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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.

Given how much we emphasize the need for packaging to stand out at shelf and break through the competitive clutter, the concept of ‘uniformity’ may, at first glance, appear to be a contradiction. However, at its core, uniformity is anything but. Marketing success is a function of ‘content’ plus ‘context’. Therefore, the way a packaging design (content) is deployed at shelf (context) can dramatically alter its fortunes.

The first important aspect of uniformity relates to the consistent deployment of visual elements across a product line, thus creating a brand ‘block’ at shelf and enhancing ease of identification. The second crucial element is that by clearly distinguishing individual variants, shoppers’ attention can seamlessly shift to the visual anchors differentiating the various options available. This ultimately makes finding the right product (e.g. a flavor or scent) a fast and intuitive experience.

So, on one hand it’s about ensuring every variant clearly belongs to the same family of products, and on the other it’s about clearly distinguishing the range of alternatives under the same umbrella. In a nutshell, it’s the conundrum which has faced school kids for generations — how to fit in while also standing out!

Like a group of punk rockers milling about the high street, uniformity creates a brand block which can be spotted from a mile away. While key visual elements don’t necessarily need to be identical (some punks have mohawks, some wear denim vests), by ensuring design cues are deployed systematically across a product range, it enhances on-shelf impact and improves shoppability.

A pop of color can go a long way.

While various cues can be leveraged to strike a balance between being recognizable and distinguishable, chief amongst them is color. Representing one of the most powerful heuristics at a brand’s disposal, we’ve dedicated an entire chapter of our Packaging Effectiveness Playbook to the psychology behind color. Take the salsa category for example, with most people familiar with the three varieties generally available: mild, medium, and hot. These classic flavors are each individually tied to colors used at a wider category level to match their level of spiciness. Almost universally, green indicates a mild heat level, yellow — medium, and red — hot. By adopting these simple, universally understood cues, brands such as Doritos and Old El Paso are able to remain simultaneously recognizable while the variants underneath them are easily distinguishable.

Uniformity - Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Doritos salsa example

Simultaneously distinguish variants and convey motivating benefits.

Better-for-you prebiotic soda brand Olipop fuses together color with playful iconography to set apart each flavor variety. This strategy not only works to clearly distinguish the options available, but it also serves the purpose of cueing product benefits and conveying motivating impressions around the flavor experience.

Uniformity - Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Olipop example

The 2017 refresh of Greek Yogurt giant Chobani aimed to achieve a similar effect, with its new packaging design better emphasizing the ingredients inside (through artistic watercolor imagery). Not only did the overhaul make it easier to understand each pack’s contents, but the use of illustrated imagery also helped convey the product’s fresh, natural, and organic qualities. By building a strong base architecture the packaging design is flexible enough to be easily adapted as new extensions are released, all-the-while maintaining the brand’s visibility at shelf.

Uniformity - Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Chobani example

Ensure the colors chosen are sufficiently discriminatory.

2011 saw Coca-Cola take the noble — but misguided — step of altering its hero cola packaging to draw attention to the company’s World Wildlife Fund affiliation. Spotlighting efforts to protect the Polar Bear, the iconic brand turned its distinctive red cans white to promote the cause. The problem, however, was that the change led to the hero product being left indistinguishable from Diet Coke.

Uniformity - Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Coca-Cola variant for World Wildlife Fund

As a result, many inadvertently purchased the full calorie/sugar version. But not only did it create post-purchase annoyance for Diet Coke consumers, it also resulted in widespread confusion amongst all category consumers, slowing down decision-making speed at shelf. Ultimately, color can only be an effective mechanism to discriminate between variants if those chosen are different enough from one another. Given this, Coca-Cola quickly recognized the error of their ways and reintroduced the familiar red can earlier than first planned.

Adopt a systematic visual structure which unifies the product line.

While Coca-Cola’s 2011 slip-up was unfortunate, in many ways the brand was a victim of its own success, highlighting how effective the company has been in developing a systematic visual structure at shelf (and in the process creating a clear and coherent family of products). By rotating through the brand’s primary color palette of red, black, and silver for its classic, zero sugar, and diet variants respectively (while keeping other visual devices largely consistent), each facing works to simultaneously build the Coca-Cola ‘wall’ at shelf while offering clear variant discrimination. Along with helping shoppers easily navigate the product range, it also conveys that there’s a wide variety of choice within the Coca-Cola umbrella (i.e. the brand has something for every occasion and need).

Uniformity - Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Coca-Cola range

Color isn’t the only design element which can distinguish and unify.

While previous examples have utilized color as the main lever for achieving line unification and shelf stand out, there are many other mechanisms which can be adopted to create a visually coherent range of products. One such example comes courtesy of Greenomic Deli’s Good Hair Day Pasta, whose novel packaging effectively highlights each variant through a generously sized and cleverly shaped window into the product. The distinctive and eye-catching hairstyles of each character reflects the specific pasta variety; but, just as importantly, building this visual device on top of the same crisp white foundation helps create a distinctive brand block at shelf.

Uniformity - Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Greenomic Deli example

Another example comes from U.K. and Australian confectionary giant Cadbury and their Dairy Milk line, with the brand achieving the same effect by applying a unique typographic treatment to each variant name (together with a number of other subtle cues, including a splash of color). By keeping the layout and placement of all other elements consistent (e.g. logo, product imagery, and of course, the iconic purple background), each flavor variant (and their respective ‘personality’) is effectively communicated. This means Cadbury Dairy Milk has one of the strongest brand blocks of any brand in any category, making it impossible for shoppers to miss.

Uniformity - Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Cadbury example

If you’re in the fortunate position of being able to command multiple shelf facings for a single variant, then take a step back and consider how they could work even harder together as a collective. The ultimate objective being to amplify visual impact at shelf beyond what could otherwise be achieved through multiple facings alone. This is perfectly demonstrated by Ritz crackers and Russian dairy brand Milgrad. However, if taking this route, be careful to ensure your strategy doesn’t rely on staff at a store level strictly adhering to visual merchandising requirements!

Uniformity - Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Ritz example
Uniformity - Packaging Effectiveness Playbook - Milgrad example

Striking the right balance between being recognizable and distinguishable.

In our nearly decade’s worth of testing experience, we’ve continually seen the consistent deployment of unique, dominant, and recognizable design elements result in the creation of visual cues which enhance a brand’s visibility at shelf. These ‘visual signposts’ work to grab attention and separate brands from their peers, ultimately acting as a beacon which guides shoppers.

Relentless adherence to a uniform structure enables shopper attention to be quickly diverted to key information ‘hot spots’ on-pack, allowing the distinguishing features of each variant to be easily processed. Executed successfully, and shoppers are able to identify and buy the SKU which best meets their needs or ‘goals’ in a completely frictionless manner.

Not sure whether your packaging design is striking the right balance between being recognizable and distinguishable at shelf? 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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