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The role of packaging in growing your brand

Supermarket large display of multiple types of infant formula

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Why read this? : We review the role of packaging in growing your brand.  Learn how it reinforces your brand identity and influences customers before, during and after the point of sale. Read this to learn how to use packaging to boost your brand.

Packaging often gets less attention than its glamorous cousins advertising and public relations. We’re guilty of that as it’s been a while since we last covered it. That’s despite studies showing it’s a major driver of purchase decisions.

Packaging matters because it’s a guaranteed touchpoint. It’s what customers see before they buy. It’s how they find you when they decide to buy. And as we’ll show, packaging even plays a role after the sale. 

There’s an obvious, practical aspect to packaging development. You have to plan the design, the writing and its physical characteristics, for example. But before that, you have to work out packaging’s role in your marketing plan. What it does for customers and your brand. That’s our focus this week. 

The marketing role of packaging

Packaging is mainly part of “product” in your marketing mix. It’s part of how the customer experiences your product. 

But packaging also plays a role in “promotion”. You can use it to communicate with customers.

It tells customers about your product. There are visuals and images to say what’s inside. A call to action, so they know what to do next. These are all elements you find in communication. 

Together, these packaging elements support your brand by :- 

Examples of the marketing mix 4Ps and 7Ps - product, price, promotion, place, people, process, physical location
  • Reinforcing your brand identity before the sale.
  • Driving consideration and trial at the point of purchase.
  • Reminding people about the brand after the sale.

Brand identity

Your brand identity is made up of tangible and intangible assets. Some are mandatory and some are optional.

Your packaging helps bring many of these to life. 

Using tangible assets like your brand name, logo, colour palette and typography is mandatory on most packaging. This is about applying the design principle of repetition. 

Repeated use of brand assets means they “stick” better in customer’s minds. 

Brand identity asset classification examples

These strong mental associations make it easier for customers to recognise and remember the brand. It becomes more familiar. And familiarity is good for sales.

Brand extensions

Repetition also applies when you create brand extensions as part of your innovation plan. These take your core product and create something new from it by tweaking a few elements. A new flavour or colour, for example. Something different in the benefit it delivers. 

Diet Coke. Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut. Jack Daniel’s and Coke in a can. 

The brand extension packaging has to find the right balance. Close enough to the core product that customers recognise the link. But different enough that they know it’s not the same product. 

For example, look at the different flavours of Shapes in this photo.

You can see some consistent design elements. The brand name and logo, for example. You know all the products are “from” the Shapes brand.

But they use different colours and product images on the packaging. That’s how you tell Barbecue apart from Chicken Crimpy. 

Part of packaging’s role in your brand identity is to help customers navigate their way through brand extensions. It needs to identify the “parent” brand, while also identifying each “child” product within the overall brand family. 

Supermarket shelves showing different varieties of Arnott's Shapes snacks

Reinforce intangible brand assets

Your packaging is also a good place to bring intangible assets like your essence, values and personality to life.

Those can come out in the tone of voice and photography on your packaging. These show customers what your brand is like. 

For example, look at Who Gives a Crap, the toilet paper subscription service.

Their packaging helps reinforce their intangible brand assets. 

Screengrab of the Who Gives a Crap website home page with the header banner Talking Crap - We launched a blog

It’s all recyclable (reinforcing its values). And it has a cheeky, friendly tone of voice in all of its packaging copy (reinforcing its brand personality). 

Reinforce positioning

Those assets are linked to your brand positioning. This is a crafted statement you create at the end of the segmentation, targeting and positioning process. It summarises who your brand is for, and how you’ll compete in the market. 

It’s based on a template which (usually) looks something like this :-

To (Target Audience), (your brand) is the (frame of reference) that (benefit) because (Reason Why and Reason to believe).

Hand holding old fashioned looking compass

This statement shapes key decisions in your marketing plan and marketing mix. That includes decisions on your packaging.

Target Audience

For example, your packaging design has to make it obvious to the target audience that the product is for them. Images of people like them using it. Clear writing which shows who’s meant to use it. Colour, typography and layouts which appeal to that type of customer. 

There’s usually a direct correlation between how broad the target is, and the number of design elements on the packaging. 

Broad-appeal products usually have fewer design elements. They don’t want to put people off. Think of how “clean” the designs are on toothpaste or soft drinks, for example. 

Narrow-appeal products usually have more design elements. More elements to signal the product is for a specific type of customer. For example, look at medical product packaging. It’s more specific and detailed about who should use the product, and when they should use it.

Benefit

You can also use the packaging to help bring the product’s benefit to life. 

