Unlocking core brand assets in packaging ... and doing it with emotion.

In order to be truly effective, packaging has to literally deliver the heart and soul of the brand in a way that forges strong, emotive connections with the consumer. The days of delivering a hierarchy of features and benefits on packaging in a dry manner, sans emotion, are over. But where do emotive cues come from?

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Before developing any package for a new branded product or a repackaged product, research has to be done to uncover the underlying brand’s core attributes. Research is conducted in a number of phases, and one very important research element is not only about unearthing corporate brand values but also consumer brand perceptions, since the two should be, but are not always in complete alignment.

Research is always conducted in the pre-packaging phase, of course. But shifts have occurred in recent years because of our evolution in understanding about the consumer, as well as our desire to better quantify packaging’s delivery on core brand assets. Following are some areas to tap for those essential emotive cues.

Focus groups. While consumer focus groups have been used for some time, more contemporary thinking has evolved about their role and value in assessing brands and packaging. Consumer packaged goods companies and design and research consultancies use focus groups, whether individually or in concert.

Focus groups are perhaps best utilized in first assessing current or proposed packaging vis-à-vis their perceptions of the brand’s core attributes, and how well these are communicated in the packaging. As a logical next step, feedback should be given as to how the packaging performs within a retail context. Since retail environments in all channels are filled with myriad brands to the breaking point, and those are the actual environments in which consumers make purchases, it makes sense to approximate a retail setting when testing overall response to packaging.

Researchers and CPG companies should then conduct category audits, either independently or in tandem, to assess competing brands and packaging. While industry data reports are a starting point, raw sales and category ranking data hardly communicate the entire story. What are the category leaders doing well to leverage their brand assets? How are they telling their story? Do their points of differentiation come through quickly and clearly? Are they presenting compelling customer experiences through their branding and packaging?

Eye trackers. Researchers now employ a technique referred to as “eye tracking”. A scientific device evaluates consumers’ eye movements as they scan packaging that appears in a retail shelf set, noting where the subjects’ eyes go and how long they linger. Numerous groups of consumers can be tracked in this way, offering more of a sampling to CPG companies and consultants than a single focus group can.

Setting up a realistic retail setting and products as they appear on the shelf closely approximates a retail-shopping environment. It also tests direct consumer responses to packaging, rather than seeking opinions. Questions posed by researchers, as well as comments made within focus groups tend to color the discussion in certain ways, influencing respondents’ answers.

However, this is an imperfect science, too. There are many reasons consumers’ eyes may linger on one package more than others; measuring this can be misleading. It also does not signify that core brand attributes are being delivered sans any communication with respondents, either. Without additional information concerning the brand assets themselves, some of this data, which is expensive to obtain, may be rather inconclusive.

The Internet as a research tool. In the past five years, the Internet has given market researchers a powerful new tool. Collecting data via the Internet has several advantages: It’s fast and inexpensive; a large sampling can be easily done and responses are not tainted by interviewers’ or other respondents’ influences. As is the case with eye trackers, well-designed Internet programs allow respondents to view a retail shelf set in order to make judgments about packaging.

Packaging is seen in a virtual setting that mimics the retail environment, and respondents are asked to pick out the packaging in question from among its competitors’ and to identify its position within the set afterward. This simple test measures how memorable the packaging in question is to the consumer, and whether or not a quick viewing of it made any impact on them. Internet programs can also track respondents’ answers about packaging attributes and the positives or negatives associated with them, as well as gauge their potential interest in purchasing the products.

Research using these methods begins to uncover a brand’s key drivers with consumers. Some of these drivers are overt, some dominant, and still others hidden and waiting to be discovered. These drivers are capable of soliciting an emotional reaction from the consumer when uncovered and fully applied to packaging solutions. The presentation of the brand identity, package structure, brand cues, color, typography, communications hierarchy and every other design element all present an opportunity to align with the core brand in a tangible way to the consumer.

By identifying the point at which the consumer experiences the brand in a positive manner, we can begin to consider packaging solutions that will heighten that customer experience.

