The silent salesman is still seducing them

New research into how supermarket shoppers buy suggests packaging design can still evade their cynical bullshit detectors.

Supermarket shoppers are both gullible and suspicious, shop randomly and to rigid plans, love brands but buy own-labels, and believe they are immune to packaging design – but subconsciously are seduced by it.

Coley Porter Bell’s new research into the role design plays in supermarket shoppers’ purchasing habits presents an initially confusing picture.

Ten varied households were recruited. While lifestyle differences between the interviewees contributed to the melée of purchasing rationales, they don’t fully explain it.

The research suggests that people, like their fingerprints, are unique and cannot be easily classified. This is known, but a revealing finding to emerge is shoppers’ perceptions of packaging per se. They are simply not aware of being influenced by packaging design. And they certainly won’t admit to it, yet they will describe in great detail which packaging appeals to them and what they find a turn-off. They are generally all aware of what advertising tries to achieve – and are all fairly cynical about it.

Packaging design, while not being acknowledged by shoppers as a marketing tool, has more scope for affecting purchasing simply because it is not consciously seen in the same distrustful light as advertising.

The research also reinforces the adage that there’s nowt so queer as folk.

What else could explain decisions such as not buying environmentally friendly detergents unless they are on special offer? Or one shopper buying products claiming to be “low-fat” or “less fat”, but not buying “virtually fat-free” because, she says, “it sounds like it will have chemicals in it”?

The confusion consumers labour under, and their lack of knowledge when it comes to brand names, corporate branding and brand extensions, hold lessons which packaging designers ignore at their peril.

If you need an example, how about the shopper taking part in the CPB survey who was confused when choosing milk. She was looking for “half-fat” but could only find “semi-skimmed”.

When it comes to on-pack information, shoppers rarely look at details, such as the ingredient list. They scan the shelves and often the pack chosen is the one with the clearest copy.

Where on-pack information is read, it often comes down to spelling out advantages. A shopper bought McCain’s Oven Chips over the own-label equivalent because McCain’s clearly stated its fat content was only five per cent.

But on-pack information is also cause for confusion. Detergent manufacturers must be aghast to learn that some shoppers have no idea what the terms biological and non-biological signify, despite years of expensive advertising.

What the research shows clearly is the overriding importance of shelf-shout. Whether the product is a market leader, a brand, an own-label, a brand extension or a product launch, catching the eye of the shopper is of paramount importance.

CPB managing director Amanda Connolly comments: “There are not enough products out there with unique identifiers – they aren’t shouting loud enough.

“What emerged particularly is the strength of visual elements working as an identifier. Quite often consumers can’t remember the brand name but can remember a powerful visual, such as a colour or a symbol. It’s interesting that consumers have these visual mnemonics in their heads.”

Often, shoppers in the research could not remember the brand name of the product they buy but could show it on shelves. This immediate recognition is invaluable to brands with strong visual equities. To tamper with them could be costly. Colour was also used as a brand identifier. “We use the green one,” said one shopper, unable to remember Wash & Go’s name.

Part of the challenge facing packaging is to identify a brand with the market sector while still standing out from the competition. A shopper overlooked a box of Barilla pasta because she did not expect blue pasta packaging.

Connolly says brand-owners must be careful not to fall into the trap of simply talking in the language of a product category instead of concentrating on the brand itself. “It is absolutely essential that brand-owners understand what their equities are and make sure they are not just the equities of the category.”

Similarly, recent campaigns by some manufacturers to give corporate branding more prominence – through advertising and packaging – appear largely to be pointless. “As far as consumers are concerned, corporate branding isn’t working,” says Connolly.

“Don’t know, don’t care,” was the general reaction from the research when consumers were asked if they knew which manufacturers make which brands. One, who favoured Chivers marmalade and hated Hartley’s jam, was horrified to learn both are made by Chivers Hartley.

On own-labels, shoppers are still conscious of a credibility gap. Brands are perceived as offering a quality worth paying a few more pence for.

CPB’s research underlines that there is no single recipe to successful pack design. Each sector is different, each consumer group is different, and the differences multiply even within each consumer group. But among this bewildering mass of variety, and given the consumers’ current ignorance of pack design as a provocative marketing tool, the discipline is there to be exploited not only by designers but also brand managers. But be warned. This opportunity may not last.

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