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It’s All Packaging

While not all brands are products and not all products are sold at retail, a book on brand would be remiss to ignore the importance of packaging. For many products, the package is the branding. It’s also the last and best chance to influence a prospect this side of the checkout counter.

In some retail environments, such as the supermarket, it’s possible for a package to reach 100% of people shopping in that category. For several seconds, or even a few precious minutes, the shopper is completely focused on the differences among brands. Previous intentions to buy one product over another are suddenly put aside and memories of past advertising are shoved into the background as the competing packages go “mano a mano” for the shopper’s attention. This is known as a branding moment.

Retail brand managers funnel a large portion of their marketing budgets into package design, because the return on investment is likely to be higher with packaging than with advertising, promotion, public relations, or other spending options. For many retail products, packaging not only makes the final sale, it strikes a significant blow for the brand, since experience with the product is often the best foundation for customer loyalty.

Marketers know this, but they’re not sure what makes it work. How, exactly, does one package beat another at the point of sale? How much of the battle is won by logic and how much by magic? Is it science or art? As you might guess, it’s both. But since most marketers favor left-brain thinking, most packages end up heavy on facts and light on emotion, the ingredient customers want most. Instead, customers are greeted with features, benefits, and what one shopper I interviewed called “scientific mumbo jumbo.”

Before you can create emotion with a package, however, you need to understand the natural reading sequence of your category. It so happens that customers process messages in a certain order, depending on the product, and messages presented out of order go unheeded.

Here’s an example of a typical reading sequence: 1) the shopper notices the package on the shelf—the result of good colors, strong contrast, an arresting photo, bold typography, or other technique; 2) the shopper mentally asks “What is it?,” bringing the product name and category into play; 3) then “Why should I care?,” which is best answered with a very brief why-to-buy message; 4) which in turn elicits a desire for more information to define and support the why-to-buy message; 5) the shopper is finally ready for the “mumbo-jumbo” necessary to make a decision—features, price, compatibilities, guarantees, awards, or whatever the category dictates.

When you present these pieces of information in a natural reading sequence, you increase their resonance and create a sympathetic bond with the customer. But if you lead off with features when the customer simply wants to know why she should care, the message that may come through is this: “Our product’s features are more important than your interests.” Advertising pioneer David Ogilvy often claimed that by changing a single word in a headline one could increase effectiveness of an advertisement by up to ten times. In my own practice, I’ve proven (at least to myself) that by getting the reading sequence right, and by connecting product features to customer emotions, a package can increase product sales by up to three times, sometimes more.

But what if you don’t sell at retail? No matter. The principles used in successful packaging—clarity, emotion, and a natural reading sequence—apply to every type of brand design. When you think about it, branding is simply a convenient package for a business idea.

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