Editor’s Note: Elliot C. Young is president of Perception Research Services, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

It goes without saying that strong and effective packaging has to be an integral part of the marketing mix. A strong package is equity. A strong package sells a product and a strong package justifies premium pricing.

But, who defines a strong package? The shopper, because the shopper is the individual who ultimately picks up and buys the product or quickly bypasses or totally ignores it. From both the shoppers' and the marketers' point of view, the shopping experience is a battle. The shopper has to battle through competing items, through heavy shopper traffic and through the check-out lines. The marketer, on the other hand, has to break through the clutter to get a few precious seconds of consideration. A number of startling facts about shopping in the U.S. are now available. For example:

  • The average supermarket contains over 17,000 items, with 2,300 new products being introduced each year.
  • The average shopper is spending approximately 30 minutes in his/her normal shopping trip. This translates to 1,800 seconds to consider 17,000 items. Needless to say, many of these items are being ignored. In one of our eye tracking studies, we recorded how shoppers zero in on different product categories. Not surprisingly, approximately one-third of the packages on the shelf were being completely ignored. Even with more than 5,600 products bypassed, the U. S. supermarket shopper is still faced with 11,000 items being considered in 1,800 seconds; not much time for a marketer to sell his/her product.

In the U.S., it is now generally acknowledged that 80% of the decisions made in today's supermarkets are in store decisions and, of equal importance, 60% are impulse purchases. This means that the packaging and its effectiveness in breaking through the clutter and conveying the right imagery can determine, and does determine, a product's success or failure.

How do we marketers research packaging to insure our products will receive a fair share of non-planned or impulse purchases? Initially, we must define an effective package.

Effective package

An effective package:

  • Is simple
  • Quickly communicates what the product is
  • Makes use of focal points
  • Stands out from the competition
  • Makes selection within a product line easy
  • Has the right quality impression
  • Reflects the image of the product
  • Retains a visual connection with the past when redesigned.

Packaging research must address each of these criteria. Effective packaging research must also be conducted with the appropriate target audience; the same target audience that is used when developing marketing strategy, when planning TV commercials and when producing print ads.

Good packaging research

What is good packaging research? Let's begin with the premise that the packaging must be compatible with the long term strategy and positioning of the brand. The packaging must close a sale in the store.

If we can define what the package should be, then certainly we should be able to design research to uncover if the packaging is delivering in all of the key areas.

One research tool that can be used to find out where the packaging is strong and where it is weak is through eye tracking. Eye tracking is used to examine how shoppers read labeling on a package. The tracking shows if they move top to bottom or bottom-to-top, if key product attributes are seen and read, or if a unique product benefit is camouflaged within a poor graphic design.

Let's not shortcut the traditional tried and true verbal interview. With questions, the researcher uncovers shoppers' attitudes and feelings toward packaging, if the shopper were to take the time to pick the package up, to consider it and, hopefully, to buy it. We recognize that a designer can create a gimmick package which gets attention but does not close a sale. Conversely, a marketer can have a unique product with unique benefits, yet its packaging may be lost or buried on the cluttered store shelf. A strong package must be strong in many areas. It must have stopping power, it must generate readership and involvement with the labeling and it must convey the imagery which helps close a sale.

Packaging for a well established brand represents equity. Changing that package represents a risk. Packaging research must profile the equity the marketer has in his/her existing packaging and the risk he/she may encounter by making a change. Thus, packaging research must be evaluative. This means that it must profile to the marketer the strengths as well as the limitations of his/her package and, at the same time, it must be diagnostic. It must generate information or fine tune packaging designs, if fine tuning is necessary.

Conducting research

There are basically three methods of conducting packaging research:

  • Focus group sessions
  • Mall intercept interviewing
  • Test market auditing.

Focus groups have a number of advantages as well as serious limitations. They allow you to see and to hear consumer reaction. They can also provide valuable diagnostic input. However, we're all familiar with one dominant respondent totally controlling the focus group and biasing the responses of the other attendees. Many of you have also learned from attending focus groups that we often hear what we choose to hear. So often, four or five observers walk out of a focus group session with four or five different interpretations.

