As the global recession continues to challenge profit margins and cap the extravagance of marketing and advertising campaigns, brand owners are seeking out alternative, affordable means of executing their brand strategies. Packaging should be one of them.

Why? Because, for every product category, the pack pretty much is the brand.

Packaging is a brand’s day-to-day personification: representing the brand throughout consumers’ experience with a product, from purchase to disposal.

Its impact extends beyond the supermarket shelf: Consumers’ relationship with packaging becomes more meaningful and intimate with the passage of time. As familiarity grows, and as long as the pack works well and adds value to the consumption experience, perceptions of the brand are enhanced.

Its impact extends beyond the users themselves: Every time a branded product is consumed in public, passersby observe the pack, making packaging the ultimate advertising medium.

By connecting with consumers and the wider public in such a multitude of ways, packaging is demonstrably a vital component of the marketing mix as it contains all the functional, emotional and sensory qualities that brand owners try so hard to control. 

By utilizing in-depth consumer research to examine the links between consumer perceptions of branding and packaging, companies are better able to ensure branding strategies are successful —  not only meeting consumers’ needs, but also ensuring they engage with products more positively and, ultimately, purchase more.


Time for In-Depth Consumer Research

Yet, despite its strong influence on brand perception, packaging innovation is still largely under researched.

While other areas such as the product and store placement have benefitted from sophisticated new research methods investigating consumers’ brand awareness and perceptions, packaging research is often conducted at a far more superficial level, identifying measures such as liking and propensity to buy. 

Current research tends to be used to validate packaging only at the end of the innovation process, resulting in either generic, dumbed-down packs that play to the masses, or at the other extreme, packs that fall outside of category conventions and are perhaps less relevant to consumers, or where creativity is inconsistent with a brand strategy and cannot be supported by it.

As a result, companies are missing out. With so many “good” products on the market, packaging design is an ideal platform for them to differentiate brands, advance brand strategies and, crucially, drive sales. Consumer research has the power to extract and define the elements that really matter — those that will be successful and will guarantee a healthy return on investment and those that will not. 


More than Liking: Embedding ‘Conceptualizations’

Contrary to what they may think, consumers do not buy or stay loyal to a brand simply because they like it. They instead choose a brand based on the meaning which they subconsciously assign to it and on how relevant this meaning is to them. For example, Cascade, the dishwashing brand, might score highly in a preference or propensity to buy test, but it is largely its emotional and functional aspects such as “honest,” “caring,” “delivering fast results” and “efficacious” that drive choice and purchase. At MMR, we uncover these aspects, which we call “conceptualizations,” so that brands can respond.

To deliver successful brand strategies, it is crucial that packaging resonates with these conceptualizations, both on shelf and at the point of use, if consumers are to choose a particular product and remain brand loyal. As such, researching more than levels of  liking and delving deeper into consumers’ subconscious early on in the packaging design process is of paramount importance. It is at this stage where design meets brand goals.

We believe that there are three successive rules to effective brand packaging design: to unearth consumers’ relevant emotional and functional conceptualizations; to understand the relationship between conceptualizations, liking and propensity to buy; and finally, to translate key conceptualizations into packaging design parameters.

Extracting conceptualizations and embedding them in brand packaging design may seem like a complex task, but it is entirely possible when the correct research methods are employed. Sensory and affective sciences coupled with consumer psychology and behavior techniques have already been successful in helping to deliver profitable products in the food, drink, personal care, electronics, automotive and even architecture industries. Similar principles can and must be applied to packaging design if the brand is to benefit from the same results. As key practitioners and thought leaders in this area, we believe that consumer research for packaging should be approached in three distinct phases.  

1. Early Stage Exploration: defining the rules of success for the pack

An effective way of injecting consumer insight at the beginning of the project is to bring all the packaging creators together under the right conditions. Participants should be carefully screened, highly creative and articulate category-user consumers, the marketing and R&D teams, and packaging designers. Via a collaborative and intensive workshop-style environment facilitated by consumer researchers, the initial creative brief is first explored in detail. Basic executions are rigorously profiled in order to measure appeal, brand fit, and emotional and functional delivery. Designers can work directly with consumers to create new executions and arrive at a really tight packaging design brief for graphics and format, ensuring that success is built in from the outset of the process. Getting it right the first time is crucial and helps avoid expensive guesswork or nasty surprises at the validation stage.

Packaging is not just about fancy labels and pretty imagery. Ergonomics, materials, dispensing, form and feel are critical drivers of brand and product success. Building structural equity that is in line with brand and consumer values is an asset for any product and offers a massive opportunity for differentiation at the first moment of truth and beyond. Achieving that requires the systematic study of the consumer-pack interaction at a physical and cognitive level. 

2. Point of Use: structural definition and physical fine-tuning

This takes the form of a staged process where bringing key stakeholders together is of paramount importance. To start, it involves closely collaborating with marketing, R&D and design at the beginning of the project to define packaging design variations which could potentially represent the category and the brand.

Profiling these variations is the next step. In-depth one-on-one interviews with target consumers using established psychological techniques such as laddering and Kelly’s repertory grid can help elicit the conceptualizations — emotional and functional — that describe the consumer experience. Having captured the main conceptualizations underpinning the consumer-pack interface, the Kano model of customer satisfaction can be used to prioritize those and to help highlight strategic design requirements, flag undesired design routes and identify potential new areas of differentiation.

The final step is to ask a large number of consumers to evaluate the selected pack design variations against the top priority conceptualizations. This is an individual consumer exercise which can be executed either at a central location or at the point of use. Tools such as Kansei and affective design can be used here to identify which conceptualizations drive liking and purchase intent and also which design variations best embody brand equities and product benefits and why. The result is a clear and focused design brief so that packaging designers can create optimum solutions that promote consonance between brand, product benefits and consumer desires. And all that can be delivered in three to four weeks.

3. Point of Sale: shelf impact and final validation

The final piece of the puzzle is confirming the outputs from the previous stages. Packaging designers will have come up with one or more potential design solutions. Structure and labeling would have been defined and will have to be tested before launch against competition and/or previous own design. Bringing consumers back into the process — and just before the final decision is made — is vital. Advanced research techniques can be used here for a holistic validation to ensure that all aspects of the pack work optimally. Eye tracking, for example, can be used to really understand shelf standout and message delivery. Online fixtures or even real time physical shelf mock-ups can be used to record findability and to spot the design areas that consumers like and/or dislike. All that can then be supported with direct questions for benchmarking and for gauging overall appeal as well as emotional profiling for assessing conceptual delivery and brand fit. Finally, facial coding could be optionally employed to access the instant emotional reaction of consumers to a new pack design. This is a lean, low investment process and is designed to deliver results in two to three weeks.


Many companies already invest in this type of research for brand packaging design and enjoy tremendous benefits in the form of category growth, consumption increase and consumer loyalty. The need for lean processes that can guarantee robust results affordably in less time is self-evident, perhaps now more than ever. In tough economic times with ever-increasing competition and low consumer confidence, brands rely on faster time-to-market and accurate decision making. Companies ought to understand that packaging is a platform for brand innovation and differentiation, and that there are experts available to help materialize this in a time- and cost-effective manner. By doing the right research early, there is the strongest case for no regrets later.