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Packaging Psychology

An implicit association guide to successful packaging design

Walking through the supermarket aisles, consumers require a mere split-second to form a judgment about a product.

Some products appear tasty right away, others don’t. Some shampoos are particularly feminine, while others are manly. It becomes even more phenomenal considering customers burst these rapid-fire judgments regardless of whether or not they have ever tried the actual product.

It’s based completely on implicit associations: automatic thought concepts linked in the brain.

Packaging matters a great deal whether a consumer is attracted to a particular brand. Subtle elements such as color, shape and texture provide customer’s with cues about taste, quality, luxuriousness and even brand personality – intended or not.

In this blog, I’ll share five inspiring packaging insights. How can brands use implicit associations to influence what customer’s think and feel about their products – and ultimately determine whether it’s destined for the their basket?

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Association #1: Color

It’s no secret colors hold significant cultural meanings. In the realm of packaging, it’s advantageous to select colors that fit the purchase motivation of their target market. (let’s repeat that because it’s so vital to successful packaging: colors that fit the purchase motivation of the target market).

In western society, blue and white are associated with cleanliness. As such, they are used widely in the packaging of toothpastes, cleaning solutions and, yes, toilet paper. Red and yellow spark feelings of pleasure, convenience and tastiness; a great fit for a tasty snack. Green denotes health and is well suited for natural and organic foods. By altering the hue and saturation, color meaning can be tweaked even further. The brighter the hue, the more positive and energetic the product is perceived to be (which is often preferred, but not always).

Of course, the meaning of color depends on context. As black is often associated with death and evil, it may not be the optimal color for your average breakfast cereal. Still, black is also associated with power. That’s why in some contexts, such as Technology, black denotes luxuriousness and high quality. Remember when Apple traded its signature white for stylish black when it introduced the iPhone?

Color meaning results from an interplay between implicit association, product category and target market (color associations are highly different among different cultures, gender and age-groups).

Association #2: Sensory Texture

There’s more to packaging than what meets the eye. There’s touch, too. The way a packaging feels in our hands can sometimes say a lot about product quality and brand identity.

Just walk into the cosmetics aisles for some striking example of packaging texture. Most traditional feminine brands’ packaging feel silky smooth. Contrast that with the products aimed at men. The flacons are often highly texturized – rugged, feeling like  it came out of a toolbox. Ask a guy to explain whether the packaging feels manly, and he’ll have a hard time making sense. But implicitly, the rugged texture makes the product feel just right as a male cosmetic.

Currently, many brands of natural crisps are rising in popularity. One of their biggest challenges was to distance themselves from the not-so-healthy regular crisps. The solution was elegantly simple. Many brands of natural crisps are now packaged in matte bags, as opposed to the shiny bags that spell out UNHEALTHY.

Association #3: Images

Perhaps the single most important packaging element is what you show: images. For most products, this sounds straightforward: display what’s inside. But small changes in the way a product is presented can make a big difference. Here are three examples.

  • Vertical stripes behind the product foster feelings of luxury.
  • When you display food – for instance, a bowl of peanuts – people eat more of it at home when the bowl is completely filled on the packaging design.
  • Images trigger automatic feelings and inferences that spill over to the brand, even when they’re unrelated to the product. My breakfast cornflakes have a grain field pictured on the box, even though there are zero grains in the actual product, but it surely feels healthy. In similar vein, the Kleenex Toilet Paper Puppy adds feelings of softness to the brand.

Association #4: Shape

Packaging shape conveys implicit associations. Brands can use shape to not only enhance their brand identity, but can even add some extra taste to their products.

  • Angular designs are perceived to be more masculine and powerful (the beer brand Hasseröder increased its manly appeal by simply changing its bottle to a pentagon-shape)
  • Curved shapes are often associated with femininity, harmony and gentleness (which fits great with the often round-shaped family deserts)
  • Food taste may become more intense when packaged in square-shaped as opposed to round packaging (Becker et al., 2011)
  • Unusual packaging shapes make consumers overestimate product quantity (Folkes & Matta, 2004).

Association #5: Size

It’s well known that large packaging sizes automatically increase consumption, thereby adding to the obesity epidemic. When comparing products, consumers prefer the large options for branded products, whereas they lean towards the small option for private-label products. Perhaps prive-label products are deemed a risky purchase

Interestingly, package sizes triggers two contrasting implicit associations. At the one hand, large packaging makes a purchase feel like a good deal. Therefore, it’s advisable for products that people wish to stock up on, such as snacks, soft drinks and toilet paper (Silayoi & Speece, 2004). On the other hand, small package size denotes high quality (Yan, Sengupta & Wyer, 2014). When a brand’s identity consists of delivering supreme quality, it’s best to cut down on the cardboard.

Don’t just guess associations. Measure them.

The examples above illustrate how small things can make a big difference in packaging design. Nonetheless, the context formed by a brand, the product and target market ultimately determine how associations materialize. It’s well advised not to guess associations, but to utilize methods designed to measure them in the most meaningful way.

AmsterBrand’s Product/Packaging Identifier is the preferred method to select design elements that best reinforce a brand’s identity. It quantifies the degree with which a specific design element evokes the desired associations.


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