Don't Just Design Packaging. Stage an In-use Experience Instead!
By Pauline Tingas

Changes in consumer culture are increasing consumer expectations for “experiences” at the second moment of truth.
Most of the research everyone waves around tells you it’s the store environment—specifically the three to seven seconds a shopper pauses at the shelf—where packaging serves as the best sales canvas for your brand. That’s one reason why marketers have been redoubling efforts to maximize a shopper’s earliest interaction—the first moment of truth—with their brands.
But recent studies indicate such a targeted strategy might be lacking—that, in fact, the retail experience is not as influential on consumer purchase decisions as we might believe.
“In looking at our shopper insights work, we know that many decisions about what to purchase, whether it’s the product category or at the brand level, are made at the home,” says Michelle Barry, PhD, president of Tinderbox, part of the Hartman Group dedicated to culture, innovation and trends.
Those insights are striking, given that they’re almost 180 degrees from the industry’s most-cited packaging research, which says 70 to 80 percent of decisions are made at the shelf.
According to Barry, the discrepancy comes from the fact that shoppers, these days, are so harried that they’re often on “cruise control,” just grabbing the usual packaging in a habitual route through the store.
If you’re really trying to get brand traction and loyalty and make it on consumers’ rotation at the store level, Barry says, you need to get on their radar in the home environment. Otherwise, “it’s going to be difficult for a new brand to work its way to the forefront and into the basket”.
So, if the first moment of truth is not the end-all, be-all sales opportunity we thought it to be, it’s only logical that the second moment of truth—the point where consumers actually use your packaging—is emerging as the ultimate battlefield for brands.
Consumer culture is changing. There are big cultural shifts to support Barry’s standpoint and, thankfully, to indicate how brands should approach the opportunity.
We have evolved from a traditional culture that values uniformity, predictability and reliability (the 1950s are typical) into a “consumer” culture that now puts more stock in distinction and experiences.
That’s why, Barry says, it’s now critical to understand and capitalize on the way packaging can deliver on cultural expectations, how packaging can stage deeper, individual and more enjoyable in-use experiences for your brand.
“Consumers are bored. They are going to, even more, expect a new imagination of what packaging could be, of what experiences could be,” she says.
It goes beyond better closures, ergonomics or simplified delivery devices—marketers who think in those terms will likely be doomed to a commodity existence.
Instead, as the next cultural phase takes shape (the coming years will take us into something Barry describes as a “reimagined” culture), you should look to not only fill consumer needs but to position your brand as the provider of experiences, infusing your packaging with sensory qualities—sound, smell, texture—and behavioral aspects—empowerment, confidence and fun.
Look at Nintendo’s Wii game console, which reinvented the sedentary format of video games with a wireless remote that has players moving around to manipulate the action on the screen. It’s a great example of how the coming “reimagined” culture is starting to play out, says Barry.
“The video game had existed for some time, and it was a very specific kind of experience. But now, [with Wii], it’s very different. It’s highly interactive; it’s totally about entertainment; and it’s very playful,” she says. “We think those are some of the markers of what new packaging and new design will have to include.”
Packaging is your friend. Indeed, product designers have been thinking about experiences at the point of use for some time. We’re just beginning to see such packaging in some categories. Positioned as a “partner” in weight loss, GlaxoSmithKline’s Alli (pronounced like “ally”) supplies a carrying case for users because, according to senior brand manager Debbie Weis, “We wanted to be more than a pill. We wanted to help consumers.”
The slim carrying case was conceived as a visual reminder, a compliance tool, for users. But it’s actually more than that. Designed by IDEO out of Boston, the unbranded [discrete!] plastic case is softly textured and features contours that make a subtle but direct connection with users.
“We had people describing it to us that it’s like having a friend hold your hand,” Weis says. Now those “people” might be other marketers at GSK, but, the point is, the carrying case is a brilliant way for GSK to provide the experience of a “partnerships” or a “friend” helping you drop the pounds.
Packaging is revealing. Other brands have been successful in using packaging to stage experiences of discovery. There’s everyone’s go-to example of Apple, with elegant packaging that is layered in a way that the box logically reveals each component as the user needs it.  
“There’s a sense of mystery there,” says Tinderbox’s Barry. “They get you to open the packaging in a certain way. There’s something really gratifying and exciting about getting a new Mac home and looking at how smart the packaging is. It’s brilliant.”
The packaging “reveal” and “discovery” is just one way that Apple creates an (often anticipated) experience that has lasting impact. Fans of the brand are known for hanging on to the intricate packaging but also for creating displays that make the packaging an extension of their work spaces, dorms and even their homes. Many go beyond even that, creating online photo galleries of that show them opening the packaging (don’t believe me? type in “unboxing” in the search field at
Packaging is empowering. Now, you can’t always expect consumers to wax on about their experiences in that same way. In the case of the Kandoo brand, they’re simply too young.
Targeted to kids ages two to seven, the Procter & Gamble brand of children’s bath products was designed to provide what can probably be described as a “transformational” experience. The goal? Empower little kids, who are always saying, “I ‘kan-doo’ it myself”.
P&G followed what might be called an “experience” strategy, going beyond typical kids’ marketing tactics of colorful, cartoon-laden bottles and looking at specific packaging elements that would really make an in-use impact and fulfill the brand’s empowerment positioning.
