don’t play an important role; rather, the more ‘visually arresting’ nature of evocative product imagery is the hook which ultimately draws shoppers’ gaze and does the heavy lifting.

Learnings from academia (backed up through eye tracking research) continually shows that the time spent by shoppers deliberating at shelf for any given category is generally under 5 seconds: enough time to register colors, a visual, the logo/branding, and maybe a key claim — if you’re lucky. In this context, the adage 'a picture is worth a thousand words' is particularly pertinent.

Most of the information transmitted to the brain is visual based.

Emotion is a proxy for the ‘System 1’ way most shopping decisions are made — fast, instinctive, and largely unconscious. In this context, consumers spend little time and energy employing cognitive, ‘rational’ thinking. Instead, our feelings guide what we pay attention to and dictate what gets put in our shopping basket. Our lazy brain means a ‘good enough’ choice is often better than the added time, effort, and energy required to make the ‘right’ choice. The more marketers can utilize imagery to work with this (rather than against it through cognitive overload), the more likely the brand is to be seen and bought.

Visual elements, specifically imagery and color, are what attracts the lion’s share of shopper attention when navigating supermarket aisles. However, the impact of visuals isn’t just limited to capturing attention. Visual-based information is processed by the human brain much quicker and more easily than text, thus leading to faster decision-making and more intuitive buying choices.

Strong, evocative imagery is more effective at motivating behavior.

‘Seeing is believing’ is a phrase which gets thrown around a lot in the shopper marketing space, and it couldn’t be any truer for packaging design. Our experience has shown that visually depicting the product (ideally in a cooked or finished state if it’s food) is far more effective at motivating behavior than written claims or information. Or put more simply, visuals carry much more weight than written words.

Imagery should therefore be the primary mechanism for conveying functional benefits, lessening the load on written claims and ‘reasons to believe’ — which are often overlooked by shoppers, or worse still, detract from the design’s clarity and legibility.

People buy what they can see.

For many food and beverage products, visual imagery helps reinforce the most fundamental of needs — the promise that the product will taste good. For these products, reassurance often comes by way of mouth-watering imagery or emphasizing the freshness of ingredients. This was the tactic deployed by Häagen-Dazs for their 2021 refresh, with the new pack elevating the level of emphasis on the ‘realness’ of ingredients.

The now infamous debacle of Tropicana’s 2009 packaging redesign presents another golden example of the power of visuals. The original design depicted a straw placed directly into an orange, inferring that the product contained fresh and natural ingredients. But more than that, it tapped into the emotion and nostalgia associated with freshly squeezed orange juice. Its removal not only resulted in the loss of a powerful brand asset, but it also took away from the emotional consumption benefit. A double whammy if you like.

Where products have an objective of conveying taste appeal, imagery should deliberately attempt to whet appetites. Generally speaking, real photography works better than illustrations, as does being featured within a consumption shot.

Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Emotion - Haagen Dazs and Tropicana
Read the Häagen-Dazs case study

It’s not only food products that can benefit from evocative imagery.

Using stirring imagery as the main visual hook is a widely employed strategy across almost every product category. Take cleaning products for example, whose packaging often features bold and vibrant visuals to reflect the product formulation’s strength. Depictions of superhero characters, sparkling surfaces, and dirt being magically wiped away are subsequently the norm. This elicits feelings of confidence and inspiration that the product will get the job done to a satisfactory level.

Or toilet tissue packaging, which often features cute and cuddly animals. Along with warming hearts and becoming recognizable devices over time, this helps reinforce the product’s soft and gentle qualities. The most effective packaging is designed with consumers’ emotional need state in mind, with powerful imagery acting as a shortcut to these feelings.

Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Emotion - Cleaning products and toilet paper

Evocative imagery helps brands go beyond considered, rational reasons for purchase.

Branding and communications are far more effective when they go beyond considered, rational reasons for purchase and ladder up to an emotional end-promise. Ultimately, the use of evocative imagery and other visual elements are not only effective at drawing shoppers’ eyes at shelf, but they also have the added benefit of building a stronger emotional connection to the brand (ultimately fulfilling a higher need state).

For example, shampoo brands don’t feature imagery and messaging which talks to clean hair, but rather the confidence gained from having shiny, healthy, beautiful hair. Similarly, pet food packaging isn’t just about getting across that the product’s packed with nutrients. Rather, it’s the happy puppy looking at you with loving eyes that’s going to like you just that little bit more for feeding it delicious, high-quality food. Good boy!

Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Emotion - Hair products and pet food

Energy Drinks brands on the other hand don’t convey the boost you’ll get from drinking the product, but rather focus on the edgy, ‘extreme’ personality of the drinker. The perfect encapsulation of this is perhaps Liquid Death and their very bold, masculine, and even downright scary approach to the humble bottled/canned water category. Even heavy metal band members need a brand of water which gets who they are and the role hydration plays in their lives!

Lunchables’ 2022 redesign represents a simple but highly effective way that character development and emotion can be incorporated into packaging design. The new pack featured visuals of miniature characters interacting with the snack, reflecting how young children (the end consumer) will experience the product. Depicting these cute and playful characters embarking on an adventure not only boosted the new pack’s on-shelf presence, but it also amplified the fun and imagination associated with the consumption experience.

None of these deep emotional connections would’ve been possible through words alone, nor would the behavioral response have been as strong in their absence.

Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Emotion - Liquid Death and Lunchables
Read the Lunchables case study

However, be careful not to overstep the mark.

With this wealth of evidence and inspiration, it might be tempting for marketers to go out and hastily embellish their packing with evocative imagery! But, as with all marketing endeavors, a balanced and thoughtful approach is crucial for success.

While brand managers will naturally be keen to showcase the product in the best possible light, care should be taken to not overstep the mark. The best packaging counts for nothing if the product inside doesn’t deliver to the lofty expectations set by the design, which is one of the key reasons for why so many new products fail.

While ‘embellishing’ a little is an important part of good packaging design, be careful not to stretch the truth and claim things you can’t credibly deliver. A poor consumption/usage experience doesn’t just detract from repeat purchase and word of mouth, but it also has the potential to damage brand equity.

Considering the use of evocative imagery but not sure whether it’s going to resonate with shoppers and ultimately influence behavior? 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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