As marketers, designers and engineers, we all face a common challenge: How do we persuade senior management to invest in packaging? Many of us know from experience that this is often an uphill battle as organizations weigh tangible costs and perceived risks against uncertain returns. In addition, pack innovation often runs against the deeply ingrained caution of individual executives who may feel that they have been burned in the past.
On a broader level, packaging is also fighting for attention and resources against other (and perhaps “hotter” or “sexier”) marketing vehicles such as advertising and web marketing. While most companies have moved beyond thinking of packaging solely as a container and cost center, it remains apt to be overlooked and underfunded as a marketing vehicle and source of competitive advantage. With that thought in mind, we’ll review strategies for making the case for packaging investment and share evidence and perspective gathered from our many years of packaging research.
THE MANY ROLES OF PACKAGING
In our experience, many discussions and requests for funding begin with familiar statements regarding the centrality of packaging in both the shopping and usage experience:
- Packaging is the brand’s spokesperson at the first moment of truth (in-store), where most purchase decisions are made.
- Packaging is the embodiment of the brand and is prominently featured in nearly all forms of marketing communication (TV, Web, etc.).
- Packaging is often part of the product usage experience and can have a significant impact on both consumer satisfaction and usage frequency.
In addition, there is a strong argument to be made that packaging is more important than ever:
- The fragmentation of mass media and fewer people viewing TV ads lead to more in-store decision-making.
- The reality of increasing clutter/product proliferation (“more choice”) makes it more difficult to break through and differentiate.
- The growth and improvement of private label puts more pressure on national brands to justify price premiums.
Yet while these points are true and quite compelling, they also suffer from being somewhat abstract. In order to persuade, they need to be brought to life and, ideally, quantified.
SUCCESS STORIES (AND DISASTERS)
Fortunately, finding tangible examples of the power of packaging is not all that difficult. The challenge, however, is that the “disasters” often resonate most clearly in marketers’ minds. For example, Tropicana’s missteps, in which an ill-fated change in pack graphics led immediately to double-digit sales declines and millions in forgone sales, were perhaps the most publicized packaging story of the past decade. And indeed, many companies have their own cautionary tale of a packaging initiative gone wrong, leading to confusion at the shelf and sales drops. This is unfortunate and problematic, as the primary takeaway for many senior managers is that packaging changes are inherently risky. Rather than illustrating the power of packaging, negative examples are more likely to instill fear and, thus, serve as an excuse for avoiding investment.
On the positive side, there are numerous case studies of packaging driving business growth in many ways, including:
- Brands rooted in compelling, differentiated and/or iconic packaging (examples include method, Fructis, Special K, Coca-Cola and Pringles)
- Unique packaging as an integral component of successful new brands or product lines (think U by Kotex, Colgate Optic White, MiO and Gevalia)
- New packaging graphics driving sales increases and/or revitalizing well-established brands (such as Renuzit, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Miller Lite)
- New packaging forms growing product categories and increasing product consumption (on-the-go, fridge and 100 calorie packs)
However, the challenge is that isolating the role and positive impact of packaging can often be difficult. Pack changes rarely happen in isolation — and thus, success may well be attributed to other marketing vehicles (product, pricing, promotion, etc.). While packaging is often a foundational and necessary element of new product success, it is inevitably one piece of a larger effort.
Recently, however, we’ve made progress in isolating and quantifying the role of packaging in new product success. Through joint research with BASES, we’ve documented the linkage between great packaging and in-market sales and integrated packaging to arrive at more accurate volume forecasting. Thus, we can now begin to quantify the dollar value of exceptional new product packaging, which is an important step to justifying investment.
GETTING TO THE NUMBERS
How can we talk about packaging and pack investment in a manner that speaks to senior management and their CFOs? One answer involves moving beyond abstract arguments and anecdotal case studies — and reaching toward their language of numbers and ROI.
It’s here that shopper research can provide an answer, by helping to quantify the upside potential associated with new packaging. Specifically, research can gauge and isolate the impact of a new packaging system on shoppers’ purchase decisions at the shelf, the single most direct and validated measure of in-market sales and potential financial return.
By simulating the introduction of new packaging on full shelves (and holding pricing and other factors constant), we’re able to see whether or not packaging alone influences brand choice and/or drives incremental purchases. And across thousands of studies, this research has revealed some interesting evidence regarding the power of packaging:
Typically, the “sales gap” between the strongest and the weakest packaging system tested is approximately 5 percent of shoppers.
For example, 30 percent of shoppers may purchase the brand with a new package on the shelf, while only 25 percent purchase the same brand with its current pack on the same shelf. While this figure may not seem high at first, the reality is that a 5 percent gain in market share is actually enormous: For a brand with $100 million in sales, a successful new package can translate to $5 million or more in increased sales.
In many of our studies, we find that packaging changes alone drive even more pronounced positive or negative changes in purchase levels.
These dramatic success stories are most common with smaller brands, which are often overlooked on shelf and have the greatest upside potential from more impactful packaging. Conversely, the “disasters averted” often involve larger, well-established brands, which have higher downside risk (of confusing or alienating current buyers).
In over half of our studies, we find that new packaging systems have a significant positive impact on brand imagery, packaging functionality and/or product usage.
