Across nearly all companies, insights teams are struggling with reduced budgets, smaller staff and, most importantly and consistently, the pressures of tighter timelines. This reality has inevitably changed how researchers approach their roles. In fact, we at PRS IN VIVO have several clients whose new mantra is they would rather be 80 percent right in half the time or budget as opposed to 100 percent certain using more expensive and time-consuming methods.

But how can companies get to 80 percent right in an intelligent way? And is 80 percent acceptable in the world of packaging, where the wrong decision can quickly lead to double-digit sales declines or doom a new product to failure?

Clearly there’s no single answer, but there are several recommendations for faster packaging research based on PRS IN VIVO’s experience helping clients find faster, more inexpensive and flexible solutions.

Choosing the Right Methods

A plethora of new techniques have emerged recently, nearly all promising to provide feedback on packaging designs, structures, etc., more quickly than ever before. While this is enticing, we all know that the “garbage in, garbage out” rule applies to research. So how can insights teams sort through options and make the right decisions about emerging tools? We’d suggest keeping these four guiding principles in mind:

1. use the web strategically

Without question, web-based studies should be part of the packaging research toolkit since they offer cost and timing efficiencies (relative to in-person studies) that can’t be ignored. But insights teams also need to realize that the web shouldn’t be the only answer because web-based approaches have limitations in representing package sizing, functionality and finishes (matte/foil, etc.).

Regardless of sample size, packaging research is only as valid as the stimuli shown to consumers. Thus, Insights teams need to be sure that a web-based study will do justice to the packaging issues at hand. For example, the web may be fine for some graphics-only changes, but an in-person approach may be needed to assess new structures, features or delivery systems.

2. focus on behavior at shelf

From experience and validation studies, we know that shelf-based measures are the most predictive of in-market performance:

  • Increasing shelf visibility consistently drives sales gains, especially for new products or small brands.
  • Creating confusion or hesitation at the shelf (uncertain brand recognition, difficulty in finding varieties, confusion over whether the product has  changed, etc.) consistently leads to sales declines.

These behavioral measures are simply more predictive of actual shopper decision making than attitudinal measures such as pack appeal, personality or communication. This isn’t to say that companies shouldn’t do quick communication checks during the package development and screening process, but insights teams also need to recognize and acknowledge the limitations of these studies˗and ensure that new packaging systems are ultimately evaluated on-shelf prior to going to market.

3. don’t accept terminology at face value

One of the most challenging aspects of assessing packaging research tools is sorting through terminology and linking it to specific methods and measures. For example, nearly all offerings speak of breakthrough, shop-ability and emotional measurement, but they often measure these dimensions in very different ways. While the intent is not to critique specific methods, we can offer these basic observations:

  • If a methodology doesn’t show packaging within a realistic shelf, it cannot accurately gauge its visibility or shop-ability. Importantly, a competitive set, which shows a range of brands with equal representation, is definitely not a valid substitute for a shelf set.
  • Neither claimed purchase interest (upon viewing a package) nor forced-choice/paired comparisons (versus a single competitor) are viable/accurate substitutes for actual shopping from a shelf.
  • Through parallel research, we’ve found that faster/cheaper substitutes for in-person eye-tracking (click-streams, algorithms, web-cams, etc.) often yield very different and potentially misleading data. Similarly, heat maps can be quite misleading if they are generated from a small number of shoppers.
  • Across all measures, a large sample size is not a substitute for poorly designed research, such as side-by-side comparisons of designs for the same brand, which turns shoppers into art directors.

Overall, PRS IN VIVO’s experience suggests that insights teams need to be very careful with terminology and to dig a bit deeper to truly understand the methodology behind a metric. In some cases, it’s often better to consciously forgo a measure, such as shelf visibility, rather than gather potentially misleading data. In other words, a new method isn’t good enough if it leads to the wrong decisions.

This terminology challenge is also one strong reason to align with a consistent partner, to ensure that the company is speaking the same language across different packaging research studies. With a consistent approach, everyone knows what shop-ability means, how it measured and what excellence looks like.

Saving Time + Money

Given the “watch-outs” noted above, how can companies consistently save days and dollars on their packaging studies and still gather valid and actionable insights? Across clients, we’ve found several effective strategies:

1. re-visiting sampling

The cost and timing of packaging studies are typically driven by sampling, and we find that companies often invest a great deal to speak with very low-incidence samples. In our experience, it is often best to begin with a larger sample, such as a representative sample of category shoppers, and only follow up with a more targeted audience, such as highly loyal brand users, for one to two finalist options. Testing all designs among multiple subgroups is typically not cost- or time-effective. Similarly, we’ve found that on global studies, it is wise to test initially in one to two lead markets, and then bring only the finalist options across the globe.