Packaging can, and should be, the ultimate brand communicator. While tangible, it can deliver the intangibles of the brand like nothing else since the customer can see it, touch it, and be engaged by it. Packaging should speak to the emotions, not just the rational mind, of the customer. Dry packaging that dutifully lists features and benefits alone seeks out an intellectual response. That prompts the customer to think and employ reason: “Should I purchase this brand vs. the other brands here?” It does not, however, elicit a prompt decision. Decision-making is a process.

On the other hand, packaging that unabashedly appeals to the emotions of the customer, leads to more direct action. While this trend of thought is more recent, researchers have put forth their findings in the area of consumer behavioral science which brand managers and designers are turning to in order to form stronger brand-consumer connections.
In his book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” Malcolm Gladwell cites that humans hone in more strongly on visual brand messages that get their attention at the emotional level. Hence, packaging presents companies with one of their strongest visual branding opportunities.

CPG companies like Procter & Gamble have been working in this area more and more, honing their product offerings and branding: Web sites, advertising/marketing, consumer promotions, and packaging to meet the consumer’s emotional needs, rather than their more functional needs, with great results.

While it takes time to develop an emotional rapport with consumers, a brand relationship that ultimately develops is enduring and very meaningful. Starbucks parlays its strong lifestyle brand image and cues it in its packaging. Without a strong emotional tie to Starbucks, its customers would surely not pay such premium prices for a cup of coffee or latte. Nor would they shell out for Starbucks’ packaged coffees.

As one of the nation’s premier grocers, Whole Foods’ product lines, including its private-label products, command a loyal following due to the brand’s lifestyle and emotional appeal to consumers. Price has nothing to do with purchasing groceries at Whole Foods because consumers can shop elsewhere and spend far less money. While purchasing food fulfills life’s most basic of needs, purchasing at Whole Foods fulfills one’s dream of more nutritious, healthier fare—and a greener lifestyle--from companies that practice sustainability and support environmental causes.

How, then, to package emotion? Structure, typography, use of color, and symbolism that evoke an emotional response can stop customers in their tracks. Thus, savvy brands do not sell specific products. They sell the intangibles; and these are the emotional needs consumers seek to fulfill most.

For example, successful orange juice brands like Tropicana do not sell the quality or freshness of their products. They sell health and well-being. Cereal companies that are now offering whole grains in their products do not tout this feature alone. They appeal to parents by making them feel good about providing more wholesome goodness for their children. Thus, Lucky Charms not only appeals to children, it is now a healthier product, so it appeals to parents, as well.

Personal care companies are wise to package their brands as spa-like experiences rather than mundane bath, body, and hair care products. Smart packaging also activates the sense of smell, by using essential oils and aromatherapy. Engaging packaging increasingly offers customers a multisensory experience. Spa lines can now be found in salons, natural product stores and mass-market retail outlets. Lines like Calgon, Aveda, Amazon Herbs are but a few brands that allow consumers to pamper themselves in the privacy of their own bathrooms, turning those environments into spas.

P&G has integrated aromatherapy essential oils into its latest Tide and Downy fabric care product offerings in a clever marketing move. The branding of Tide Simple Pleasures products adds to the enjoyment of wearing garments or placing linens on the bed that have been laundered and softened with favorite aromatherapy combinations.

Packaging can play a key role in delivering a brand’s core assets to meet the consumer’s deeper emotional needs. Caveat: The brand promise has to be fulfilled in the customer’s mind over and over again to cement a deep and satisfying relationship.

Here are some compelling key emotional drivers to consider as you conduct your research:

* A reinforced sense of well-being, health or wholesomeness delivered by the brand
* A reinforced sense of doing something better for one’s family and loved ones delivered by the brand
* A perceived sense of enjoyment to be derived by purchasing the brand and reinforced each time the consumer purchases and uses that brand’s products
* A perceived lifestyle fit, or the aspiration of a certain lifestyle as delivered by specific brands
* A sense of enjoyment reinforced by positive brand experiences over time with the brand
* A sense of status delivered by the brand
* A reminder of many past enjoyment experiences and fulfilled promises by a heritage brand

Since we know that retail studies demonstrate that up to 85% of consumer purchases are made on impulse, how meaningful is it when a consumer makes an emotional connection to one particular brand among myriad choices on the shelf? If that product then delivers on its brand promise, how much more likely will it be for that consumer to begin forming a relationship with it, especially if all of the other touchpoints of the brand are aligned, and their emotional needs are met?

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