This could be something simple like a picture of a happy customer on the box. Nappy box packaging shows smiling babies, for example. 

Or, it could be more elaborate. For example, food products which help digestion often show visuals of a healthy, happy tummy on the packaging. Other health-related products often have tick boxes on the packaging which list their benefits. 

These all reinforce the product benefit to the customer. 

Reason Why / Reason to Believe

The packaging can also help show your reason why and reason to believe

For example, lots of packaging carries expert or other official endorsements.

Awards you’ve won. Quality standards you meet. Studies which prove your benefits (assuming regulations in your category let you do this). 

Using these types of elements on the packaging reassures customers your brand is a good choice. They make your product seem more credible. More trustworthy. A safe choice for them to buy. 

Consideration and trial at the point of purchase

On the customer journey, they might have seen your advertising. Looked at your website and social media posts. But, it’s the packaging which shows what they’re actually going to get.

In a physical store, the packaging helps them find the product on the shelf.

They can pick it up, judge how big or heavy it is, and read all the product information. The packaging nudges them towards their final decision. That’s why it’s such an important touchpoint for your brand.

Person holding a mobile phone with an e-Commerce page on screen and a credit card in the other hand

With online purchases, the packaging’s on a screen, not in their hand. But they can still access the information on the product page. And that’s all mainly lifted from the packaging.

The role of the packaging here is to drive consideration and trial. It’s right at the point of purchase, whether that’s in-store or online.

Buying in-store

There are an estimated 50,000+ items in the average supermarket. That’s a lot of choice. Packaging makes those choices easier for customers. 

How customers decide in-store often depends on their “shopping mission”. This is their reason for going into the store.

Customers may not be very conscious of this mission, but it impacts the role of packaging. Example missions include :-

  • Familiar planned purchases.
  • Unfamiliar unplanned purchases.
  • Impulse purchases.
Supermarket central aisle with lots of displays and signage on view

Familiar planned purchases

Some product categories are regular purchases. Toilet rolls, toothpaste and teabags, for example. 

Very little thought or time goes into what to buy. Customers scan the shelf in milliseconds. It’s all about the habit of picking up familiar products. And what makes a product familiar?

Its packaging, of course. 

It makes this an “easy shop”. Customers only switch away from this familiar brand if :-

Red tulip in a field of yellow tulips showing the impact of standing out and looking different
  • their normal brand is out of stock.
  • there’s some other issue with their normal brand e.g. a product recall or a big price increase.
  • a competing brand does something which tempts them to switch.

Bigger brands benefit the most from this habit effect. The role of their packaging is to be easily visible and familiar. It’s easier for customers to pick up their “usual” brand when the packaging’s easy to spot. 

For smaller brands who want to break this habit effect, the role of their packaging is to disrupt the familiar. To be distinctively different. This tempts the customer away from their familiar brands.

Unfamiliar unplanned purchases

When the purchase is in a “new” category, or the familiar product isn’t available, packaging plays a different role. 

Here, there’s more dwell time in front of the fixture. It’s a more involved and thought-out purchase. 

For this type of purchase, the packaging design and information play a big role in the decision. 

Customers ask themselves, “Does this look like something I’ll like?”. “Will it do what I need it to do?”. 

Neon sign with a question mark inside a square at the end of a dark corridor

If the packaging makes the right impression, chances are that the product’s going in the basket. (Assuming it’s in the right price range).

Impulse purchases

Finally, there are impulse purchases. The products customers don’t plan to buy, but which catch their eye when they’re “just having a look, thanks“. Impulse buys are just too appealing for customers to ignore. 

This might be because the product’s on a good price discount. Everyone likes a good bargain, right?

But often, it’s because the packaging is designed to jump out at you. To grab attention. 

Look at snacks, for example. 

Overhead shot of a load of red coloured snacks including Doritos and Skittles

Notice how much snack packaging uses the colour RED. Red is a strong colour which grabs attention. That’s why STOP signs are in red, for example. Brands use red for impulse purchases as it’s so eye-catching.  

Brand blocking

Packaging has another role to play in-store, and that’s for brand blocking. This is where stores display groups of products to help them stand out. A big display is more eye-catching than a single product on the shelf.  

Stores often use market leader products to signpost what’s in the aisle. The soft drinks aisle will have a big brand block of Coca-Cola at the end. Same for toothpaste and Colgate, or biscuits and Arnott’s.

The size of the display does 2 jobs. 

First, it grabs attention because people see “big” things before they see “small” things. 

But it also helps reassure customers the product is a safe choice. Big displays subconsciously reassure customers about a product.

They think it must be safe. The store wouldn’t give up so much space to a bad product, would they?

