How package design research can revolutionize innovation

By Leigh Bachman

Many CPG companies and their agencies view package design research as a routine step at the end of a project: a “check-the-box” item to be ticked off prior to launch. After all, they reason, the design itself is usually the output of a larger brand strategy - a repositioning or a line extension - so the research is more supplemental than strategic.

Shrewd marketers, however, know that package design is integral to the branding process. By extension, then, package design research is important. Yet few people realize how far upstream package design research can swim. Think about it: If package design is integral to the overall branding process, it stands to reason that it is also integral to the innovation process. And if package design is so important to innovation, by transitive property, package design research must be as well. Skeptical? Let me explain.

Package design research is frequently used to guide product innovation, but there is a real-and often, overlooked-opportunity in brand and design-driven innovation.

Product-Driven Innovation

It’s difficult to deny that developing a pipeline of innovative, consumer-centric products is critical to a company’s long-term growth. Package design research is used every day to support such product-driven innovation. Have you ever employed prototyping to help determine if that groundbreaking idea is feasible? Similarly, have you ever used package design to visually (and perhaps, tangibly) communicate an innovation during concept research? Exactly. Moving on…

The real -and often, overlooked - opportunity for package design research lies in brand-driven and design-driven innovation.

Brand-Driven Innovation

Often eclipsed by its more glamorous, product-focused cousin, brand-driven innovation can use package design research to verify that it is instinctively delighting consumers.

Consider the all-important area of brand architecture: As the blueprint for your business strategy - designating your brand’s playing field and defining its offerings for consumers - brand architecture is critical to innovation.

Package design research, in turn, can inform brand architecture. For example, after developing brand architecture models, a typical next step is to expose consumers to concepts. You can ask consumers to design a package that might bring each concept to life through a research approach called “colorforms” (similar to the popular design playsets that allow children to place simple, versatile shapes in virtually endless, artistic combinations).

The goal is not to design the actual packaging; it is to understand how consumers view the proposed innovations. By analyzing their design choices, you can determine whether the innovations reside near the brand’s core; whether they feel on strategy or off; whether they delight the consumer or seem irrelevant; and whether they move the brand forward or merely deliver more of the same.

Package design research can also validate the brand architecture. For instance, you can use packcepts - preliminary, simplified package design concepts - to represent the brand architecture. As with colorforms, the goal is to use consumers’ responses to the packcepts to understand whether the architecture and innovations are on target.

Package design research can inform design-driven innovation to help a brand move beyond functional, product benefits to emotional benefits that delight consumers. Here, Interbrand cross-discipline team members consider findings from consumer, shopper and trends research to inspire package design concepts for a client.

Design-Driven Innovation

While today’s use of package design research to support brand-driven innovation may be less than optimal, it is all but absent in design-driven innovation. This has to change, because the payoff can be immense: Design-driven innovation can help you move beyond product and functional benefits to deliver emotional benefits that elevate your brand.

The first way package design research can help is by identifying the design assets (e.g., color, shape, icon) your brand possesses and which new or evolved ones could build equity. Deconstructing brand assets and seeing whether consumers connect with them in a flash card approach - either in qualitative or quantitative research - can be enlightening.

Package design research that uses prototyping can also drive design innovation. While the research moderator is eliciting the unconscious desires of consumers, a designer can be visualizing those desires in 2D and 3D designs. This exercise can be done in real time, even in a back room, and fed to consumers in a later session to get their immediate response and continue the innovation process.

Making It Happen

Of course, using package design research to drive innovation may sound great in theory, but how can you make it happen?

Learn:Get smart about package design research by studying the existing methodologies and those emerging every day. If you’re clear on your objectives and accept the critical role package design plays in driving the brand-consumer relationship, you should be able to identify the right research methodology.

Collaborate:“Research professionals” should not be the sole owners of package design research and its applications. Engage all of your internal and external partners - marketing, market research, product development - in the process. Make sure that brand delivery teams are working in lock-step with innovation teams.

Identify the right opportunity:Everyone is trying to make a sales window, but if you knew that package design research could improve your ROI wouldn’t you make appropriate financial and time commitments for its use? Clients, find the right agency partner - not every firm is equipped to incorporate research upstream. Agencies, find the right client - not every company is ready to embrace design research throughout the innovation process. Yet when the opportunities and participants align, the results can be revolutionary.

Leigh Bachman is executive director of strategy and research at Interbrand. Contact Leigh at or 513.421.2210.