2. reviewing the range of designs

The most accurate packaging studies are monadic studies in which we simulate the introduction of a new packaging system and each shopper reacts to only one packaging option within a competitive context. With this monadic approach, the number of designs tested has a direct impact on the study cost. However, in many cases we find that companies race to assess a wide range of designs that are very similar. This is where the experience of a research agency with packaging expertise can be valuable in providing an outside perspective as to which options can be tested for measurable differences, helping clients visualize the packs within a shelf context and ultimately narrow down options. However, this design review process needs to be built in to the work process or it will inevitably get lost in the race to field each study. 

3. planning ahead on stimuli

Developing the shelf set is sometimes the most time-consuming and frustrating aspect of packaging research. However, this doesn’t need to be the case if clients and agencies have clear policies on which shelf to use (the Walmart shelf, etc.), and they begin working in advance while agencies are still creating proposed pack designs. This way, new designs can be dropped in to the shelf when they’re ready, and fieldwork can begin immediately.

Driving Success and Speed

While these tactics can help save time and money on individual studies, it’s also important for insights teams to step back and review their larger processes for packaging development and validation. Here, we’ve found several best practices that can have a very positive impact across brands and studies.

Many companies heavily backload their packaging research, with very little investment at earlier stages and major quantitative studies to validate new designs. Unfortunately, this pattern can lead to disappointment, as we often find that redesigns have been based on misguided assumptions—and designers have solved the wrong problem. And certainly, the greatest waste of resources comes when redesigns fail to move the needle or a new product fails in market.

Benchmarking current packaging helps to prevent this problem by ensuring that resources are focused on the right brands and objectives—and by uncovering core visual equities to be leveraged in new packaging. At PRS IN VIVO, we have several clients who benchmark against their competitors on a periodic prescheduled basis to determine which brands need attention. Others simply conduct the “control cell” at the outset of their redesign initiatives to inform and refine the design brief and to help determine action standards.

On-shelf screening is another important practice, which can be conducted on a qualitative or quantitative basis. In either case, it helps to identify the systems most likely to work on shelf, and it reduces the likelihood of bringing very similar designs into more expensive validation studies.

At PRS IN VIVO we’ve found that clients who have adopted benchmarking and/or on-shelf screening have been rewarded with significantly higher success rates, both in validation and in-market. Thus, they haven’t wasted as much time and money on packaging initiatives that don’t reach market or on repetitive design efforts and research studies.

Linking Methodology to Risk Level

When designs reach the validation stage, many clients employ a tiered approach with methodologies linked to perceived risk levels. For example, we have several clients that:

  • Use in-person methods to assess changes to larger brands and/or to test structural changes which may be linked to major capital investments
  • Apply web-based approaches for smaller brands or secondary markets

This approach makes intuitive sense by focusing resources and rigor to the most important packaging decisions. However, we’d offer two points of caution.

First, some clients mistakenly group new products, even  major new product launches, in the low-risk category. We’d challenge this thinking because we know from experience that having the right packaging is absolutely critical to successful innovation. Given the enormous investment in development, screening and marketing of new product launches, it is short-sighted to jeopardize their success by cutting corners on the packaging research.

Second, marketers and designers often have difficulty gauging the risk of proposed packaging changes. On many occasions we’ve had clients characterize proposed changes as very “evolutionary” only to later find that they had completely confused or alienated shoppers. In particular, we know that changes to logos and product/variant descriptors can be very disconcerting and confusing to shoppers. Thus, pack changes can be high risk even if they don’t fundamentally change the appearance of the pack.

Thinking Holistically

Finally, many companies may want to consider breaking down the silos between research disciplines and better leverage their packaging studies to gather more knowledge and create efficiencies. Shopper understanding is one obvious opportunity, as each packaging study can be designed to better understand shopper behavior at the shelf and/or test a range of different shelving options and/or point-of-sale signage.

Product delivery is another area to consider since it’s easy, intuitive, and cost- and time-effective to tag on functionality and usage exercises at the end of pack studies. It is also well-documented that packaging impacts consumers’ expectations and satisfaction with products, so this testing often reveals different insights than blind product testing.

By getting more from each packaging study, insights teams can potentially eliminate the need for some other studies. And by thinking holistically, they can bring themselves closer to the actual consumer experience and expedite an often lengthy, sequential new product development process in which packaging development and research is often rushed at the very end.

Given increasing time and budget pressures, insights teams are wise to explore new approaches to packaging research. In some cases, a faster and cheaper approach is the right solution, particularly at the development and screening stages of a packaging initiative. But in pursuing speed, researchers should also recognize the importance of packaging decisions, and remember that the larger objective of driving business success. In other words, they should focus on establishing the right research practices and avoid the trap of cutting corners in a “penny wise and pound foolish” manner. Companies that do so are sure to be rewarded with stronger packaging on shelf.