Editor's note: Scott Young is president of Perception Research Services, Fort Lee, N.J.

Few would dispute that emotion plays an important role in shopping and packaging. In a world of overwhelming choice down every aisle, it’s clear that shoppers can’t consider all options or rely solely on rational, fact-based product comparisons. Instead, they need to sort through items quickly and the brands and packages that break through visually and make an immediate visceral connection are most likely to end up in the shopping cart. In addition, we all know that what shoppers say is not always reflective of what they do – and that people often face barriers in verbalizing their true feelings (the desire not to offend, to offer socially acceptable responses, etc.).

For these reasons, our firm has long relied mainly on behavioral System 1 measures (including eye-tracking, shopping and product findability exercises from store shelves) rather than direct questioning to assess new packaging and merchandising systems. More recently, we’ve explored a variety of approaches (including neuroscience, facial coding and visual images) to bring emotional measurement to packaging and shopper research. In fact, over the past five years, we’ve conducted over 50 studies in which these measures have been gathered in addition to our established, validated metrics of packaging and point-of-sale effectiveness.

From these studies, we’ve learned a good deal about the role of emotion in packaging (and shopping) and we’ve gathered hands-on experience regarding the strengths and limitations of different approaches to emotional measurement. In this article, we’ll share our perspective on these issues and speak to their implications.

Three core objectives

As we embarked on our exploration, we identified three core objectives or ways that emotional measurement could potentially enhance our work and ultimately help our clients to win at retail:

As part of pre-design research, to inspire and guide exploration –  identifying emotionally compelling messaging and visual imagery, which could then be integrated within packaging and shopper marketing efforts.

• As part of screening a range of new creative directions – diagnosing specific elements that drive shoppers’ positive and negative reactions, to guide enhancements and develop stronger designs.

• As part of on-shelf validation testing – adding an emotional dimension to our validation studies to make them even more predictive of in-market performance.

Across these objectives, our focus was on understanding how best to integrate emotional or non-conscious measurement to our established behavioral and attitudinal metrics. One specific goal was to link emotional measurement directly with eye-tracking, to better document and understand the connection between what people see (as they shop and consider packs) and what they feel.

However, in pursuing these objectives, we faced two fundamental challenges, tied to the nature of packaging and shopping itself.
First, the intensity and nature of emotion evoked by packaging (and shopping) is typically more limited than that of advertising or digital content.

Generally speaking, still images (particularly small images on packs) evoke far less emotional response than moving images (such as those in commercials, movie trailers, etc.), which can use content and sound to tell a story. For example, think of the emotion driven by the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty advertising, as opposed to an individual Dove package. In addition, commercials (unlike packages) have predefined time sequences, which facilitate measurement, as researchers know exactly what was on-screen at the 10-second mark.

As importantly, the reality is that shopping for many products (particularly weekly staples found in grocery, drug and mass stores) is more habitual and task-oriented than experiential – and thus, the strongest emotion is often frustration, when shoppers are confused or can’t find their desired product. In fact, packaging is arguably the most functional or literal of media, as it is closest to the actual purchase decision. At this “final five feet” of marketing, the top priority is often to deliver the key product information (quantity, form, flavor, etc.) needed to close sale and packages are often constrained by these informational responsibilities (and their limited size).

Second, the range of stimuli encountered during an in-store shopping experience is far broader than that encountered while watching a commercial or visiting a Web site.

In a trip down the aisle, shoppers encounter not only thousands of packs but also myriad additional stimuli, ranging from music to store announcements and other shoppers. This makes it extremely difficult to identify/isolate causality (What is driving an emotional reaction?), even when the combination of mobile eye-tracking and emotional measurement can document what people are seeing, doing and feeling. These realities raise an important question tied to emotional measurement: Are the existing tools and paradigms (which have been designed and employed in an advertising context) appropriate to measure emotion in a packaging and shopping context?