While these metrics typically have a less immediate impact on sales, they speak to the longer-term influence of packaging on brand building and user satisfaction.
How does controlled pre-testing research of this nature translate to the real world? The connection is real and validated, but inevitably, in-market performance is also impacted by many other factors, including soft rollouts, POS support, pricing changes, etc. In fact, our analysis of study results versus actual sales strongly suggests that how a new packaging system is rolled out can dramatically impact its in-market performance. Thus, marketers need to focus on effective follow-through, in order to ensure that great new packaging translates to in-market success and a positive ROI.
FOUR BEST PRACTICES FOR DOCUMENTING PACKAGING’S VALUE
So what can we do to make the case for packaging more effectively? Here are several best practices to integrate within the packaging development and research process.
1. Start with your current packaging (to document the need for change)
Typically, research (particularly quantitative, numerical research) has been used to assess and “sell-in” new packaging systems prior to launch. However, a growing number of companies are periodically benchmarking the performance of their current packaging, relative to both competition and incoming brand imagery (based on name only). Often, the results are eye-opening, as we’ve found many cases in which well-established brands are actually selling despite their packaging rather than because of it. This proactive approach can be used:
- To allocate resources to the brands in the greatest need — and help avoid unnecessary and misguided design changes
- To set meaningful design objectives which can then translate into clear action standards
In fact, we’ve seen that pre-design research of this nature consistently leads to higher success rates for new design systems in our studies and in-market. That’s because it helps ensure that redesign efforts are solving the real problem rather than reacting to misguided assumptions or subjective preferences.
2. Simulate the introduction of new packaging (to forecast sales impact)
When testing new design systems, simulating the introduction of a new package within competitive context — and measuring its impact on brand choice — is the most accurate way to gauge the in-market impact of a new packaging system. Generally speaking, the more realistic the packaging and competitive context (ideally, a full life-size shelf with pricing, replicating a retail channel), the more predictive a study will be.
Conversely, when we ask people to compare options for the same brand (“Which of these five different packs would you prefer for this brand?”), it encourages them to think like art directors or brand managers rather than shoppers. In fact, we’ve found that direct comparisons between packaging graphics or structures (design A versus B) lead shoppers to dramatically overstate their preferences. Thus, marketers may walk away thinking they’ve hit a home run, when the new pack would actually do little to move the needle. Similarly, there is a list of questions that it is best to avoid asking, as they consistently generate misleading responses:
- “Would you see this pack on shelf?”
- “Would you notice this pack change?”
- “Would you find this confusing?”
- “Would you pay more for this feature?”
- “Would this pack lead you to use the product more?”
3. Test new packs from the shelf to the home (to measure their full value)
When testing changes in pack structure, it is ideal to fully replicate the consumer’s experience from the purchase decision through product usage. That’s because a new pack can have a positive impact on many levels:
- On shelf (in enhancing visibility and/or facilitating shopping)
- In the hand (improving product perceptions, brand imagery and/or price/value)
- In the home (improving functionality and/or driving increased usage)
If studies focus solely on one dimension (such as communication or functionality), they risk short-changing the true added-value of a pack innovation. Thus, they may lead to the mistaken conclusion that a new feature or delivery system won’t be worth the investment.
Holistic testing also makes sense for many new products, as we’ve found that packaging has a direct impact on product perceptions and consumer satisfaction. Shoppers often form their expectations based on the pack, and these impressions form their baseline in judging a new product. Thus, blind testing of new products without packaging can be quite misleading if there is a disconnect between packaging communication and product delivery.
4. Track in-market performance (to uncover success drivers and develop new case studies)
Designers and engineers are well-served to consistently track what happens after new packaging systems are introduced to market. Certainly, this can be challenging, given the complexity of sales data and many factors in play. However, there are ways to minimize confusion and help clarify the link between packaging and performance:
- Use lead retail partners or channels to pilot new packaging systems.
- Invest in clean or hard rollouts of new packaging.
- Systematically document the key factors accompanying pack introductions.
By following these processes, creating a continuous feedback loop, and possibly linking to market modeling efforts, companies can learn from experience and build knowledge regarding the drivers of success in their categories. In addition, marketers and designers will be rewarded with very relevant and quantified case studies illustrating the power of packaging within their organization.
MAKING THE CASE FOR DESIGN
A small but growing number of business leaders truly grasp the power of design and have elevated its role and resources within their organizations. They understand that packaging is a powerful marketing vehicle rather than a cost center — and that the right pack changes can drive millions in sales. However, these leaders remain the exception rather than the rule. In most companies, packaging must continually struggle for resources and investment and is under constant pressure to prove its worth.
Research and sales data can help us make this case by serving as a bridge between the world of packaging design and that of senior management. Specifically, they can identify the right opportunities — and most importantly, document and quantify the value of packaging innovation in a language that speaks to executives and retail partners. Thus, marketers, designers and engineers are well-advised to embrace the numbers as a tool to demonstrate the value of their work and make the case for continued investment in packaging.
Scott Young is the president of Perception Research Services (www.prsresearch.com), a company that conducts over 800 studies each year to help marketers “win at retail.” For further information, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 201-720-2701.