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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.

"Be yourself; everyone else is taken."

These profound words remind us of the need to embrace our individuality and resist pressure to conform to the expectations of others. But this sentiment isn’t just relevant to personal growth and fulfillment: it’s equally applicable to brands. In terms of packaging design, being unique and original can be a highly effective strategy because it enables you to stand out from the crowd.

While we know color plays a key role in the battle for shopper attention, it’s important to note that ‘originality’ isn’t just about who can shout loudest. Being unique and original is about more than just bold and eye-catching colors alone.

A packaging design’s ‘originality’ can relate to its shape, structure, orientation, choice of materials, or even visual elements (e.g., an underused color/texture or clever way to present the product). However, regardless of the approach, the ultimate objective remains the same — to elevate the brand above the competitive clutter and increase its visibility at shelf.

A new, bold, and fresh look — that’s unlike any of your contemporaries — can break category conventions and interrupt shopping routines.

For disruptor brands, an original packaging structure can provide the tonic needed to take the fight up to category heavyweights. If everyone’s zigging, then changing up the form, structure, or orientation — and zagging — can be an effective way to draw shoppers in and get noticed. It also has the potential to develop into an ownable branding property over time.

Take Greenomic Deli’s clever ‘hair’ packaging, which brings a breath of fresh air and a little personality to an otherwise stagnant and ‘dry’ packaged pasta aisle. Or Crystal Head Vodka, with their skull shaped bottle designed “as a symbol of life, reflecting power and enlightenment.” Really, though, the brand’s goal was to stand out and catch shoppers off guard by turning category conventions on their head. It also worked to simultaneously carve out a distinct personality for the brand.

Importantly, to truly disrupt ingrained category buying patterns, a significant structural departure for a newcomer brand must be supported with a clear and compelling articulation of benefits on-pack.

Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Pasta and Vodka

Originality can also be an effective way to create perceived advantages, thus increasing the odds of being chosen.

You’ll increase your chances of getting into shopping carts if the novelty-factor of the packaging design also translates into meaningful product benefits. An example of this is JUST Water, who took the wasteful single-use plastic bottle and instead swapped it with a more eco-friendly Tetra Pak carton bottle. A unique spin for a mature category, it simultaneously offered something novel and advantageous versus competitors (particularly from an environmental standpoint, with a 74% reduction in carbon emissions compared to plastic bottles). Importantly, ensure added benefits are clearly communicated on-pack so shoppers are clear about why they should detour from their regular brand.

Alternatively, how can the product be made easier to use, carry, or store? The more practical the product (and the shape, size, or functionality of its physical container), the more likely people are to buy it.

A warning, however — if you shift too far from category norms and expectations it could also be a leap too far, creating confusion and subsequently dissuading purchase. A balance is therefore needed.

JUST Water packaging shape and the Heinz ketchup bottle

Originality plays an equally important role for established brands.

For mature brands there’s a constant gravitational pull toward the status quo. And for good reason — we talk at length about the most successful brands (i.e., those that endure over the long-term) being built through relentless consistency.

But there’s a constant balancing act required; the trade-off between recognizability and perceived innovativeness. The most enduring brands find new, fresh, and topical ways to stay relevant over time, while not sacrificing the brand’s roots (thus ensuring memory structures aren’t disrupted and the brand remains easily recognizable on shelf).

Changing up the status quo and ‘acting like a leader’ is necessary for brands to be seen as though they’re ‘moving with the times’ (by subliminally conveying that something new or innovative has taken place), thus avoiding the dreaded descent into ‘stale’ and ‘tired’ territory.

Even the most iconic packaging designs must be continually evolved.

Coca-Cola’s famous contour bottle shape was first patented over a century ago. It remains one of the most iconic designs in the soda category and intrinsically connects to the Coca-Cola company. While the overall structure hasn’t changed a whole lot since it was first introduced, it has undergone periodic updates over the years. Retaining the bottle’s core structure and recognizable hour-glass shape, it’s been tweaked and evolved over time to remain atop design trends and in-touch with the cultural zeitgeist.

Coca-Cola packaging over the years

Conversely, the loss of distinguishing features can have a sizeable impact on packaging standout and appeal.

It goes without saying at this point, but if you have an original packaging design — and elements that distinguish you from competitors — don’t take them for granted!

While we know a refresh can bring about lots of benefits, it’s risky if it comes at the expense of elements which uniquely identify you. Sanpellegrino have long been iconic for their hygiene foil lid. This luxurious addition to the can isn’t just powerful because it cues quality perceptions, but also because it provides the brand with an unmistakable point of difference.

But alas, in 2022, the brand dispensed with the foil lid as part of a wholesale refresh of its Tastefully Light range, which also included switching to a slimline can format. The result? Blending in more with the crowd. The loss of recognizable branding elements also meant consumers’ automatic ‘search and grab’ shopping routine was made just that little bit harder.