Integrating emotional measurement

With this question in mind, we explored three primary paths for integrating emotional measurement within our studies. And while we aren’t neuroscientists, we can offer an educated perspective on the viability and added-value of different techniques, based on our experience.

fMRI and EEG

Our initial efforts focused in this area, which promised the greatest scientific rigor and the most actionable insights. On over 25 studies, we gathered neuroscience measures (via a headband device), which were linked to PRS Eye-Tracking data to uncover the specific design elements (visuals, claims, etc.) driving emotional reactions. The studies were conducted among quantitative samples (of approximately 100 shoppers per cell) and this approach did provide very valuable findings in some cases:

• In a personal-care product study, an on-shelf shopping exercise showed that a proposed design system was not working – and emotional measures pointed to changes in cap color and on-pack messaging as the likely drivers.

• In a frozen food study, a proposed design system drove declines in imagery and purchase and we found that removing a familiar brand character from the packaging had a negative emotional impact.

However, we also encountered many executional challenges in working with neuroscience tools:

• Given the need for physical equipment (to measure brain activity), the approach was expensive, time-consuming and intrusive to shoppers.

• The data analysis was a “black box,” which made it very difficult to dissect when the findings were complex or counterintuitive.

In addition, when the approach was used at the validation stage, the diagnostic insights gathered (regarding specific messages and design elements, etc.) had limited value and actionability, as teams needed to make final decisions immediately.

Facial coding

In parallel with our efforts in neuroscience, we’ve explored facial coding, which focuses on the analysis of involuntary facial movements that have well-established connections to core emotions. Specifically, we’ve partnered with leaders in that field on approximately 10 studies, in which we documented facial expressions (during interviews, focus groups and shopping trips) and linked this analysis to both behavioral and attitudinal measures gathered from the same shoppers.

 Without question, we’ve found that facial coding has several clear benefits (relative to neuroscience), as it offers a much greater degree of transparency, flexibility and ease of execution. In fact, we’ve been able to incorporate facial coding as a value-added element of both qualitative and quantitative studies, including in-store studies and shopper studies at our PRS Retail Labs, which has driven incremental learning:

• In screening design concepts for a shelf-stable meal solution, facial coding suggested that the brand’s current packaging was less compelling than indicated (via verbal reactions). It also uncovered negative emotional reactions to an “overabundant” food visual, which led to design refinements.

• For a frozen food product, facial coding uncovered the positive emotion driven by a specific visual element in the current design, which was then leveraged in the new packaging.

However, the facial coding analytical process remains time-consuming and costly (as it is reliant on an expert reviewing and classifying recordings) – and there is considerable debate regarding the accuracy and sensitivity of more automated and scalable quantitative approaches (i.e., Web-based tools). This is tied to the underlying issue cited earlier, as many packs (and Web-based shopping trips) simply don’t drive very strong reactions that can be documented via changing facial expressions.

Visual images

More recently, we have piloted the use of visual images in our studies, which are explicitly labeled to illustrate core emotions (happiness, sadness, etc.) and which we’ve customized to include feelings more typically associated with shopping and packaging (confusion, satisfaction, etc.). Shoppers use these images to convey how packages (or displays) make them feel and then indicate the specific elements (visuals, messages etc.) that are driving these emotions.

Clearly, this approach is not neuroscience: It is does not provide physiological or biometric measures and it is self-reported, rather than non-conscious. And as with facial coding, it is not explicitly linked to eye-tracking and thus does not provide an exact linkage between what shoppers are viewing and feeling. However, this approach is broadly applicable and fully scalable, for both in-person and Web-based studies. And importantly, it adds an additional dimension to our analysis, as it encourages shoppers to think less rationally and respond (to stimuli) in a more emotive and visceral manner. It serves as a catalyst, to encourage them to share how products make them feel (and why).

For example, in a recent cookie study, shoppers consistently cited that a brand’s packaging suggested a party, which evoked a positive emotional reaction. And, in a cereal study, alternative presentations of on-pack characters drove emotional reactions and created discrimination across brands.

