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The power of product packaging design reminds us what irrational beings we all are, buying because of a shape, colour, wording or picture. But behind all this emotionality, there is a definite science.

Picture the scene: you’re doing the weekly shop. There are 50 aisles to walk up and down, and an average of 40,000 products in the supermarket. You have just 20 minutes to get around (that’s officially a measly 0.03 second per product). It’s easy to see how responses to packaging happen in a split-second, and it is these responses determine whether a customer chooses to pick up your product or walk on by.

Go wild in the aisles

Research shows that more than 70% of purchasing decisions are made at the point of purchase, depending entirely on how we feel at the time and shoppers spend less than three seconds scanning a shelf of products they’re interested in. It’s these reasons that compel brands to always communicate the right product messages on pack with as much impact as they can muster.

Packaging should especially be a major focus for brands that don’t spend a lot (or anything at all) on advertising, as it’s the one form of communication that people choose to bring into their homes. It’s also one of the foremost ways people define who they are: whether you buy Lindt or Green & Black’s, Tiptree or Bonne Maman, it communicates something about your identity and values. So packaging is an extremely powerful tool in brand positioning, and needs to clearly reinforce a product’s positioning.

Standing out from the crowd

Stand-out on the shelf is a primary need for food manufacturers. After all, you may have the most beautiful packaging, but if customers overlook it, it’s entirely useless.

The four key elements that can help differentiate your product packaging are:

COLOUR: One of the major factors that differentiate a product or brand, in terms of recognition and also stand-out on shelf. Brands who ‘own’ a particular colour and maintain consistency over time have stronger places in people’s minds, eg Coca Cola, Cadbury, Selfridges and Veuve Cliquot.

Selfridges, Coca-Cola and Veuve Clicquot all have distinct and instantly recognisable branded packaging design

SHAPE: Some brands develop a unique product or packaging shape. A Coca Cola, Evian or Perrier bottle is immediately recognisable. Likewise with Toblerone, Marmite and Dorset Cereals.

IMAGES: Pictures convey an idea with impact and can create a powerful emotional response. Whether your brand is innovative, uses natural products, is witty or has heritage, you can make the point with a carefully chosen image. Gü redefined its category by making its puddings sexy.

Gü uses dark and ‘sexy’ look for their product packaging design

COPY: Packaging copy has been largely overlooked in the past as it was used to communicate the contents briefly and dryly. But brands are using it more to lend themselves a personality. A great example of this is Innocent, who communicate their brand with unflagging humour.

Innocent introduce humour and facts to promote their great product packaging

Different strokes

It’s interesting to see how many brands are producing great packaging design to capture those consumers treating themselves to small luxuries in a difficult market. Evolve has developed a premium brand identity for its series of organic cold pressed oils, using carafe-style glass bottles with a pour spout in the lid, while Babees honey has used hand-drawn calligraphy and stripes on each jar that reference bees and create a stylish design. Gouash fruit spreads from Canada quite literally raised their brand to great art by launching its products in paint tubes, while Russian haute couture spirits brand Denis Simachëv Vodka took inspiration from the iconic bottles of local Troynov eau-de-cologne, strongly identifying its customers as stylish and sophisticated. It fits in with the thinking that customers don’t differentiate between product and packaging, attributing the same values to both.

Innovating in your pack design also grabs attention as it challenges the norm – and stands out on shelves. Pringles changed the perception that crisps should always come in a bag – and elevated the product to something more valuable (and less shattered). German Hauswein launched new packaging that reclassified wines, using Pantone-inspired labelling that is easy to identify, and Rocombe ice cream reinforces its premium positioning with a pack design that uses witty character stereotypes, shying away from the expected ‘hand-made in Devon’ proposition. Tea, too, has mostly been about heritage until the Damn Fine Tea Company in London produced limited-edition gourmet leaves in tins with stunning hand-printed labels, while Nusa Kitchen used high-resolution photos of winter knits to highlight the handmade quality of their seasonal soups; they quickly became collectors’ items and customers requested more patterns. And finally, Jomon rice manages to straddle ethnic authenticity and contemporary designer in a fabric bag.

That’s packaging for you. It can entertain your customers, make them think, surprise them or help connect with them on a deep emotional level. All in less than three seconds.