Please upgrade your browser.

We use cookies to improve your experience on our website. By continuing to browse this website, you agree to our use of cookies. For more information, please refer to our privacy policy.

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.

Of the approximately 1.2 million plastic bottles used globally every minute, 91% aren’t recycled. Given this alarming statistic, it’s surprising then that many brands are still getting caught off guard by rapidly shifting consumer sentiment toward sustainability. Given waste is arguably the most conspicuous indicator of the environmental harm being caused by humans, it has spurred rising consumer momentum toward adopting more responsible packaging choices. In fact, McKinsey & Company estimate that over half of American shoppers are ‘highly concerned’ about the environmental impact of packaging wastage.

Sustainability efforts touch nearly every aspect of a company’s footprint: ingredient sourcing, manufacturing processes, supply chain optimization, the packaging (reduce, reuse, refill, recycle), through to the communication of these initiatives. This means there’s no shortage of things to consider when companies are looking to fulfill their corporate social responsibility commitments.

But does sustainability influence brand choice? Ask consumers then observe their behavior and what they end up doing often comes down to the flip of a coin. That’s because of the ‘say-do’ gap, which invariably leads to actual behavior sitting somewhere halfway between the two. What can brands do to improve their odds of success?

Good for the planet… but also good for the consumer?

The challenge with all sustainability-related efforts is that the ‘better’ option for the environment often doesn’t, at first glance, seem like the better option to the consumer. Efforts to address sustainability typically result in the creation of perceived downsides or barriers to purchase. For example, sustainable packaging options aren’t always the ‘optimal’ material for the job, creating a ‘double whammy’ of sorts — increased costs (a burden ultimately carried by the shopper) combined with diminished perceptions of taste, freshness, convenience, etc. Without any further context to reframe this problem for shoppers, it often makes for a pill too bitter to swallow.

However, doing absolutely nothing runs the risk of even graver consequences; not only because sustainability-related matters are gradually becoming ‘table stakes’ for shoppers, but also from an ethical standpoint. Increasingly, a torch is being shined on brands actively promoting lofty purposes but whose behavior doesn’t carry through on these promises.

While it’s inevitable that a sustainability-led change will result in barriers to purchase, a marketer’s job is to reframe this problem for shoppers and alleviate as much friction as possible. Through communication and education around the benefits of a more sustainability-geared proposition, the cost equation can be turned on its head. Successfully executed and ‘unacceptable downsides’ can be transformed into ‘acceptable downsides’, and in some cases the notion that consumers were even needing to make a compromise can be eliminated entirely.

More sustainable packaging can, for example, offer safer usage/consumption, greater convenience, or increased cost savings. Alternatively, it might just instill people with a warm feeling inside knowing they’re making a positive contribution to the planet. In a nutshell, brands must prioritize claims that can help justify the (likely) higher price versus competitors that aren’t ‘hamstrung’ by offering similarly eco-friendly credentials.

VOSS water highlights one way to navigate this delicate balancing act, being one of the first mainstream bottled water brands to offer a reusable glass alternative to virgin single use plastics. The minimalistic, sleek, cylindrical shaped bottle also represents a stylish, luxurious upgrade on cheap and unsightly plastic counterparts. An elegant bottle design combined with its inherently greater environmental advantages offers both functional and emotional benefits. It achieved success by reframing the consumer problem: a higher initial cost — yes, but cheaper than disposable plastics in the long run when considering its potential for repeated use. This not only justified its considerable premium over plastic equivalents, but also resulted in a troupe of unpaid VOSS influencers in offices across the globe.

Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Sustainability - Voss

Navigating the barrier of ‘unacceptable downsides’ resulting from sustainability initiatives.

An eco-friendly packaging shift can sometimes seem like a downgrade to shoppers. The challenge for marketers is how to educate consumers about the rationale for the change, reframing these barriers into ‘acceptable downsides’. Carrying this same message across all communication touchpoints (including POSM, PR, social media, and wider advertising) can help alleviate short-term friction while priming the brand for long-term success.

Barilla faced this exact conundrum, with the removal of its plastic window (which provided a glimpse into the product) resulting in diminished performance. While people appreciated the eco-friendly shift, perceptions of taste were negatively affected. The solution? A revised iteration with an environmental callout in the exact spot shoppers expected to see the plastic window. That, together with elevating taste cues through the reintroduction of freshly cooked pasta imagery, helped overcome the loss of important drivers of purchase from the completely stripped-back design.

Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Sustainability - Barilla
Read the Barilla case study

Take a holistic approach to sustainability.

