Let’s wrap it up – but how?

Dirk Ziems

Let’s wrap it up – but how?

Consumers, businesses and politics are increasing the pressure on manufacturers to use more ecological and sustainable packagings. Of course, this also brings market research to the scene. How can we find the best packaging for whom and for what?

When the photo of a pre-peeled banana in a transparent box pops up somewhere in the internet again, it becomes obvious how many layers the topic “packaging” has – especially when it comes to food. One the one hand, it seems like an absurd culmination of convenience food, saving the consumer the cumbersome peeling, on the other hand, nature provides the perfect packaging in this case, protecting the pulp and attracting attention with the fresh, yellow colour. In a world that has been marked by the loss of authenticity, seemingly eclipsed by the masquerades of social media, new spaces for genuineness are opening up.

Packaging is still a decisive touchpoint in the context of FMCGs, having significant influence on the perception and assessment of a product and therefore also on the purchase decision. Nevertheless, focussing on the outside of a product went out of style for a long time or got lost in the details of the exploration of various design options. Digitization dominated everything in marketing. The real, tangible world took a back seat. But now we are witnessing how manufacturers are shifting the focus on this essential element of the marketing process again – so it is high time to look at the fundamental psychology of packaging again in order to reduce consumer annoyances.

Psychological functions of packaging

Packaging is a concept as old as life itself. Strictly speaking, life began with a packaging – the membrane that formed around the components of a cell and separated the inside from the outside. What used to be a mess lacking any sort of substance 3 billion years ago became distinctive and was able to develop individual characteristics that way.

Packaging has many objective functions. The most elementary among them is the protective function. It represents the basal level, forming the basis for additional features, like the storage function, transport function, dosage function and, on another level, also the information and advertising function (story telling on the taste, the product, the brand, etc.). A packaging is ideal when it uses all functions in the best possible way. But this kind of packaging does not exist in reality. There are always compromises: focusing on protecting the good, rather than on ecological factors, can affect the advertising function, for example.

The basic functions are usually determined by the logic and the usage of the product and will not be subject of a detailed review in this article. The information and advertising functions of packaging however are decisive when it comes to how consumers perceive and assess the world of goods they are confronted with. At the same time, it is not always easy to clearly distinguish these two levels. A stable packaging that is actually linked to the state and shape of the product can also highlight the stability and value of a brand, thus fulfilling a psychological function as well.

The shapes, colours, images, and texts on and of packagings are in a tension field determined by four forces. First, the common language of the product category, second, the way the brand communicates or the brand history, third, the packaging needs to be congruent with the product usage motives, and fourth, cultural context and general social trends also play an important role regarding packaging design.

Successful packaging conveys desires and upgrades our lives

From a psychological point of view, the most vital factor is how convincing packaging and usage motives interact and harmonize. Ideally, packagings use psychological insights that market research has validated before. Packagings can tell stories, mediate between motive tensions, symbolize lifestyle desires or break cultural traditions and norms.

In the food industry in particular steaming pizzas on white plates, depicted with a glass of red wine in the background (like on the Dr. Oetker pizza boxes) tell the story of a desired dining culture to which the reality in the consumers’ kitchens can probably not live up to. The broad range of detergents – just to give another example – represents the tension field always present in the context of cleaning, between uncompromising complete washdown and conceding rearguard action in the never-ending battle against the dirt.

The exemplary lifestyle upgrade can be easily understood looking at Nespresso capsules that create the impression that the consumer, using a factory-made coffee product, has risen to the sublime world of a coffee gourmet. The theme of “breaking with the tradition”, on the other hand, becomes obvious looking at many organic foods. They usually have a frugal packaging design that clearly shows that these products are not part of the mass market. This also plays into the hands of the consumers’ perception of their personal lifestyle.

Packaging needs to become more sustainable – depth-psychological research reveals how this can be achieved

Within this framework, sustainability also plays an increasingly crucial role when it comes to packaging. The discomfort a cucumber wrapped in plastic causes customers at organic supermarkets is fundamental. Packaging is an essential touchpoint and basically determines how the product as a whole is perceived.

Since sustainability as a big trend in society has a growing influence on the product world, it needs to be factored in too regarding the wrapping of the goods. The industry seems to be ready to jump on the bandwagon, the latest news from discounter supermarkets prove it. The ultimate goal is to get rid of as much plastic packaging in the food sector as possible.

Scandals like the amount of waste in our oceans have been skilfully addressed by adidas with a shoe model (at least partly) made of plastic waste, the topic being high on the agenda of the company. Manufacturers can make an active choice and use recycled or more ecological materials for their packagings. The number of consumers appreciating an excessive use of plastic is constantly decreasing, and apart from that, plastic does not necessarily help convey the high value of products.

The task market research has to take on in this context is describing the tension field, positioning the product and its packaging coherently within this field and making it possible to identify and experience the inherent effect promises of the product on the various levels.

Packaging research based on depth-psychological methodology, also using Virtual Reality (VR), becomes increasingly important in this regard. Real packagings or VR depictions are promising because unlike looking at a two-dimensional dummy, these forms allow experiencing the product immediately and directly.

VR makes it possible analyse and describe looks and content more precisely; so that ideally, the process culminates in a psychological-consistent fit of the packaging. It offers more diverse and efficient ways to find out how or if overarching trends in society, like the desire for authenticity and for a reduction of product packaging, can be implemented.

Employing Virtual Reality at the Packaging Lab leads to a more efficient design process, conveys a more realistic impression of the packaging to subjects and furthermore enables research to present the packagings in a relevant context. VR technology provides an ideal approach for bringing across central product messages through story telling.

Despite the technological opportunities for developping a perfect research setting for packaging: sustainable packagings are on the rise and at the end of the day, depth-psychological insights and morphological research still are the most meaningful tools we have.

Published on: 17 September 2018 at marktforschung.de


For further information please contact:

Rochus Winkler
Co-Founder and Shareholder

Dirk Ziems
Dirk Ziems ist Experte für tiefenpsychologisches Marketing und berät auf Basis von Markt-, Medien- und Kulturforschung weltweit Unternehmen und Konzerne in zahlreichen Branchen und Ländern. Als Mitbegründer der Global Research Boutique Concept M und der Marketingberatung Flying Elephant begleitet er Themen wie die Adaption von Erfolgsprodukten in neuen kulturellen Kontexten, das tiefe Verständnis neuer Konsumgenerationen in China und USA, die Transformation der Werbekommunikation in der neuen digitalen Medienwelt oder die Neuorientierung der Brands in Post-Corona-Zeiten. Dirk Ziems ist auch als Gastdozent an verschiedenen Universitäten tätig.

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