As such, containers are sized to fit smaller hands, with broad bases and wide easy-to-use pumps that offer quick access and simple dispensing. Audible clicks help kids understand how to use the product and provide the satisfying feedback of “a job well done”. By helping kids master bathroom basics, the packaging stages a second moment of truth that fills them with a sense of confidence and independence.
You’d think CPG marketers in every category would salivate at the chance to make such a powerful impact with consumers. But experts say the opportunity is often overlooked.
“So many brands are focused on the first moment of truth, on making the sale; they often forget about the experience once the consumer has voted,” says John Gleason, former associate director of business partnerships for global design at P&G, now running his own practice, A Better View Strategic Consulting. In many cases, Gleason says, “the total experience winds up dying or hitting a wall after the manufacturer has gotten their money.”
The inconvenient truth. Even those with a genuine desire to tap the full experience opportunity of the second moment of truth can’t always do so—they face the same challenges that any package innovation project does.
There are timeline issues. Second moment of truth items—typically, things like product chemistry, technology and the development of structural packaging—tend to have long lead times that, depending on the component, can take months, years and even decades to develop.
On the other hand, first moment of truth time for things like graphics is measured in weeks and months (occasionally years, if it’s a brand launch). By definition, the ability to coordinate the two “moments”, which experts say is essential to delivering the kinds of in-use experiences consumers are demanding, is almost impossible.
“By the time [brand marketers] need to start making first moment of truth decisions—branding, communications, in-store signage—the second moment of truth elements are generally locked and loaded,” says Gleason. “That’s why, companies tend to back into a communications story about what the SMOT experience is about.”
So who do you tell to wise up?
“The technical side isn’t going to delay their innovation and development efforts so that it lines up with commercial timing,” says Gleason, “and the commercial side is not going to start their work significantly sooner because, inevitably, something happens. If the technology didn’t work or the customer didn’t get it, then they’ve inextricably linked a launch to that…and they’ve wasted time.”
There’s also the issue of “functional silos”. According to Gleason, such barriers between consumer packaged goods groups prevent the kind of cross-functional work that is essential for carrying an experience strategy through to the second moment of truth.
“Technical folks working on components of SMOT tend not to want to share a lot of details until they feel comfortable that they can actually deliver on it; they tend not to talk to the commercial side of the business other than to say ‘we’re working on something big’,” Gleason says. “That’s how SMOT elements tend to be driven—by their availability as opposed to being informed by consumer expectation.”
There’s almost a natural resistance to tie FMOT and SMOT from the beginning because, according to Gleason, “their DNA is just not ready to do it.”
The challenge is to get each side to talk to each other, inspire each other and inform each other in a way that addresses the emerging desire for experience, to create a climate where the second moment of truth can flourish.
How can you do it right? Well, if you haven’t already, you should define your brand experience.
“The number one thing I see is a brand really needs to know who they are and what they mean to their consumers,” says Gleason. “Don’t just make a change just because the competition makes a change. Don’t make a change because your new management says ‘I’ve got to put my thumbprint on this.’”
If you know yourself well as a brand, then it becomes a matter of how well you can connect those values in a second moment of truth experience that matters to people. You want to make sure you have the right insights on your way into the development work.
Ethnography is particularly favored as a technique here, to figure out how to unlock the experience potential of your packaging at the point of use.
“It yields the behavioral and emotional implications of what a package can do,” says Tinderbox’s Barry. “As opposed to asking consumers to rely on memory or recall, or putting it into a visual survey, showing it online or talking about it in a focus group. That’s not how it exists in their everyday life to give it any context on why it’s good, bad or better than something else.”
This would be a logical point to get development in the mix, so the people who ultimately “solve” the problems become part of the group that “identifies” the problems.
Gleason says it’s important for everyone on the team to understand what experiences are important to your consumers and figure out how packaging can sage them.
From there, work to adopt an experience strategy, a design process whereby every choice in package development is defined by the desired consumer experience—and that’s not just in those second moment of truth decisions.
To be sure, the second moment of truth is essential, but experts say that, going forward, the winningest brands will be built on the trust and delight formed when the first two moments of truth are achieved. “It’s the combination of moments that makes up the total experience,” says Gleason.
What experiences can SMOT provide?
Involvement. Heinz’s talking ketchup labels. Jones Soda’s photo labels. By inviting consumers to submit their photos or clever copy ideas, these brands enable people to become “actors” in brand experience, as opposed to just the “audience”.
Surprise. The caps on Innocent Drinks smoothies don’t say “Use by …” they say “Enjoy by…” and the bottoms of the bottles are printed with phrases like “Stop looking at my bottom.” “You don’t want a can of peanuts exploding; it’s not that kind of surprise,” says Tinderbox’s Michelle Barry. “It’s the little surprise, like ‘Oh, I didn’t know that was in there.’”
Safety. Packaging can hurt you; that is, if you confuse your husband’s prescription bottle for your own. Exactly such an incident inspired Target’s ClearRx pill bottle, which features an easy-to-read label and a color coding system that make it easier for people to properly take their prescriptions and to feel safe in doing so.
Pauline Tingas Hammerbeck is senior editor of BRANDPACKAGING. Reach her at .
Where to go for more information...
Consumer insights. At Tinderbox, contact Michelle Barry at 425.452.0818 or
Strategic consulting. At A Better View Strategic Consulting, contact John Gleason at 513.479.1652 or