Look at these brand-blocked infant formula products, for example.

New mums are more likely to choose a product from this large brand block than a product with only 1 or 2 shelf facings.

The size of the display reassures them these are big “safe” products to choose for their babies. 

Supermarket large display of multiple types of infant formula

Buying online

The same underlying principles apply to the role of packaging for online selling. Even though there’s no direct physical interaction with the packaging. Everything has to work on a screen. That means the packaging design and writing are even more important. 

You’ve got to stand out against a wider choice online. Plus, there’s limited screen space to play with. You need to get the basics right.

For example, in this sample online basket, look at the difference between Fairy and Kellogg’s LCM. 

Fairy’s brand name stands out very strongly, doesn’t it? It has a strong contrast.

The LCM brand name has much less contrast in comparison. It has less visual impact and doesn’t stand out so clearly. 

Screenshot of a Woolworths Online half Price basket of grocery items

Colours are important for online packaging.  The size and style of typography is important. The brand name needs to be easy to read. Customers need to instantly get what it is from the packaging. 

With online, you also need to think about how the product information will work. You usually enter this into a product information management system, so it can appear on the right product page.

But this information also has an SEO job to do. It’s how customers will find you when they search. But most packaging product information isn’t written with SEO in mind when it clearly should be. 

Plus, it’s also got a sales copy job to do. It needs to show the benefits of your product and persuade customers to buy. 

Brand reminder after the purchase

Many people think packaging’s role ends when the product sells. But, in many cases, it still has an ongoing role to play.

Storage and usage

For consumable products, the packaging helps store the product before it’s used.

For example, think of the tins, jars and boxes in your fridge and pantry. The booze bottles lurking in your drinks cupboard. 

Jack Daniels bottle close up on label

Every time the customer sees that packaging, it reminds them about your brand. 

It can also help remind them they need to restock when they’re running low. You can make part of the packaging clear, so the customer can see how much is left.

In some cases, the packaging can even be part of the product experience. Teabags and tea leaves, for example. Teabags make having a cuppa much easier. 

You need to plan for the role packaging plays between when the product is bought, and when it’s used. 

Badging

In some categories, there’s also the idea of badging. This is where customers “show off” the products they buy with the packaging.

They believe this influences how others perceive them. It says something about them. 

And if the product itself isn’t “obvious”, the packaging becomes the symbol of the brand people use to do this showing off.

So, people drinking out of bottles in nightclubs for example, rather than out of glasses. That’s badging. 

Hand pouring a brown liquid into a glass filled with ice in a bar

People displaying their expensive brand coffee tins in the kitchen, rather than storing the beans in a jar. That’s badging. 

It doesn’t work for every category. But it can be an easy way to get loyal customers to promote your brand. It’s free word of mouth. Another touchpoint to remind people your brand exists.

Using your packaging in other communication channels

Finally, your packaging can make your product more distinctive and memorable in other communication channels. It represents your product. 

For example, it represents your product in your advertising. You show people holding the packaging and consuming or using your product. 

You use it in sales promotions. The packaging image sits next to a price discount deal in catalogues and on retailer websites, for example. 

It’s a visible and tangible symbol of your brand identity. You show it frequently and in relevant places. It reminds customers what your product is, and what it can do for them. 

Conclusion - the role of packaging

Packaging plays a role at many stages of the customer journey

It’s part of your brand identity as a tangible asset for the brand before customers decide what to buy. You can also use it to bring intangible brand assets like your essence and values to life.

Then, at the point of purchase, the packaging plays a role in different shopper missions.

It provides familiarity for planned and regular purchases. It shares relevant information for unplanned and irregular purchases. And it grabs the attention to drive impulse purchases. 

Finally, after the sale, packaging often plays a role in the storage and usage of the product. 

For loyal customers, it can become a “badge” they use to show others how much they like your brand. Plus, it also represents your product in other channels like advertising and sales promotion

Bottle and display box of Krug champagne to show packaging

So, don’t overlook the role of packaging in your marketing. It physically connects you to customers. Do it well, and your packaging will pack a real punch behind your marketing efforts. 

Check out our packaging development guide and packaging for e-Commerce article for more on this. Or email us to learn more about the role of packaging in growing your brand.

Photo credits

Person holding compass : Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Online shopping with phone and credit card : Photo by PhotoMIX Company from Pexels

Supermarket : Photo by Hanson Lu on Unsplash

Flowers : Photo by Photo by Rupert Britton on Unsplash

Question mark sign :  Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

Snacks : Photo by Fernanda Rodríguez on Unsplash

Jack Daniel’s : Photo by Marcel Strauß on Unsplash

Drink pouring in bar : Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

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