Messages on packaging sway consumers, for good or bad

by Roy White

A recent Canadian study highlights the power that packaging on retail shelves can have with the consumer, a power that apparently can be used for good or ill. The study concerned consumer reactions to descriptive terms on cigarette packaging; net-net, customers are essentially misled by the labeling as to the health risks of smoking cigarettes.

However, the underlying truth that can be drawn from the Canadian study is that consumers appear to be heavily engaged with what’s on the packaging, and that tells us that messaging on packaging can be a dynamic influence on the consumer selecting products on retail shelves.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and it followed previous studies that determined that terms like “light,” “mild,” and “low-tar” created consumer confusion relative to health claims. Many consumers thought that such words or phrases actually described a lower health risk, which is not the case.

As a result of the earlier investigations, many countries across the world have banned the use of such phrases. The new Canadian survey looked at consumer reaction to words like “smooth” and “silver,” as well as the color of the package. The results shows that 80% of the study participants thought that the word “smooth” meant the cigarettes in the package carried fewer health risks, not at all the case. When comparing the labeling “regular” to “silver,” 73% thought the product described as “silver” was less hazardous, also untrue.

Smoking is not a healthful activity, and cigarettes do not promote health in any way, shape or form. While the Canadian study documents label messaging’s ability to mislead consumers selecting products at the retail shelf, the real point under discussion here is the awesome power of packaging to convey messages relative to the product it contains.

A better message from packaging is one that Nestlé UK is instituting for its seasonal confectionery. To tell consumers that its green credentials are improving, the company has removed the plastic inserts from its Christmas selection boxes, replaced them with a card presentation tray, and reduced the size of the boxes by a further 17% to 20% following the previous year’s 40% reduction. With the Easter product, plastic packaging was removed from 80% of the eggs. Some 200 tons of packaging was saved with the Christmas product and a further 400 tons from the Easter selection. Such credentialing via packaging is a very positive message to send consumers and reinforces the communicative power of packaging.

Roy White is a vice president of The Food Institute and has devoted his career to serving the mass market retail and consumer packaged goods (CPG) manufacturing industries. Contact Roy at 201-791-5570 or