Packaging is a potent marketing tool and package design research provides guidance as to how packaging should be leveraged. Every packaging-related decision is fraught with risks. That being so, package design research is only as valuable as the researcher’s ability to reduce those risks. That ability, in turn, depends on how well a company understands package design research, not only its potential but its limitations and pitfalls.
Qualitative and quantitative are the two categories of package design research and it is fundamental to understand the difference. Qualitative research explores and delves, typically to generate ideas, theories, and hypotheses. Quantitative research generates statistics derived from data sourced from sample sizes large enough to be projectable.
Qualitative research describes and quantitative research measures, a simplification that does not mean that the two categories never overlap. Focus groups are considered qualitative, and in-depth interviews are considered quantitative, but both are conducted interpersonally. As another example, observation methods can straddle the line between qualitative and quantitative, depending on how the methods are structured.
It’s an easy recognition that qualitative and quantitative should be used in tandem, the ideal being mutual/reciprocal validation of results. A thornier consideration is which methods from the two categories should be combined in a research program and in what sequence. Adding to the prickliness are such factors as primary vs. secondary, in-house vs outsourced, and (always) time and budget.
In the scientific vernacular, package design research is applied research, meaning that it is undertaken to solve a problem, meet a challenge, or achieve an objective—such as the aforementioned reduction of risks. Package design research is applied to a myriad of situations that fall under a particular marketing launch: new product, revised product, and product-line extension.
What constitutes a new product? It’s relative, contingent upon whether it’s introducing a new category or entering an existing category. How should the packaging convey the former and differentiate among the latter? With a revised product, how should the packaging convey “updatedness,” yet retain those characteristics most prized by the consumer? Regarding product-line extension, how should the packaging convey the “family image,” yet give each family member its own identity?
The answers to the preceding questions can spell the difference between success and failure in the market place. For all its prowess, however, packaging design research is subject to misapplications. The most egregious are any attempts to use packaging to compensate for deficiencies that are inherent in the product itself. When a product introduces a new category, there’s no guarantee that it addresses unmet consumer wants/needs. When a “me-too” product enters an established category, consumer-use will expose it as being just that. When a brand, even a leading one, overextends itself, consumers won’t regard the extension as reliable. Under such scenarios, packaging design research might result in packaging that spurs trial purchases but it can’t sustain repurchases sufficient for impressive growth.
Regardless of the personnel involved, the ultimate responsibility for avoiding the misguided use of package design research resides in the marketing department, typically with the brand manager. With due deference to its employees, the most valuable corporate assets are the brands. Employees come and go, but brands are meant to endure. A key concern, therefore, is the utilization of package design research to make packaging a brand-builder. To achieve that, the product concept should be simple, relevant, and different.
Brand managers are expected to evidence imagination and creativity, but design shouldn’t result in concepts that are unnecessarily complex, true of even hi-tech concepts. When a concept’s justification for existing can be explained in simple terms, it best lends itself to being effectively translated through packaging.
No matter how simply the concept can be explained through packaging, it nonetheless must be perceived by consumers (notorious for adopting a “so what?” attitude) as being relevant, because packaging can’t invent a relevance that’s not there.
On another note, a brand manager’s closeness to a concept, along with pride-of-ownership, can give the manager an overblown opinion of the concept’s difference. When that’s the case, the manager is likely to expect too much from packaging’s ability to differentiate.
Some package design firms hold themselves out as researchers, as well. That does not relieve the brand manager from evaluating the objectivity with which the research is conducted and whether the results might be self-serving to the package design firm. The same obligation is there concerning the growing number of packaging suppliers who profess research capabilities.
A considerable amount of package design research is project work. Candidates are developed, and one finally is chosen. As alluded, package design research reduces risks. However, greater risk reduction is achievable when package design research extends beyond project work and is continuous. Marketers should be tireless in their efforts to make packaging a source of competitive advantage. That should be the mindset regarding macro-factors that impact packaging as a discipline─for example, sustainability. That’s should be even more the mindset regarding the micro-factors that impact packaging on an application-specific basis.
But being able to see across those pertinent horizons demands a systematic approach involving a corporate philosophy, communicated by senior management, acknowledging packaging’s importance to the corporation’s mission, goals, and objectives. Specific to package design research, formal channels should exist for the continuous collection and dissemination of intelligence. And just as product development and package development should be integrated and not parallel, so too should product research and package design research, as co-equal components of marketing research.
Lastly, consider the word, research. The root denotes seeking and the prefix denotes again─more like, again and again and again, nonstop.
Sterling Anthony, CPP, is a consultant specializing in packaging, marketing, logistics, and human-factors. His contact information: 100 Renaissance Center, Box-176, Detroit, MI 48243; telephone 313-531-1875; [email protected]; www.pkgconsultant.com