The level of choice consumers face in stores today is unprecedented, compared to the options available just three or four decades ago. In the 1970s, supermarkets stocked, on average, only 200 different lines of packaged goods. At this time, brands would tend to reevaluate their products only if they noticed a decline in sales. Today, new product introductions and extensive line extensions have seen the number of packaged goods in our supermarkets soar to an astonishing 30,000.
Understandably, consumers are burdened with choice. Their purchase decisions have become harder as products make increasingly similar claims and offer seemingly identical functional benefits. The result is wildly varying product trajectories; some flourish and become the iconic brands of a generation, while others disappear (almost as quickly as they arrived), unable to compete with hugely overcrowded markets and overwhelmed consumers.
Many brands claim that their response to the surge in product availability has been one of turning the focus of new product development (NPD) from product-out to market-in. However, while these companies argue that consumer-centric, market-driven innovation is becoming central to product definition, the commercial success of products in today’s markets still remains alarmingly low — only five to 20 percent. What’s going wrong?
>Branding: The vehicle to engagement
Our work at MMR Research Worldwide (MMR) has shown that the only way for products to truly differentiate from competitors’ products is to engage with consumers at a more personalized and emotional level, transcending the physical domain. More specifically, we see the building of compelling brands as the vehicle to reaching this goal.
Admittedly, in changing focus during NPD, companies have started to recognize the importance of brand awareness. Now, the brand itself suffers scrutiny under the microscope when sales figures drop. However, NPD strategies can still fail if branding is poorly executed — hence the unacceptably low product success figures.
Well-delivered, considered branding can be powerful enough to lift even a low-appeal product to sustained success. Red Bull offers a great example. During blind testing, the energy drink initially failed to impress consumers with its medicinal taste, but through effective branding as a performance enhancer, a well-designed pack to support the story, and high-profile sporting partnerships to drive the message home, it managed to establish a new category in high-energy caffeinated drinks and retain the leading position within it. By the same token, poor branding can mark the end of products before they’ve even gained a foothold in the market. In 2006, this was the case with Slate 20, a premixed alcoholic drink. The product’s flavor appealed to consumers during the NPD process, but the brand failed to inspire its target audience of young male professionals with a campaign that focused mainly on how the new drink could replace lager, a product that traditionally resonates strongly with male consumers. Slate 20 was discontinued 11 months after its launch.
We believe that building strong emotional connections with consumers is the backbone of effective brand strategies. Consumers, especially when in shopping mode, rarely utilize their analytical thinking to make choices. Instead, in most cases, they subconsciously employ a more heuristic decision-making approach based on gut feeling and previous experiences. Emotionality plays a crucial role at this point as it evokes that visceral reaction and facilitates memory recall.
This all sounds perfect in theory, but it raises two fundamental questions in practice: how to create an emotional bond in the first place, and once created, how to maintain it consistently through time.
>Creating an emotional bond
Nearly three-fourths of all grocery purchases are unplanned. Consumers may not be able to explain it, but they display this seemingly irrational shopping behavior because it feels right. The experience provides emotional rewards such as excitement, enjoyment and trust that make them repeat the purchase. It is therefore vital for brands to capture fully how consumers conceptualize the total brand experience throughout the “awareness-trial-repeat” journey. Targeting conceptualizations necessitates breaking away from traditional models of consumer research and digging deeper into the subconscious mind of the consumer. It requires an understanding that “liking” a brand does not necessarily lead to purchase. Rather, it’s the meaning that consumers subconsciously assign to a brand that drives their choices and purchase behavior.
Once the brand experience is conceptually profiled, companies need to ensure that there is consonance between the key touch points of the consumer journey. In other words, the brand ought to deliver a unique, yet congruent, message to consumers, first at the awareness stage, then during the first trial, and ultimately every time the product is repurchased. To achieve this, brands — the intangible entities that they are — need a physical medium to convey the promise and the message on their behalf across the awareness-trial-repeat journey. The only tangible means of reinforcing that consistently is packaging.
>Sustaining the emotional bond
There are several reasons that justify packaging’s role as a vehicle for delivering and sustaining the emotional connection between brands and consumers. First and foremost, packaging is an artifact itself; it inherently has the power to tap into consumers’ emotions via its physical properties. Color, shape and texture transmit certain visual and tactile cues capable of evoking an array of either positive or negative emotional reactions. Secondly, packaging is omnipresent: a
protagonist across the awareness-trial-repeat journey. It is often present at the awareness stage through television commercials and magazine ads. It is always present at the crucial moment of purchase. It is continuously present at the point of use, and, quite often, it remains even after the product has been consumed.
The meaning that consumers subconsciously assign to a brand drives their choices and purchase behavior.
Packaging can be used as an emotional compass to help brands navigate and address consumers’ subconscious behavior. As such, it must incorporate a brand’s essence in design — both structurally and graphically — and be developed in a way that creates an emotional continuum throughout the consumer journey. This can be done in four successive steps:
1. Conceptually profile the brand across the awareness-trial-repeat journey to understand its emotional components and to capture how those are verbally expressed by consumers.
2. Experiment with different imagery, fonts, colors, forms and substrates to develop deeper understanding of the implicit associations consumers make when interacting with each.
3. Overlay the brand’s emotional conceptualizations with consumers’ implicit associations to create a brand-centric design brief and guide the concept generation process.
4. Link concepts with the brand’s emotional conceptualizations and consumers’ implicit associations to fine-tune design for targeted emotional responses.
Following the above four steps, brands can make sure from the outset of the innovation process that packaging is developed in line with the brand’s emotional components and in a way that allows the emotional bond between pack and consumer to solidify over time.
As product availability continues to climb, branding remains the epicenter of product success. But, in many cases, consumer-focused NPD strategies are still failing to hit the mark when it comes to helping shoppers differentiate between products. By ignoring the role of subconscious gut feeling and emotion, brands aren’t employing a crucial element of branding that is paramount for a long-lived product life cycle.
The subconscious may be for consumers to explain, but failure to address it could come at a cost that brands cannot afford.