Even In The Dark: How Packaging Persuades You To Buy
This week, we explore how Product Packaging influences what we buy.
If you cast your mind back to Grade 6 biology class, you'll know a bit about the birds and the bees.
You may remember that in order for flowers to reproduce, they need to be pollinated.
That job is given to a variety of creatures, like birds and bees.
It's a reciprocal relationship.
Colourful flowers attract bees, bees get pollen stuck on their little legs, then fly to the next flower and drop the pollen off.
And for their troubles, flowers give bees sweet nectar.
It's a pretty good transaction.
But some orchids have a disadvantage.
They have no nectar.
So orchids have to use different techniques to attract pollinators.
Some orchids give off a scent that mimics those of nectar-producing plants, thereby attracting bees to visit.
Some orchids give off a mating scent like that of female insects, attracting amorous males.
Some orchids have sections that resemble the bodies of female insects, with body hair and antennae, attracting male insects by the score.
Flowers give off a scent that tell bees if other insects have already taken the nectar. So some orchids are capable of giving off a variety of scents, so they can attract multiple bees.
In order for pollen to even attach to a bee's knees, the bee has to land in just the right place on a flower. Nectar attracts them to the proper location.
But with many orchids, there is no nectar. So they use their upper and lower petals as guides, like a helicopter landing pad – forcing the bee to set down in a very specific spot and bump up against the pollen.
In one species of orchid, the flower closes the second a bee touches it, giving the insect only one way out – directly through the pollen.
Nature has provided orchids with remarkable packaging, able to overcome a variety of issues and problems, enabling orchids to compete with thousands of other flowers, and still attract reward-seeking bees.
The world of marketing has its own orchids.
In a field where thousands of products compete to be noticed, where brands need multiple pollinators, and where reward-seeking customers have lots of choice, marketers have to use clever packaging to overcome disadvantages and attract attention.
Some entice with shapes, some woo with the promise of sex, some lure you with convenience, and some tempt you with unique beauty.
But at the end of the day, they all want the same thing. To create a lot of buzz…
The practise of using package design to influence what you buy has been around for a long time.
As populations began to move from farms to cities during the Industrial Revolution, people were no longer self-sufficient, so products suddenly had to be shipped long distances.
Steam trains carried the bulk of consumer goods across the country.
And along with rail transportation came the need for product packaging. Goods could no longer be sent in open barrels and uncovered baskets.
In 1896, the Uneeda Biscuit Company invested over one million dollars to design a package that wrapped the biscuits in protective wax paper inside a carton. On the outside was a colourful illustration of a boy in a bright yellow raincoat.
The raincoat was a very specific choice – because it emphasized Uneeda's unique moisture barrier. It was the first time packaging had a dual purpose – it allowed the company to keep its products fresh over long distances, and the colourful raincoat wrapper gave Uneeda distinctive branding.
It was the birth of consumer packaging.
About the same time, in 1886, Coca Cola started as a soda fountain beverage.
You could walk into a drug store, sit at the counter, and a soda jerk would pull on the long fountain handle, filling your glass with an ice cold Coke.
But Coke wouldn't have become the gigantic, world-famous brand it is today if it weren't for one specific innovation.
Once Coke could be transported and sold in places other than soda fountains, sales exploded.
By 1915, Coke's success was attracting a lot of competitors.
So the board of directors decided it needed to further differentiate its brand, and invited eight glass companies to submit designs for a unique Coke bottle.
I love the brief Coke gave those companies. It simply said: We want a design so distinct that it can be identified by feel in the dark, or lying broken on the ground.
That said it all.
The eventual winner was the Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Indiana.
The firm had decided to base their design on Coke's two main ingredients - the coca leaf and the cola nut. But when they went to the library to look for pictures, they couldn't find any.
But they did discover a photo of a gourd-shaped cocoa pod in the Encyclopedia Britannica – and took that as their inspiration.
Over the next 24 hours, employee Earl Dean sketched out a design – gently curved, flat on the bottom, slim up top.
And from that was born the classic Coke bottle we know today.
The first prototypes proved to be unsteady on a conveyor belt, so the belly of the bottle was slightly reduced.
That design was enthusiastically adopted by Coca-Cola company wide. As thanks, Earl Dean was offered the choice of a $500 bonus, or a lifetime job at Root Glass.
He chose the latter.
By 1928, Coke bottles had overtaken soda fountain sales.
The unique shape was often called the "Mae West bottle" – a reference to the actress's famous curves.
Handy six-packs were introduced in the '20s – designed to persuade shoppers to bring more Cokes home.
By 1949, thirty-three years after its introduction, 99% of North Americans could identify a Coke bottle by its silhouette alone.