I mentioned earlier the importance of shelf visibility. It is impossible to measure the shelf prominence of a package in a focus group session. To ask a shopper if he/she would or would not take notice of a package on the shelf is naive at best. What you gain from focus group sessions is an overall insight of "acceptable or unacceptable." If you're looking for serious negatives, the focus group will begin to uncover problems. If you're looking for quantitative decision-making information, the focus group session is not for you.

Mall interviewing

Mall intercept interviewing is widely used. In the shopping malls, we're generally able to reach target shoppers and interview them individually. Let me emphasize individually. The mall intercept interview is conducted on a one-to-one basis (shopper and interviewer). Accordingly, one strongly opinionated shopper cannot make or break a package, as so often occurs in the focus group session.

Areas which should be covered in the questionnaire include:

  • Aesthetic appeal of the packaging
  • Perceived product imagery conveyed by the packaging
  • Believability of claims
  • Effectiveness of the package in stimulating interest in trial
  • Functionality of the packaging (easy to store, easy to pour, easy to hold)
  • Confusion (if any) with labeling claims and instructions.

Test market auditing, on face value, appears to be an effective way of documenting the impact of packaging in the store. In actuality, it is probably the least efficient method, since it is subject to so many uncontrollable variables - competitive pricing, positioning on the shelf, number of facings and in store sales. In addition, in-store auditing requires the packaging to be produced in finished form and in sufficient quantities to stock the shelves. Unfortunately, if your packaging is deficient, the marketer will not find out until he/she has wasted a lot of time and money.

Measuring shelf impact

Researchers have tried a variety of tools to measure shelf impact. Some have strengths and some have serious limitations. Let's consider:

  • Tachistoscopic research
  • Findability tests
  • Recall questioning
  • Eye tracking.

Tachistoscopic research is simple to administer and provides a measure of quick recognition. The shopper is exposed to a series of scenes at brief time intervals (1/5, 1/2, 1 second) and asked to identify what he or she saw. The package which is identified most quickly is generally considered to be the best.

Unfortunately, there are many serious limitations to T-scope research. The most fundamental is the arbitrary time the researcher chooses to show each package. Does it really matter that package "A" communicates faster in one-fifth of a second than package "B." Who's to determine if a fifth of a second is a relevant time frame?

An even greater drawback is the aspect of familiarity. As you might imagine, the familiar brands are generally those which are identified faster. Thus, when a marketer is considering a packaging modification, the T-scope may put his/her new design at a distinct disadvantage.

The T-scope has one other serious deficiency; the designer's know?how to beat the system. They need only put the name of the product big, bold and dead center. T-scope research stifles creativity. A designer is inhibited from using unique type styles, from putting the product name on a slant and from being creative. These types of executions don't test well in T-scope research.

Findability tests

Findability tests are simply those that ask a shopper to look at a cluttered in-store shelf scene and find specific products. Again, the assumption is made that the package that can be found fastest is the most effective. I mentioned earlier that 80% of the purchases made in the supermarket are non-planned. Thus, the findability tests which ask the shopper to locate a specific brand he/she is looking for is only relevant to those 20% who are going into the store looking for that brand. In actuality, the marketer's concern is with the other 80% who might make a non-planned purchase. The 20% who plan to buy your product will find it, regardless of where it's located on the shelf.

A third commonly used measure of shelf impact is recall questioning. Recall, like T-scope research, is oftentimes influenced by familiarity. The well-known brands receive the higher recall scores. The new products or low awareness brands suffer from a lack of previous exposure.

Though recall questioning has been used for decades to evaluate advertising performance, in the packaging area recall scores are inconsequential. How many marketers would be satisfied with 90 % of the shoppers walking out of a supermarket remembering their product was in the third aisle, on the right? Yet only 2% bought it. A package is on the shelf to sell, not to be recalled.

Eye tracking research

I believe eye tracking research to document shelf prominence overcomes many of the limitations of the T-scope, findability tests and recall. The eye tracker enables you to observe the shopper behavior; to see what they see, to see what they consider and, most importantly, to observe what they ignore. Importantly, eye tracking is not hampered by the need to select an arbitrary viewing time. You are able to observe what people do and how they shop the category in the time they choose to give the category, be it one second, one minute or one hour. The eye tracking is not biased by familiarity.