Overall, we have uncovered insights and gained added value from several different approaches to emotional measurement. However, each approach also involves clear trade-offs across multiple dimensions (rigor/specificity, logistics, transparency, cost, timing, etc.). Thus, we’ve emerged less likely to think of finding a single solution to emotional measurement and more inclined to offer a portfolio of tools appropriate for different research objectives and cost/timing constraints.

Fundamental themes

In looking across our studies, we’ve always found it best to be cautious in generalizing across brands, categories and countries. However, we can share several fundamental themes that have emerged from our research into emotion:

• In a shopping context, the strongest emotion is often frustration, when shoppers are confused or can’t find their desired product. Certainly, there have been cases in which shoppers have self-reported deeper emotions, such as the joy of finding a bargain. However, the underlying reality is that shopping for many products (particularly weekly staples found in grocery, drug and mass stores) is more task–oriented than experiential. And aisle after aisle, shoppers are navigating through an overwhelming array of options to find “their” product (or an acceptable alternative). In this cluttered environment, frustration can quickly set in, when products can’t be found and time is wasted. And in fact, we’ve seen that many negative reactions appear to be linked to complexity. They are cases in which shoppers are being asked to work “too hard” to decipher packaging (due to small print or unclear messaging) or to understand product options. This finding is consistent with our historical experience, which suggests that less is more for in-store communication.

• Packaging (and particularly POS signage) can connect with shoppers on an emotional level, typically via the use of powerful visual images, design elements or promotional concepts. Despite the limitations cited above, we’ve found cases in which packages appear to speak to shoppers on an emotional level, by: provoking a laugh or a smile (via humor), such as with the Evian water packaging; linking to emotionally “richer” content, advertising or promotions, such as on-pack promotions common in the beer or soda categories; speaking to personal relevance (often via user imagery or personalization), such as with the Coca-Cola personalization campaign; and connecting with other senses (touch, smell, etc.), such as via contoured packs or special finishes, as in cosmetics and spirits.

As these examples suggest, the key is identifying ideas, visual images or design elements that resonate with shoppers and finding ways to incorporate them within packaging, signage or displays.

The path forward

Based on our experience to date, we can offer several guidelines for the path forward in incorporating emotional measurement within packaging and shopper studies:

First and foremost, researchers should use emotional measurement in conjunction with other packaging and shopper research tools, rather than as a replacement for them. Across our studies, the pattern has been clear: On-shelf behavioral measures tell us which systems are working and emotional measures (among others) help us uncover why.

Second, the focus should be on understanding reactions to messages and design elements and using this learning to optimize packaging and in-store activation. The primary added value of emotional measurement lies in its diagnostic value and its potential to help companies develop more engaging packaging and shopper marketing efforts.

Third, emotional insights are most valuable if they are gathered early in the design process, rather than at the end of the process, when there is less time or opportunity to make fundamental changes. Thus, marketers may be best served exploring ways to build emotional measurement into the exploration, development and screening process (more so than the validation process).

Finally, future efforts may be best focused upon the shopping and the product usage experiences (i.e., the first and second moments of truth), when packaging is most likely to drive intense emotional reactions. At our firm, we are using mobile eye-tracking in a range of contexts (in stores, in homes and at PRS Retail Labs) to better understand emotional triggers.

Window to a greater understanding

Emotional measurement can offer a window to a greater understanding of shoppers’ motivations and, ultimately, a path to better packaging and shopper marketing. However, researchers should be aware of the inherent trade-offs across methodologies and give careful consideration to matching tools with research objectives. As importantly, they should keep in mind the unique dynamics of packaging and shopper marketing – and resist directly applying advertising-based tools and frameworks to these media. Marketers and researchers that take these factors into consideration are most likely to benefit from emotional measurement and to develop materials that engage shoppers, make a visceral connection and close the sale.