When television pushed its way into living rooms in 1950, viewers saw the first TV commercial to ever show a Coke bottle:
That same year, a Coke bottle became the first commercial product to appear on the cover of Time Magazine.
Then, in 1960, the curved Coke bottle containing the word Coca-Cola was registered as a trademark, becoming only the second package in history to be granted that protection.
The uniqueness of the Coke bottle would go on to become its most powerful branding, and even though its difficult to buy Coke bottles anymore, the silhouette is still a vital part of Coke's advertising.
2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the design.
Coca-Cola is rolling out a big campaign to celebrate its iconic bottle this year, including an eight-month Coke bottle exhibit at Atlanta's High Museum of Art.
Recently, Coke was rated the most valuable brand in the world.
In marketing, shape matters.
The inviting, curved shape of a Coke bottle has a lot to do with persuading you to buy a soft drink, overriding the fact that it's not the healthiest choice you could make.
As a matter of fact, there are studies that suggest we are hardwired to prefer curved designs.
Fast Company Magazine cites University of Toronto research, where people were placed into brain imaging machines, then shown images of curved and linear products.
The results showed that men and women were far more likely to prefer the curved items, and activity was triggered in the part of the brain that is highly involved with "emotion."
In another Harvard brain imaging study, people were shown sharp objects with corners, like square watches and pointy couches. Those images triggered activity in another section of the brain – the part that processes fear.
Sharp objects have long signaled physical danger, so our brains have come to associate sharp lines with a threat.
While there are obvious exceptions to every rule, it goes a long way to explaining the universal attraction to the Coke bottle.
Curved designs use our brains to tug at our hearts.
It's not just curves that influence your shopping decisions.
Functionality is hugely important. How easy a package is to open, how easy it is to get every last drop out, how easy it is to store, and how easy it is to dispose of all influences what you purchase.
And one of the most important factors is portability. In other words, how easy a product is to grab has enormous sway over your purchases.
In 2008, New York Magazine pointed out that Coke changed the design on its 2-litre bottle to make it easier to hold and pour. That change resulted in a huge jump in sales – more than the 2-litre Pepsi bottle experienced.
When one product is easier to pick up than others – when all else is equal – you will buy that product more often.
Which means, your purchasing decisions may be influenced by something as seemingly insignificant as the shape of the package.
A factor you may not even be aware of.
Diaper manufacturers understand this concept. They offer big economy-sized packages of diapers, but also offer small ones.
Now – why would a parent choose the smaller package when the bigger one clearly offers better value?
The answer is that many parents in grocery stores have a baby in one arm. The smaller diaper package is easier to carry with their free hand.
Most liquid detergents come with handles. So do large bottles of milk and juices.
The handles are there not just to make the pouring easier, but to make the shopping easier.
Package design exerts enormous influence when you're grocery shopping.
Today, a typical grocery store carries about 45,000 products, and the average shopper buys 50 items in 50 minutes.
At that rate, decisions are being made in nanoseconds.
Which is interesting, because a majority of shoppers – 64% of them – say they will buy a product off the shelf because of its packaging alone – without any prior knowledge of it.
My wife mentioned that she buys hand-soap dispensers for our bathrooms based solely on package design – she just wants them to look nice.
That's why packaging is critical when it comes to impulse purchases.
The best designs infuse function with emotion. Presenting the product well, and creating a little tug of desire.
But that's not all a package has to accomplish.
A good package has to contain the product in an efficient manner - be it liquid or solid.
It has to protect the product from damage during shipping.
It has to shield the product from contamination, moisture, insects and temperature fluctuations.
It has to communicate ingredients, cooking instructions, place of origin, size, weight, quantity, warnings, company information and a barcode.
The packaging has to ideally be sustainable.
In seven seconds or less, the package has alleviate any fears you might have about it – especially if you've never tried it before.
The psychology of colours has to be employed.
The packaging has to satisfy shoppers from purchase to disposal.
And it has to wrap it all up in unique branding.
The best packaging encourages you to touch it. Because once touched, the likelihood of a purchase skyrockets.
90% of consumers re-use boxes and bags after purchase, so good packaging needs to last a long time.
The Harvard Business Review says that fewer than 3% of new products generate enough first-year sales to survive.
That's why package design is an art.
Many product designs have stood the test of time.
Take… the Toblerone bar.
Its unique triangular shape is over 100 years old. (Proving some pointy objects do work!)
As you can imagine, standing out in the crowded chocolate market isn't easy.
Created in Bern, Switzerland, Theodor Tobler patented the recipe and triangle shape in 1909.
It has been long believed that he took the shape from the Swiss Alps, as the Matterhorn is depicted on the packaging.
