Three key principles of effective packaging design

By Duncan Smith

How often do you go shopping with the intention to buy something, but walk home with something completely different? We impulse-buy all the time. Sometimes we grab things we don’t actually need and feel a bit guilty about them afterwards, but sometimes it’s just that the brand we usually buy was sold out, another product caught our attention, or we just felt like trying something new. In all of these situations, there is no doubt that packaging has a strong influence on our purchases. But what makes for good packaging design? Which aspects of packaging are worth testing to get a better idea of if they’ll be able to boost sales, or make a new product successful?

To think about what’s important, it can help to think back to the last time you spontaneously bought a product. Imagine this situation: You’re in town and are starting to feel a bit thirsty, but you forgot to bring a drink with you. You’re not 100% sure what you’re after, but feel like some sort of juice would be nice. You walk into a shop, go to the drinks aisle and find the juice section. One of the brands stands out to you, you scan which different flavours are on offer and end up feeling drawn towards the apple juice. One more quick look at the label, and you’re ready to go to the tills.

Do you know how exactly you picked which drink you wanted? You might be able to come up with some reasons now, but really, it was a spontaneous decision that you probably did not put too much effort into. While you might not be able to point out exactly which aspects are important to you, the apple juice you picked had some sort of impact on you, both at a distance and up closer. It might seem difficult to pinpoint exactly what made you buy this product, but there are three key principles that certainly played a role in it: You saw the product (packaging), you understood the information on it, and it had some form of emotional impact on you.

Capturing visual attention

When you picked your apple juice, did you walk up to the aisle and look at every single juice-related product, examining them all closely and making a mental list of all the pros and cons of buying one over the other? Unless you tend to have way too much time on your hands, I think it’s safe to say that you didn’t put quite this much effort into the decision. And this is exactly why it is important for a product to catch our gaze and stand out from the clutter of competitors. In a way, capturing attention is the most important feature of packaging: Had you not seen the apple juice, you wouldn’t have bought it.

When the product overall has managed to grab your attention, it is also important that its key elements and messages stand out. Would you have bought the juice if it had taken a few seconds of searching the packaging to find out what flavour it is? I know I wouldn’t have. But how is it possible to test which product stand out from the competition, and which ones fade into the background? Asking people to interact with the product and point out key elements is often done, and can certainly give some insight. However, seeing that we often make purchasing decisions much faster than surveys and focus groups would allow, it has proven much better to either simulate naturalistic purchase environments and look at people’s behaviour, or show people products for very short durations, surrounded by other brands, and see what they automatically pay attention to.

Emotional impact

This is a tricky one to investigate, because we’re not usually aware of the emotional impact packaging and products have on us. But remember when I said that you ‘felt drawn towards the apple juice’? This is what I’m talking about. You don’t know exactly what it was, but something made you feel good about that bottle. Maybe the colours? Maybe a sense of familiarity? Did it maybe remind you of something else?

If you were asked what emotional impact that apple juice had on you, you probably wouldn’t be able to give a correct answer (or might just think ‘What the hell is she talking about?’). It’s because this impact happens automatically and you are not consciously aware of it. In this case, asking will not provide a lot of insight, but it is possible to test the emotional impact of the packaging as a whole, individual elements and key messages and what you associate with your apple juice bottle by using tests that measure your gut feelings and subconscious emotions. In fact, it should definitely be done, because this emotional impact is one of the key factors that made you buy the juice in the first place.

Fluency and easy understanding

Even if the juice bottle had grabbed your attention and made you feel all warm and fuzzy inside (you wouldn’t admit it, but we know it did) – had it looked like a carton of milk, you wouldn’t have bought it. Similarly, you would have probably not picked the apple juice if the labelling was ambiguous, it wouldn’t have been clear how to open it or the design made the overall message confusing. You probably picked your apple juice because it was easy to understand what it is, clear and got its message across to you successfully. Again, the fluency and ease of understanding are best tested by only briefly showing people the product and then testing their understanding, instead of letting them interact with it for a long time ruminating in an artificial setting such as a focus group.

These three principles significantly increased your decision to buy your apple juice, even though you might not have consciously thought about them.

Ignore these principles at your peril. Our decisions are heavily influenced by things that we are not always consciously aware of. Implicit packaging research, or in other words measuring these implicit emotion reactions which power decision making will give you a better understanding of how people are likely to behave.


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