As chairman of brand design consultancy Elmwood, Jonathan Sands often speaks at conferences and events. This year he estimates he has asked some 10,000 delegates the same question: how many people own an Apple iPhone or iPad? Usually about half the audience put their hands up.
He then asks how many have kept the box that the device came in. “Every single person puts their hand up again and start giggling or laughing,” Mr Sands says. “People don’t throw away the box because it’s beautifully engineered – there’s something about the way that the lid comes off so slowly and glides back down.”
The anecdote is a neat illustration of the importance that packaging plays in making or breaking a brand’s reputation in today’s highly competitive markets. “An unusual, distinctive and aesthetically pleasing packaging is a very effective way to gain consumers’ attention and greatly contributes to the success of a product,” says Irene Scopelliti, marketing lecturer at City University’s Cass Business School.
While advertising and other forms of marketing might attract consumers into shops, the “first moment of truth” comes when a consumer is presented with an often bewildering array of choice on the shelves, says Mr Sands. “Your packaging is the goal-scorer really. There are something like 40,000-plus products in a typical supermarket – that means your pack has milliseconds in which to stand out.”
Packaging is your chance to tell the final chapter in your story – if advertising is the first chapter then packaging is the last
Designers draw on an array of techniques and tricks to make packaging appeal to our sensory triggers. Elmwood was brought in to redesign the packaging for Andrex toilet paper. The old label featured a Labrador puppy, but the image was small and he was looking away. For the makeover, Mr Sands says that his designers searched for a puppy with the biggest, most doleful eyes they could find. They became the focal point of a much larger image on the pack because such “puppy dog” eyes trigger an emotional response in shoppers.
“We respond to all sorts of emotional stimuli around us; the old pack just wasn’t talking to people,” he says. “Packaging is your chance to tell the final chapter in your story – if advertising is the first chapter then packaging is the last.”
The Andrex makeover had the desired effect, turning six years of falling sales into a 17 per cent rise in volumes, underlining Mr Sands’ assertion that changing nothing but the packaging can boost sales dramatically.
For upmarket brands in almost any category, the packaging has to reflect the premium price tag. Consumers look to the extrinsic qualities, or what is obvious on the outside, when trying to determine the quality of the product inside the box, according to Andre Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at City University in London.
Dr Scopelliti adds: “Research has found that aesthetically pleasing packaging stimulates some centres in the brain associated with intrinsic reward, so even just looking at products that have beautiful packaging can make us feel better.”
Less famous brands can aim higher by improving the look and feel of their packaging. According to some studies, consumers prefer a beautifully packaged product from an unknown label than one in less appealing packaging from a well-known brand.
Some brands have managed to create packaging that is instantly recognisable even without its label; Coca-Cola’s glass bottle is but one example. Yet even market leaders need to innovate to remain ahead of the competition and Mr Sands says that limited edition packaging is one way to do so. Although the product inside remains the same, he believes that such an approach keeps the brand fresh in consumers’ minds.
Mr Sands also cites Heinz’s launch of baked beans in a resealable plastic jar that can be kept in the fridge, bringing an end to unfinished tins that go mouldy on the bottom shelf. Innovations like this help convince consumers that they should pay the extra for Heinz because of the level of thought that has gone into the packaging.
Manufacturers are also coming under increasing pressure to reduce the amount of packaging to minimise their environmental impact. Yet it should not be forgotten that packaging plays more than a branding function. It can protect and preserve a product. Even if the marketing department is saying “let’s get rid of the packaging”, then sometimes those responsible for the supply chain will resist because doing so will increase costs or wastage.
Ensuring that packaging always properly reflects the image a brand wants to portray is clearly a highly complex, but essential, task. “You’ve got to treat packaging as a canvas with which to tell a story, but you have to do it in milliseconds,” Mr Sands concludes. “It can have a fundamental effect on your bottom line by increasing sales – or determining whether a product sells at all.”