One might even argue that the uniqueness of new brands would have an advantage, rather than a disadvantage, in drawing shopper attention. Many major marketers in the U.S. are using the eye tracking to develop planograms and to pinpoint the pros and cons of additional shelf facings, horizontal and vertical layouts and even to uncover the competitive products which are strong on the shelf.

Some may argue that the eye tracking viewing situation is artificial and they are correct. However, the reality is that no one can duplicate "real world," for it differs from store to store. How many times have we seen beautiful planograms never implemented in the supermarkets?

Oftentimes we refer to eye level. But does eye level assume the shopper is 6'2", 5'10", or 4'9"? With eye tracking we can watch the shopper discriminate and, most importantly, see what he or she ignores. We know from eye tracking the packaging that is breaking clutter and the packaging that is being zapped.

Label readership

Label readership is another vital area that comprehensive packaging research must address. The designer has positioned key elements on the label to be seen and to be read. The three research tools commonly used to evaluate label readership are T-scope, recall and eye tracking. The T-scope and recall measures suffer from the limitations described earlier - a fixed viewing time, contamination by familiarity and, in many instances, shopper guessing. The eye tracking shows how shoppers read the package labeling. It quantifies the advantages of top of the package versus bottom. It shows the shoppers' discriminating process and, most importantly, it allows the shopper to ponder and thoroughly examine a package if he/she chooses.

Earlier, I stated an effective package:

  • Makes selection within a product line easy
  • Has the right quality impression
  • Reflects the image of the product
  • Retains a visual connection with the past when redesigned.

Researching each of these attributes can be accomplished only through a comprehensive and well thought out questionnaire. Unfortunately, many researchers attempt to answer these questions through paired comparisons, i.e., showing two potential packaging alternatives side by side. This is a simple approach for forcing a winner because one package will test better than the other. However, in actuality, neither may meet marketing objectives and the end result may be the best of the worst.

Designing research

With all of the above in mind, let me offer a few of my do's and don'ts when designing packaging research:

1. Don't show different packaging alternatives side by side to a shopper. The shopper will never see two executions for the same package side by side in the store. His/her frame of reference is competition. Thus, each packaging execution should be tested against competition.

2. Never control the amount of time you let a shopper look at a package. Remember, a designer is trying to develop a package which is a stopper, a package which is involving, a package which a shopper will want to take a second or third look at. The instant a researcher controls the amount of time they let the shopper look at a package, is the instant you can no longer measure involvement. Speed of communication is not the key. Effective communication is far more relevant.

3. Don't live by hard and fast rules. Be innovative. Packaging designers have demonstrated time and time again that being different can pay great dividends at the cash register. Who would have guessed years ago that an orange juice company could use the color black as their primary packaging identifier? Yet Minute Maid has done it and done it with enormous success.

4. Don't rely on traditional advertising research recall scores. Many researchers have a tendency to rely on that magical thing called recall. Yet recall per se is irrelevant when it comes to packaging research. A package is not on the shelf to be recalled. A package is there to be seen, to be considered and to sell.

5. Don't tie the package designer's hands. As a packaging researcher, I've developed great admiration and respect for the creativity and excellence of the packaging design industry. They're creative, they're innovative, they're insightful and, most of all, they approach their task with a marketing frame of reference. To advise a package designer that certain colors or shapes or designs will not work within a category is shortsighted. Utilize their talents, allow them free rein and explore all creative opportunities before accepting or rejecting an innovation in packaging.

6. Don't forget to look at competition. The shopper considers competition prior to making his/her purchase decision. The marketer should do the same. All too often, there is a tendency to "follow the leader." If he/she is using red, we should use red. If his/ her packaging is horizontal, ours should be the same. Keep in mind, breaking through clutter and getting attention is the first step to a sale.

Effective packaging is an integral part of the marketing mix. An effective package catches the consumer's eye and entices the shopper to give the product a try. Successful products lead to successful businesses and the success of each and every one of us. Don't underestimate the influence of packaging. Your package represents your product. Your package is equity. A major change in your package is a risk. Research the risk thoroughly and logically, for in many instances, your package is your product.