Sanpellegrino packaging refresh removing the foil lid
Read the Sanpellegrino case study

A change of packaging structure isn’t always a deliberate choice — it can also be forced upon brands.

A packaging redesign can sometimes be brought about by external influences. For instance, retailer mandates stipulating a certain orientation or format (e.g., Target vs. Walmart in the U.S. have very different visual merchandising requirements). If your pack has multiple facings to accommodate this (i.e., allowing it to be stocked both vertically and horizontally), resist the urge to communicate too much on these primary panels. If structural changes result in a loss of ‘real estate’ (which might’ve been used to convey important drivers of choice), be careful to avoid information overload — given the perils of clutter (read our clarity chapter to learn more).

Brands are increasingly using structural changes as a way to address growing demands for eco-friendliness.

Colgate toothpaste and Bürgen bread both pivoted recently toward more sustainability-oriented packaging. With Colgate introducing a fully recyclable pack for the first time, the change didn’t strictly necessitate any visual alterations. However, to ensure consumers were clear that something big and important had happened (i.e., fully capitalizing on this new added benefit), Colgate deliberately shook things up.

First, they switched to an upright pack, meaning that the product could now stand up at shelf and be stored in a way not previously possible (subsequently eliminating the need for secondary packaging). Secondly, they clearly spelt out the change on-pack so shoppers wouldn’t be able to miss it (the ‘chasing arrows’ recycling symbol — cleverly stylized as tiny toothpaste tubes — and ‘recycle me!’ call-out made it immediately clear that this was something new). This didn’t just provide a new added benefit (thus giving shoppers another reason for choosing the dental giant), but it also reinforced that a behavioral change was now required post purchase (i.e., putting the finished tube in the recycling bin, not the trash can).

It’s a reminder that packaging design isn’t just about getting the product bought, but it’s also about maximizing the user experience and increasing the odds of it getting bought again. Therefore, if a structural change necessitates a shift in behavior (either during or post usage), ensure it’s clearly called out. You otherwise risk creating friction and a poor user experience, ultimately detracting from repeat purchase.

Colgate packaging changes for sustainability
Read the Colgate case study

The aim of the packaging redesign game is to amplify new benefits while simultaneously managing the inevitable downsides.

‘Seeing is believing’ is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in the shopper marketing space, and it plays a crucial role in packaging design. In our emotion chapter we talk at length about product visuals being one of the first things that draws shoppers’ attention. So, what did Bürgen bread decide to do? They threw caution to the wind and went against the grain. Replacing the transparent plastic film wrap with a windowless Kraft paper bag exterior, gone was unfiltered access to the product. The result? Greater effectiveness. It’s a nice reminder that a single packaging element won’t often make or break a pack’s success; what’s more important is ensuring added benefits outweigh the inevitable drawbacks.

Along with the pursuit of sustainability, other opportunities to adopt a structural change could relate to addressing a new or currently unmet consumer need, advances in material technology, creating supply chain efficiencies, or adapting to changes in legal requirements. Crucially, if a structural change results in the addition of a meaningful benefit, ensure it’s clearly spelt out on-pack (and embellish it a little!)

Burgen bread packaging refresh to modernize and improve sustainability
Read the Bürgen case study

Bring consumers along for the journey when undertaking a significant design overhaul.

For established brands, when undergoing a significant structural overhaul, it’s important to alleviate any potential friction by providing shoppers with guidance through both on-pack and off-pack communications. This helps put shoppers’ minds at ease and minimizes the risk of any disruption to shopping routines. It goes without saying that brands must ensure what was strong about the previous pack isn’t lost, retaining as many of the brand’s distinctive visual properties as possible (thus minimizing the loss of familiarity).

If it’s simply a design change, use “violators” and other on-pack callouts to reassure potentially confused shoppers that it’s the same product they know and love. The aisle fin below was deployed by Newman’s Own to support their recent packaging overhaul, providing shoppers with an additional reminder at shelf that the change only related to visual elements (and the product itself was unchanged).

Newman's Own packaging refresh and aisle fin promotions
Read the Newman's Own case study

As always, in-store execution can make or break the success of a new packaging design.

If possible, deploy structural changes across the entire product line to ensure the brand’s visual block at shelf is maintained (see our chapter on uniformity where we explore this in further detail). The loss of consistency in the brand’s visual presence at shelf could make you less recognizable and result in buying decisions being made more difficult. The transition across a line or range should also happen in one foul swoop; step changes run the risk of creating confusion and detracting from ease of navigation.

Not sure whether your attempt to shake things up and break category conventions is going to help you stand out from the crowd and get noticed? 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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