But the truth is much… sexier.
Tobler was actually inspired by the Folies Bergere in Paris, a cabaret where attractive female dancers always ended their shows by forming a human pyramid.
The unique shape also has an equally unique marketing strategy.
Toblerone is mostly sold… in airports. It's reportedly the third-best selling product in duty-free stores after alcohol and tobacco, accounting for over 40% of Swiss chocolate exports.
And much of Toblerone's success can be attributed to one overriding design philosophy – it can be identified even in the dark.
Product design can also revolutionize a category.
When Tide launched its Tide Pods in 2012, it captured an astounding 68% of the market in less than a year.
It was a major innovation. The small, round Tide Pods meant no measuring, no pouring, the container was easy to carry, and it offered the utter convenience of just tossing a pod into the washing machine.
The laundry category was ripe for reinvention. That's why Proctor & Gamble launched Tide Pods with a $150 million marketing budget. It's one of the few categories with 100% penetration - meaning everyone has to do laundry.
That new product design was a resounding success.
Until the unique shape of the product became a problem.
According to a CBS report, over 17,000 children under the age of six had ingested Tide Pods or squeezed the liquid into their eyes in the first year alone.
That amounted to one child every hour.
The problem was the novel packaging. The small, round, colourful pods resembled candy or teething toys.
P&G had to incorporate big design changes. First, they made the Tide tubs opaque, so children couldn't see the pods and be tempted.
They outfitted the tubs with triple-latch lids, making them harder to open.
Then Tide produced a new commercial:
It was a highly unusual commercial, because it wasn't selling an innovative product, it was warning parents about the hazards of an innovative product.
The launch of Tide Pods became a cautionary tale.
Sometimes revolutionary product design can have unintended consequences.
There are many reasons for updating existing product designs.
Sometimes, a product undergoes an ingredient change. Some products need a facelift. At other times, a product needs to change a negative perception.
The makers of Tropicana Orange Juice were facing the latter.
Even though Tropicana was the 800 pound gorilla in its category, with a 33% market share and over eight feet of freezer space in grocery stores, research revealed people had a perception that orange juices contained added sugar.
But according to Tropicana, it is 100% pure orange juice, with no sugar added.
To reinforce that existing benefit, the company decided to update its packaging.
For decades, Tropicana had a simple design on its cartons and jugs.
So the company hired a top design firm, and a new look was developed:
The new design was granted 20 different trademarks, and took 30 people over five months to develop.
When the new Tropicana was put into the market, the response was immediate.
Sales plunged 20% between January 1st and February 22nd.
For a category leader, the drop was a little alarming.
So on February 23rd, Tropicana made a momentous decision – it switched back to its old packaging.
It wasn't just that Tropicana lost 20% of its sales, or that it had spent over $35 million on the design change and advertising to promote the new look.
There was another urgent reason. Competitors like Minute Maid had picked up double-digit gains.
It was embarrassing for Tropicana to do an about-face so quickly – but it had to move fast to reclaim its customers.
It was a case-study in what can go wrong with product design. When brands make drastic changes with familiar packaging, it can often make shoppers feel what's inside has changed dramatically, too.
And that creates trust issues.
But Tropicana had not changed its juice. As a matter of fact, the reason for the redesign was to reassure customers that Tropicana had not changed at all – that it was still sugar-free 100% pure orange juice.
It's also interesting that the passionate connection customers had to the old "straw-in-the-orange" graphic didn't reveal itself in research.
That powerful visual had silently contributed so much to Tropicana's revenues, yet it was perceived – internally – to be outdated and expendable.
When it was all said and done, many critics likened the Tropicana packaging disaster to New Coke.
A massive change, followed by a massive retreat.
It was an apt analogy.
Because Tropicana is owned…. by Pepsi.
Like orchids, brands have to overcome many disadvantages.
It may be bad shelf positioning in grocery stores, it could be price wars, it might be competitors with deeper pockets, or newer brands nipping at their heels.
But great package design is a silent salesperson.
It was a lesson Tropicana learned the hard way. The simple and underestimated straw-in-the-orange graphic was a big emotional pull for shoppers.
The pyramid shape of Toblerone makes it stand out in a crowded market, working hard at duty-free stores, quietly accounting for 40% of Swiss chocolate exports.
That silent salesmanship also highlights the subtle ways design speaks to us on a subconscious level.
How easy it is to grab a product influences your decision to buy it. You may think it's price and flavour, but the deciding vote just may be the fact it has a handle.
Then there's the famous Coke bottle. Curvy, iconic and designed to pass the ultimate test.
Which just may be the key to all great package design.
It even sells in the dark…
…when you're under the influence.