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How to achieve product differentiation? Don't stop there!

Most consumers’ shopping patterns are hardly rational. Engage them with package designs that use a consumer-focused mind-set rather than a product-oriented one.

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What makes a consumer choose one brand over another? Is it habit or brand loyalty? Do glitzy packages catch their eye?

While the contents inside of the package are important, the package’s exterior often stops the shopper and invites them to take a closer look. The rules of product differentiation are no secret. In order to sell your product, it must appeal to the consumer in a number of ways. Unfortunately, with so many brands competing for consumers’ attention by looking “different,” your package runs the risk of getting lost in the clutter of loud colors, shapes, and designs on product packages all looking to stand out in the grocery store aisle.

Differentiation is the driving element that sets your brand apart from the competition, but unfortunately, it is where much of the design generally stops. For effective package design, go beyond differentiation and strive to make an emotional connection with the consumer. The key to accomplishing this is to keep the consumer’s needs top of mind. By designing a package from a consumer-based mind-set versus a product-based one, your brand will not only stand out, but also lay the foundation for a long-term relationship with the consumer.

Behavioral studies

According to a variety of studies on consumer behavior, including “The Unconscious Consumer: Effects of Environment on Consumer Behavior,” in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, 2005, setting your product apart from competitors can be a dual-sided effort. Consumers often act differently outside of the store than during their usual shopping trip inside.

Outside of the store, consumers are subject to advertisements that influence their perception, thinking and experiences they then tie to your brand. Television and radio commercials often lend in-depth, multi-faceted experiences to a product that your product’s package is simply unable to reproduce. Additionally, word of mouth and personal experience also contribute to the perception of a product, making it easy to differentiate between them.

There are fewer overt choices available to a consumer outside of the store than when he or she begins to wheel their shopping cart through the store aisles. This makes it easier to whittle down options until a preferred product is mentally stored for the next grocery run.

However, once inside the store, consumers view myriad elements that affect their behavior in a completely different way. Within the store’s walls, consumer behavior is based off an entirely new set of rules. Products are grouped together by category, often leaving the consumer to choose between your brand and competitors. Frequently, consumer behavior is linked to unique triggers that determine how a brand is perceived and whether or not it survives on the shelves. These are triggers that, while almost impossible to control, can be used to design a consumer-driven package.

In-store triggers can fall into two different categories: habit and environment. Both are equally as influential in shaping consumers’ shopping habits. Habit triggers are just that—habit. As a consumer, one continues to buy the same brands and products until something overrides that. Then there are environmental triggers. Environmental triggers can be a variety of things, but all have the power to break habits and begin new purchasing patterns. Such triggers can be very simple, but make large leaps in the consumer thought pattern. A child standing in the aisle could remind someone of cookies they used to eat or cereal their parents would buy. The scent of a freshly mopped floor could remind a shopper that they need to purchase cleaning supplies. Although these triggers are not tangible and are sometimes not even conscious, they can be used to create a more effective differentiation strategy.

Surprisingly, the majority of consumers’ shopping patterns are hardly rational. In fact, a consumer might as well throw away their grocery list as some studies suggest that more than 60% of the products wind up in a shopper’s grocery cart were not on their list. Purchases are driven by the array of unconscious and preconscious triggers that bombard shoppers as they make their way through the aisles. Try asking a consumer to explain their shopping choices as they leave the store. Most will range from being completely baffled, “Why did I get the Ben & Jerry’s,” to only mildly confused “I think the grapes were on sale, or were they?” and “They looked good, either way.”

For your package to stop someone and break them out of their shopping habit, the package design must stem from that pre-conscious, non-rational base of consumer triggers. That’s what we mean by using a strict consumer mind-set, not a product-oriented one. It is here that product differentiation goes beyond the initial concept of being different for difference’s sake and evolves into a sophisticated, multi-tiered study of consumer psychology.

Stopping the consumer

In order for your package to stand out, it needs to have a strong “brand block” and overcome the habits and triggers of consumers. To do this, your packaging must first stop the consumer as she moves down the aisle. Stopping her is the single most important thing a package can do.

Packaging for Town House® Bistro™ Harvest Bakery Crackers demonstrates this concept. A large, black banner creates stopping power and serves as a prominent visual element. Enticing product photography serves up a more appealing and fresh visual on the front carton panel. The overhaul of this package design generated a 30% sales leap without advertising or promotional support.

Engaging the consumer

After stopping the consumer, you need to engage her. Engagement is about the package plays on your consumer’s emotions. The visuals on the package often allow the consumer to create a new environmental trigger. Appetizing pictures on food packaging, for example, create a sense of enjoyment before the product is purchased. In truth, everything about any package’s design can be used to create this consumer engagement. Even the smallest items—from font selection to colors and hues—can help to further this internal dialogue with something as simple and clean as a delicious design.

It’s also important to note your product’s equity when striving for differentiation. If a product has a connection with well-known icons or branding, these can enhance the consumer’s emotional connection. With Town House Bistro, photographs of the product, a sophisticated font, and vibrant colors, in conjunction with the brand name Town House Bistro, highlight the product as a quality buy that consumers can feel good about serving to guests.

Persuading the consumer

Once the consumer is engaged emotionally, your product’s design must persuade the shopper to purchase the product. This is the rational connection made with consumers in regard to a product’s benefits, organization, and style, as well as supporting attributes the product design or display may provide. By bringing out product ingredients or unique attributes—think “fat-free” or “whole grains”—consumers can rationalize their emotional connection as a healthy or beneficial purchase. In this vein, Town House Bistro seeks to bring out the healthy, appetizing attributes of the crackers through flavor callouts.

Driving equity

In building new consumer habits, it’s important to hold onto existing equity and the relationships consumers have built with your product. Is the package design solution consistent with the brand, its history and messaging? How does the consumer interact with the brand? Your product’s package design should advance the consumer’s understanding and attitude toward the brand.

The packaging of Town House Bistro’s Harvest Bakery was revamped in a way that gives consumers more insight into the Keebler® brand that created these crackers and helped to shape a more positive understanding of the brand’s position.

Moving forward

Now that you have the elements to differentiate your product from competitors, it’s time to use them in a creative and unique manner. As demonstrated in the Town House Bistro’s Crackers example, merely differentiating the design of your package is insufficient for creating lasting consumer relationships that drive sales and promote positive public image. Not surprisingly, creating unique distinction requires unique methods of attracting consumers.

As new studies monitor consumer psychology, it’s important to utilize this information to develop a consumer-based approach to package design. In keeping the consumer’s needs in mind, non-rational shopping behaviors offer a way to grow a brand. The challenge for package designers is to harness and utilize this shopping behavior with environmental triggers.

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