Chris Peach | How consumer neuroscience can help to optimise pack design

Marketing Sciences Unlimited’s Chris Peach looks at how subconcious messaging can influence shoppers.

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All manufacturers know that effective packaging is vital to making any product a success: it’s one of the main factors that determine whether a consumer chooses your brand over a competitor’s, and competition is fierce. A larger supermarket, for example, will stock up to 40,000 product lines, while the average household will only buy around 40 items per trip. Our research using eye tracking technology shows that each shopper spends an average of thirty minutes actually browsing the shelves during their visit. If shoppers have just half an hour to process 40,000 products, then it becomes clear that most will either reject or entirely ignore 20 products every second; 1,300 each minute. With such a narrow window to communicate their brand’s unique selling point, it’s hardly surprising that manufacturers invest so much time and energy in getting packaging right. Research lies at the heart of making sure packaging works.

When shopping, we cannot consciously process all 40,000 products we are constantly bombarded with so, put simply, we don’t. Instead our brain tries to make sense of a pack design, a whole host of memories and emotional associations are triggered in our unconscious, and the purchase decision is largely made for us.

Traditionally, qualitative focus groups and quantitative interviews are the main means by which new pack designs are assessed. These methods can provide useful insight, but if we remember the statistical reality of how long a consumer has to make a decision at the shelf, then it becomes clear that asking a consumer to assess in minutes what they would usually consider in less than a second is not going to elicit a very representative response.

Over the years we’ve asked shoppers many times to tell us their views on redesigned packs, on average a little over one in four were thought to be more distinctive than the original. However, when we tested distinctiveness by measuring how quickly different brands were picked out on screen, we found that only one in five packs delivered a significantly faster find time. Relying only on consumer’s rational responses would have led to an inaccurate indication of how the pack might perform on the shelf in 20 per cent of occasions.

I am not calling for an end to research as we know it – knowing how consumers feel about packs on reflection has its applications – but there is a clear argument for integrating other methodologies that more accurately reflect how our brain interacts with packs in store.

This is where consumer neuroscience comes in. Brain imaging technology can measure the brain’s emotional response to packaging, while eye tracking can indicate how the pack is navigated. Combine the two and we can gain insight into the emotional response to its various different parts – branding, visuals and colouring – and where best to place them on pack. This allows designers to pinpoint exactly what works and what doesn’t and how the design can be altered to generate a stronger reaction. All of these cues are critical, and although many are happening outside our conscious awareness, they are key to driving our decision-making.

Reaction time testing (implicit testing) can then allow us to measure the strength of the emotional association we have with that pack, allowing us to understand not just what people say, but the strength of their emotional conviction. If a pack’s design incorporates the right triggers to cue perceptions of a great taste, then we would expect people to agree (explicit) alongside a rapid reaction time (implicit). However, if reaction time is slow, despite what people may say on a rational level, there is no strong emotional conviction – the change is not compelling.

Understanding how consumers make decisions is essential to creating a successful product, and armed with the knowledge that a significant portion of the decision-making process takes place unconsciously, it’s an area we cannot afford to ignore. Knowing how people consciously view items has its place, but an approach integrating methodologies from consumer neuroscience is undoubtedly where package testing is headed.

Chris Peach is head of packaging and design at Marketing Sciences Unlimited