Packaging can build customer trust and loyalty

Packaging can build customer trust and loyalty

First impressions are everything. Nowhere is that more true than on the label of a health product. Consumers want real information and simple decisions. Jeff Hilton, co-founder of Integrated Marketing Group, has been helping to launch and revitalize health and wellness brands since the 1980s and brings science and experience to bear on the tricky business of packaging design.

In 1999, Amazon redesigned their brand identity in a way that greatly enhanced what psychologists call “cognitive ease.” The new logo includes a graphic device that connects the a to the z. The device forms a cheeky smile with a dimple that pushes up the z. The dimpled smile also shows up by itself on the brown shipper boxes that house Amazon’s products as they are mailed out into the world.

What is cognitive ease, and how do smiles, and other graphic devices, increase it? Cognitive ease is a state in which things look familiar and feel good. This state, in turn, increases trust and loyalty. Smiles are a case in point. They subconsciously increase positive affect (good mood) and, in turn, prime customers to feel more trusting and loyal than they would otherwise.

To understand how something as simple as a smile can affect mood and purchasing decisions, package designers would do well to read Daniel Kahnemann’s treasure trove of psychological research, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).

In the book, Kahnemann suggests that we have two different ways of thinking. The first way (what he calls System 1) is fast, automatic and largely unconscious. It can detect hostility in a voice and can effortlessly complete the sentence “bread and ….” We use System 1 because the other way of thinking, rational logical processing, is slow and feels like hard work. Just try to multiply 23 by 17 in your head. In order to avoid unnecessary hard work, the brain constantly monitors whether anything is amiss.

When alerted to risk or danger, System 2 kicks in (you felt it working if you tried the multiplication problem). This part of the brain results in different customer behavior. It causes us to be more analytical, more vigilant in our thinking. We question stories that we would otherwise unreflectively accept as true because they are facile and coherent.

If put on alert, then customers become more vigilant about reading labels and comparing ingredients. They do the math and figure out the unit price. They may even notice what’s not included on the principal display panel (PDP).

Incorporating cognitive ease in packaging

To keep shoppers out of System 2 skepticism and put them back in System 1 trust mode, package designers need to remember two things:

  • Use a clear display
  • Prime a good mood

Clear display

When laying out messages you want consumers to believe, make sure the text is clearly legible and easy to read. Cognitive psychologists have conducted research on what they call “Truth Illusions,” which test the believability of statements that vary only in how legible they are. Compare the following two statements:

  • Product X supports brain health.

  • Product X supports brain health.

Experiments have shown that the first is more likely to be believed. Additional tests revealed that highly contrasting colors between the copy and the packaging background also increased both legibility and believability. More muted tones and smaller fonts demand greater cognitive effort and, in turn, made label readers more skeptical.

When designing the packaging for Schiff Nutrition’s new product, MegaRed, the IMG team focused on creating a clear, believable PDP display. The team designed a custom type treatment to increase contrast and emphasize key messages. In addition to the font choice, the team punched up the contrast with a bold red and white color scheme, which it carried throughout all marketing materials. Numbers were also used to give consumers a faster read of key information. These reinforcements proved helpful in building confidence and increasing belief in the product’s efficacy. MegaRed is still one of Schiff Nutrition’s top-selling brands because consumers believe the product works.


Tip: To increase believability of claims, increase the legibility of key messages.

Another factor of a clear display is to boil down information for customers and include the most important messages on the PDP. While this may seem self-explanatory, a simple move like including key ingredients on the front of the label in a large, easy-to-read font helps customers feel informed without them having to turn the bottle over and dig out their reading glasses.

When the IMG team designed the LifeSeasons product line, we deliberately placed the key ingredients on the front panel, while removing as many distracting messages as possible. After the line launched, sales reps from Whole Foods and Sprouts markets commented that the inclusion of key ingredients on the PDP made it easier to explain product benefits to consumers. Consumer feedback indicated that consumers liked knowing which ingredients to pay attention to when purchasing a joint health product, for example, and used the information on the LifeSeasons labels to compare competing products. “This one’s got everything I need in it,” represents the most common consumer response to the LifeSeasons product line.

Tip: Maintain a clean template that focuses consumer attention on key messages.

Prime the consumer

Priming works because our memories associate ideas. For example, if asked to complete the word fragment SO_P, what you see right before that fragment will greatly influence you. If you see the word EAT, you’re more likely to complete it with the word SOUP. If you see the word WASH, you are more likely to complete it with the word SOAP. Primes can influence mood as well as word choice. Positive affect primes include smiles, humor, fun, puppies, babies, play, and flowers. These elements all put customers in a good mood.

So, just how does mood impact shopping? After customers were primed with a smile (even when the smile was forced by making them bite a pencil between their front teeth), they paid less attention to details, anticipated fewer problems, and tended to like products better. On the other hand, induced frowns caused them to question claims and become more analytical in their thinking.

Here’s an example of how IKEA worked both a smiley face (using the negative space under the crab) and a dose of fun into a new package design for this crab food paste.

Tip: Want them to buy your product? Put a smile on their face.

Smiles aren’t the only indicators of good mood. Romance also increases consumer feelings of well-being. When IMG designed the packaging for Sibu 

Beauty, we romanced the main ingredient, sea buckthorn berries, with a custom illustration that looked much better than the real thing. The berries glow with health and the leaves lend the entire illustration an exotic air.

Tip: Romance consumers into a good mood with illustrations and photos that glow with goodness.

Much more could be said about the wealth of research that reveals the effects of cognitive ease and priming on consumer behavior. Without getting too bogged down in details, packaging designers can do much to improve the believability of their messages by making those messages (1) easy to read and (2) easy to like. After all, getting consumers to fill in the blank is easy as pie.

Bringing your ideas to life

Marny Bielefeldt, marketing director for Alpha Packaging, dives deeper into packaging practicalities.

Fi: Do you custom-build packaging to fit clients’ needs or do most of your clients select from existing options?

MB: Alpha Packaging offers over 900 stock molds to help customers quickly obtain the packaging they need. However, for companies that want a unique presence on retail shelves, Alpha also has in-house design and engineering capabilities, and we routinely design and develop custom packaging
Fi: In what ways do you work with clients to create packaging that defines a product’s message? For example when thinking about a weight-loss beverage we might envision a bottle shaped like an hourglass.

MB: The creativity of Alpha’s design team has helped nutritional companies, pet care companies, and beauty brands convey a particular message based on the products’ attributes. Perhaps the most fun challenge was making a squeezable HDPE custom bottle for the company that makes Kong chew toys; their new product was a peanut butter-flavored condiment designed to be squeezed into the Kong toy. Our design team worked with the brand owner to create a bottle that was the same red color as the toys, and utilized the same recognizable shape.

We also developed a series of barbell-shaped bottles for sports nutrition supplements. The bold purple and red bottles for tablets and powders not only resembled the barbells and barrel shapes familiar to weight-lifting professionals, but they were also embossed with the brand name across the top and bottom of the package, for outstanding brand identification.
Fi: Are you seeing increased demand for sustainable packaging that might reduce fuel cost in transport, materials used, or the use of recycled/reused materials or biodegradable packaging? What innovations has Alpha Packaging come up with to that end?

MB: Although we can certainly make corn-based (PLA) packaging, we do not see as much interest in PLA as we see for recycled PET and HDPE. There is also a lot of interest in plant-based PET and HDPE, in which some or all of the plastic is replaced by plant matter instead of petrochemicals. Companies like Coke and Heinz were the first to offer bottles made from these new plant-based plastics, but as more companies begin making comparable resins, we are seeing more interest in them by smaller supplement and food companies.

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