When thinking about the different avenues available for reducing a brand’s environmental footprint, it isn’t necessary to be limited solely to the use of recycled materials. In fact, in some cases this isn’t even an option, with health, safety, and quality-related factors making recycled materials a no-go. Procter and Gamble’s Fairy, the global dishwashing liquid giant, has been trialing the use of refillable pouches in an effort to reduce their reliance on plastic bottles. Not only were the product’s eco-credentials clearly called out (recyclable, 85% less plastic), but so was the added value it offers (refilling over 2x standard 370ml bottles). Reframing shoppers’ mindsets to think about cost savings helped offset the barrier of inconvenience. This hasn’t just elevated the brand’s leadership credentials, but it’s also simultaneously reinforced a powerful point of difference in the category.

Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Sustainability - Fairy

Shout it from the rooftops when taking strides in the sustainability space.

With the overwhelming number of options they’re faced with, it can be exceedingly difficult for shoppers to quickly discern which products have eco-friendly credentials. Consideration should therefore be given to clearly calling out sustainability benefits on pack. Colgate used fun visuals to convey that its new HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) tube was fully recyclable. This included a clear callout and cleverly stylized ‘chasing arrows’ recycling symbol (which featured tiny toothpaste tubes). This ensured the new eco-credentials weren’t just front of mind for shoppers at shelf, but they also strengthened emotional affinity to Colgate with each repeated use (along with entrenching the desired behavioral change).

Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Sustainability - Colgate
Read our Colgate case study

However, this strategy won’t be right for everyone.

Sustainability often isn’t, in and of itself, a key driver of choice, meaning that these benefits are generally low down on shoppers’ priority lists. Therefore, it’s important to ensure sustainability claims aren’t allowed to overshadow or detract from primary purchase motivators (or familiar branding elements) in the matter of seconds packaging is processed at shelf. ‘Roberts’, a U.K. bread manufacturer, took the admirable path of switching its plastic packaging to paper in 2019. While a commendable initiative and one that set a precedent for others in the category to follow (see our case study on Bürgen), Roberts ‘over-emphasized’ the change on-pack and subsequently diverted focus from important buying triggers, including the format, taste, and texture. The learning? You risk losing shoppers by allowing environmental efforts to overshadow key purchase drivers.

Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Sustainability - Roberts

Consumers are becoming increasingly attuned to ‘greenwashing’ as it rises in prominence.

There remains a significant risk, however, with over-selling sustainability. Brands must ensure claims are honest and well-intentioned. ‘Greenwashing’, apart from being unethical (and often illegal), can have even bigger ramifications by way of the permanent loss in consumer trust. 3M recently found itself in hot water, with critics arguing Scotch tape’s eco inferences were highly misleading. The packaging’s earthy cardboard-like colors, contrasting green leaf iconography, and ambiguous callouts all subconsciously cued eco-friendly perceptions. However, the implied sustainability credentials weren’t all what they seemed, coming unstuck with further scrutiny.

Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Sustainability - 3M

Sustainability relates just as much to the post-purchase experience.

What if a brand has a great story to tell about its environmental endeavors? We suggest getting a little creative and adopting some ‘out of the box’ thinking, meaning avoiding disrupting ‘prime real estate’ on the main shelf facing (i.e. overwhelming it with information overload). This should ideally be left to prioritize the primary drivers of choice, as covered in our Clarity chapter. Skincare brand Cocokind used a QR code on the side of its pack to navigate this predicament and encourage shoppers to learn more about the brand’s sustainability pledge.

While the use of secondary panels means it’s unlikely to influence choice at the point of purchase (when shoppers are trading-off brands against one another), it can be an important reason for why shoppers return to buy the brand again. As ‘sustainability’ increasingly becomes an expectation from shoppers, the role of packaging relates as much to the post-purchase experience as it does to getting the product into baskets at shelf.

Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Sustainability - Cocokind

Sustainability can aid shelf stand out and build differentiation.

Sustainable packaging can be a key facilitator of shopper growth, providing an innovative twist which helps the product stand out on shelf for all the right reasons. Greenall’s London Dry Gin recently became one of the first spirit brands globally to offer a bottle made from a paper shell. Not only did the recyclable pack considerably reduce the brand’s carbon footprint (by using much less water and being significantly lighter for transportation), but its striking design also dazzled consumers. When was the last time you can recall seeing a bright green, paper-based bottle of gin at a liquor store?

Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Sustainability - Greenalls

Considering more sustainable packaging alternatives but unsure how to effectively communicate the change and ultimately keep the brand’s value proposition intact? Get in touch to speak to a consultant about our packaging testing solution. Expert-led, evidence-based insights — which don’t break the bank.

Thank you for subscribing!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Please try again.

Sign up to our effectiveness newsletter