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Packaging design: what could ever go wrong?

Consumer packaging expert, Stergios Bititsios, challenges traditional views on drinks packaging and reviews two failed drinks cases where packaging seems to have been a decisive factor

Stergios Bititsios MMR Research Worldwide

Consumer packaging expert, Stergios Bititsios, challenges traditional views on drinks packaging and reviews two failed drinks cases where packaging seems to have been a decisive factor.

In the incredibly competitive drinks sector, packaging can play a pivotal role in helping products stand out on shelf and in enhancing the overall consumption experience. Packaging’s role has changed from product protector to that of brand ambassador, mass communicator and a differentiator. This raises a serious question. Should packaging design be defined by artistic creativity and attempts at brand expression, or should it be the result of scientific research and co-creation?

Packaging Design: Art or Science?
In his 1995 book ‘Total Package’, Thomas Hine backed certain critics’ arguments that packaging design is a type of folk art, anonymous and universal, a response to aesthetics that are unspoken but widely shared. He also noted that most packaging designers have an art school background, often in graphic design, rather than a qualification in a scientific discipline.

 Whether or not that is representative today, the truth is that in order to successfully capture and materialise all that packaging represents and is expected to deliver, design – structural or concerning graphics – requires at least some scientific input. Packaging designers need a way to leverage and manage consumer needs and desires, product qualities and brand equities and to accurately embed these in the design process. 

Such precision in the design execution is feasible but requires a well-disciplined collaboration between the fields of psychology, sensory science, consumer research and engineering. So, it is possible to scientifically analyse and evaluate the elements that make a packaging design effective. But it also requires artfulness in the way that those elements are integrated.

An amalgamation of art and science is possibly the right way forward, but still the science part is too often overlooked.  The more science is pushed into the background, the more packaging design risks becoming a beauty contest. The drinks sector alone has a number of reference cases, with two of the most recent being Slate20 and Tropicana – both covered extensively in the press and by bloggers.

Drinks companies can get it wrong. . .

Slate20: a bottle that called for broad shoulders
In March 2006, Diageo launched a new pre-mixed alcoholic drink under the name Slate 20. The product was aimed at young male professionals who may, on a night out, want to take a break from lager. The packaging was tasked to reflect key product qualities such as refreshing and citrusy, as well as the brand's top priority values: urban and masculine.  The drink was packaged in a brown glass bottle that had round shoulders, a short neck and no detailing, such as embossing or indenting, on the glass. Approximately £3.7 million was invested in the new product, but sales didn’t meet the company’s performance criteria.

Pack testing was part of the brand's rigorous retrospective analysis into the reasons for the product’s poor market performance. A statistically significant data set of target consumers was recruited, which revealed that there was a great degree of dissonance between pack design, product qualities and brand values.

To maximise its effectiveness, the new research clearly showed that the bottle would have benefited from an angled shoulder, a tapered body and the inclusion of embossing or indented detailing. In terms of the optimum neck length and bottle colour there was a conflict between ‘citrusy’, ‘urban’ and ‘masculine.’ The Slate20 brand owners should therefore have undertaken deeper exploration to first identify and weigh up the trade-offs and second to predict the ultimate variation of brown and the optimum neck length. Perhaps the product idea itself was not as strong as it could have been, but packaging could definitely have helped promote the concept, positioning it closer to the hearts of the target audience.   

Unfortunately for the brand, there was no time left for going back to the drawing board and the product ceased in June 2007, just 15 months after launch.             

Tropicana: revitalised design that took product downmarket
A couple of years ago, Tropicana, the iconic brand owned by PepsiCo, decided to change the graphics on its long-established carton pack in the US. Unfortunately, as a direct result of the package redesign, sales of the Tropicana Pure Premium line dropped by 20% within one month. Tropicana immediately announced it would bow to consumer demand and withdraw the new design. It had been on the market less than two months and PepsiCo reportedly made a loss of approximately $35 million.  Moreover, several of Tropicana’s competitors appeared to have benefited from the misstep pack change, notably Minute Maid, Florida’s Natural and Tree Ripe. Varieties within each of those brands posted double-digit unit sales increases during that period.

We were curious to understand what went wrong with the new design and tested it rigorously with UK consumers.  We used UK consumers as we did not want to have US customers who might already have seen the story in the press and have been influenced by other people’s reactions.  UK consumers were used to seeing a similar (but not identical) original pack, so the comparison was still valid. Whilst we found little in traditional measures like overall appeal or propensity to buy to indicate any potential issues, what we did find was that despite an increase in modernity perceptions the new design subtly downshifted the brand from its premium position and placed it closer to the own-label space.

The result was that consumers were no longer willing to pay a premium for Tropicana. We also observed that consumers were struggling to find and recognise the new design on fixture, making shelf-standout a potential issue. When we looked closer at the differences between the two designs we found major discrepancies on message delivery. Consumers fixated for a long time on the brand logo and the orange and straw graphic on the old design – the very essence of Tropicana.  But they ignored the brand logo on the new design and the lack of an iconic graphic execution forced them to look at the ‘100% orange’ message which is hardly a unique or compelling selling point. Finally, when we conducted emotional profiling using our proprietary  approaches we observed that the old design was perceived as more ‘fun’, ‘lively’ and ‘traditional’ and ‘trustworthy’, and whilst the new design did make the brand more ‘modern’, this was at the expense of the core brand values and hampered further by increases in ‘boring’, ‘tacky’ and ‘cheap’.             

Lesson learned
What do we learn from the above cases? In the highly competitive FMCG environment, the need to avoid catastrophic mistakes is evident. The above scenarios, and various other product failures, can be avoided. Packaging decisions need not be a case of trial and error.  Drinks companies should….    

Measure more than just ‘liking’
A simple measure of ‘liking’ at the validation stage is not enough to make informed design and business decisions. ‘Liking’ is only one dimension in the spectrum of choice drivers and accounting for that alone can be seriously misleading. Assessing the emotional and functional delivery of packaging alongside ‘liking’ is a must-have in weighing up the true value of packaging design.     

Use objective quantitative evidence to guide your decisions
Quite often packaging design decisions are based on qualitative outputs. Whilst qualitative research can be extremely insightful, it lacks the robustness that decision-making requires so that it’s accurate and error-free. A hybrid approach is ideal, but it’s best that the final decision is based on quantitative analysis.     

Conduct frequent health-checks
Regular consumer testing is vital to make sure that packaging design maintains its position at the heartland of the category and the brand. Especially as new packaging formats and technologies emerge it’s important to keep ahead of the game making sure packaging is in line with consumers’ fast-changing demands. After all, competition sleeps with one eye open, if it sleeps at all.      

Talk to the experts
If innovation, and indeed open innovation, is an area companies really want to invest in, then talking to the experts is a requirement and not merely a nice-to-have. There are professionals out there who have dedicated their whole career to investigating best practice approaches for packaging research and development. They surely know something that companies would also like to know. 

About the author
Stergios Bititsios is Associate Director, Packaging and Design, MMR Research Worldwide, a leading research partner for food, drink and personal care companies with profound expertise in sensory research, product testing, packaging innovation, NPD and emotion-based research.

1 January 2012