Packaging plays a very important role in shaping distinctive consumer experiences. People do not buy products simply to satisfy functional needs. Products and services satisfy powerful emotions.
The real experience takes place in the consumer’s brain, and it is driven by emotion. Experiencing certain products helps us feel better, project certain values, be inspired, feel in control, be more effective etc. In our brain, the characteristics of the products become our personal characteristics.
Research indicates that “consumers generally do not distinguish clearly between a product and its packaging and many products are packages - and many packages are products”. The human brain perceives the container and the content it holds as one and the same. Thus, the function of packaging is not just to protect the product inside, but also to help satisfy the deep motives and emotions that come when we use it.
Packaging consistently helps bring to life the type of experience the brand promises. Playful, transformative, caring, harmonizing, reassuring — whatever the experience the brand offers, packaging is the protagonist that shapes it. The more distinctive the experience, the better. The experience is something larger than what’s in the packaging or the functional needs the product satisfies.
But how can packaging shape and communicate what the product is all about and what type of experience it embeds? A direct line in packaging is translated by the brain into directness, aspiration and power as it connotes movement to a specific direction, and steady investment of energy in order to get there. A zig-zag line, on the other hand, can evoke lack of an objective destination and it is connected to exploring behavior, while a curve can be interpreted as a more caring, encompassing stimulus.
Add the shape of the packaging, its texture, its material, graphics, colors, symbols, typefaces, the product flow, etc. together and you will get a glimpse into the richness of meaning, packaging can offer for the brain. Indeed, the shape of packaging influences judgment of the size of the product. A study found that yogurt is perceived as sweeter and more expensive when it is contained in glass jars. Another study shows that tough packaging gives the impression of a strong taste. Neural research shows that attractive versus neutral packages evoked more intensive activity changes in brain regions associated with an impulsive system. This means that packaging which is attractive engages the brain, has stopping power and makes the product stand out among the many products on the shelf. This is very important especially now, the after COVID period, as impulse purchasing has lost ground - more shoppers use a shopping list and spend less time in the grocery store
This is why packaging is paramount for brands to build an experience that connects with consumers emotionally. All these packaging elements align among themselves toward delivering one clear emotional direction such as creativity, care, renewal, surprise, and playfulness.
It’s Not About Marketing. It’s About the Human Condition
If you think that these facts are not important, that we can live without them, and that a product is a product is a product, think again. For humans, there is no trivial act.
Humans come with powerful motives that transcend time and culture. These motives need to be satisfied one way or another. The motives were created by nature to guide our behavior. The motive to feel safe, to create, to care, to play, to explore etc. are not just “wants,” but needs and fundamental urges.
These motives are so important that they occupy a specific locus in our brain and engage specific neural processes. If not used, they become atrophied. Humans who do not play, desire, change, explore, defy, etc. are not fully humans anymore.
Brands act as substitutes to the real experience. On an initial level, brands help us fill the gaps of experience we cannot live in real life - whether that’s for financial reasons, responsibilities, etc. They help us, at least partly, express our life forces.
Traditionally, TV advertising has played an important role in attaching emotions to products. However, due to the fragmentation of media and audiences, mass advertising does not work today as it did in the past. The exposure of people to the communication of a brand is disparate, but packaging is always there accompanying the product and in the physical (or virtual) store. More importantly, it is there when we use the product to create the different types of experiences in ways we analyzed above.
Any attempt to make packaging more sustainable should consider the above multiple facets of packaging. One thing is certain: we need to make packaging more sustainable. But this objective should not try to create a homogenous packaging as this may bring the opposite results to those intended.
The Case Against Homogenized Packaging
The distinction between the goal of making packaging more sustainable using packaging homogenization (for example, by imposing the use of a certain container shape for all brands, reducing the weight of packaging, etc.) and that of needlessly harming the brand manufacturers and consumers is important.
Sameness is for humans a sort of punishment as it reflects the elimination of personal choice and independence — two core human characteristics. Homogenization goes against the human nature. In marketing, products homogenization negatively affects impulse sales that in many categories is the majority of the sales.
Industry research shows that impulse buying accounts for between 40% and 80% of purchases.
While empirical research is inconclusive as to the actual effectiveness of more packaging homogeneity, some studies suggest that plain packaging could on the contrary have unintended negative consequences It is a classic case of a policy that focuses on “that which is seen” and ignores “that which is not seen” directly. Packaging homogenization can hamper brand recognition, and certainly undermine the user experience and emotions each brand wants to evoke.
Removing all positive brand associations from packaging means removing much of the brand’s ability to deliver the experience it promises — packaging is always there to communicate the values of the brand and to participate in shaping the user experience. It means people will buy more of what they need, not what they want. As brands sell creativity, exploration, transformation, and not just beer, coffee, or cars, the sales drop for the companies and the tax loss for the government will be dramatic.
Walter Stern, Package Design Research: The State of the Art in Handbook of Package Design Research, John Wiley & Sons, p 3
Valerie Folkers & Shashi Matta, The Effect of Packaging Shape on Consumers’ Judgement of Product Volume: Attention as a Mental Contaminant, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol 31. No 2 (September 2004), pp 390-401 published by Oxford University Press
Beatrice Lerma, Doriana Dal Palu, Eleonora Buiatti, The taste of the sound or the sound of the taste? How sounding packaging influence food perception, 3rd International Conference on Food Design, February, 2017
Liza Becker, Thomas Van Rompay, Rick Schifferstein, Mirjam Galetzka, Tough package, strong taste: The influence of packaging design on taste impressions and product evaluations, Food quality and preference, January 2011
Marco Hubert, Miria Huebrt, Arnd Flotack, Marc Linzmaier, Peter Kenning, Psychology & Marketing Volume 30, Issue 10, October 2013, pp 861 -873
Clinton Amos, Gary R. Holmes, William C. Keneson, A meta analysis of consumer impulse buying, Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services 21 (2), January 13
Michel Kelly-Gagnon, Plain Packaging and its Unintended Consequences, Montreal Economic institute, Economic Note, August 2011