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An In-Depth Look at the Psychology of Product Packaging

The list of factors that influence consumer buying behavior is practically endless. Not only do the products themselves play a role, but so does the retailer, and factors beyond people’s control, like the weather and traffic.

Warehouse filled with electronic equipment.

Trying a new product may be an impulse decision, but even in that instant, there is a certain amount of evaluation and selection before the item is purchased. Once inside a retailer, the consumer encounters product packaging as the gateway to the product itself. If it’s a product they’ve used satisfactorily for a while, they may not pay much attention to packaging, but if it’s something new or different, they experience many different types of influence from the packaging. 

Consumer product packaging can be viewed as a psychological stimulus, carefully designed to affect how the consumer responds to it and decides to place it in their shopping cart (or doesn’t). Based on all the stimuli presented by product packaging, consumers form an attitude toward a product. Here’s how consumer product packaging exerts its psychological effects.

Color

Color as a design element has been studied extensively, and there are all kinds of psychological associations with color that are influenced by the prevailing culture. But there is no denying that color has a psychological effect on people. For example, an aromatherapy diffuser purported to increase a sense of peace and tranquility will convey that message more effectively if it is packaged in soft, blue-green packaging. A similar aromatherapy diffuser advertised to increase feelings of energy would likely be packaged in a more “energetic” color, like red or orange.

Naturally, the psychological effects of color are prone to cultural influences, and the same color may be identified with entirely different properties in different cultures. For example, in Chinese culture, red is a color of celebration and conveys a sense of luck and prosperity. But in South Africa, red is associated with mourning. 

In other words, it’s important for CPG brands to choose colors for their product packaging based not only on how eye-catching and product-appropriate they are, but also on whether there are any prevailing cultural influences of those colors in the market where the products are sold. 

Shape

The shape of product packaging affects how the product is perceived too. Suppose you make powerful hand cleaner designed to get substances like engine grease off of people’s hands. Chances are, your target audience is male, so if you put your product in a squeeze bottle with the traditionally “feminine” shape commonly used in soaps and cleaning products aimed at women, you may miss the mark. 

Generally speaking, sharper edges and lines are perceived as “tougher,” and more masculine, while softer, flowing lines are perceived as more feminine. There are exceptions, however, and they can be notable. The shape of consumer packaging can, in fact, be a major, unique identifier for a product. For example, the rectangular bottle that’s always been used for Chanel No. 5 perfume may not have the traditional “feminine” lines, but it definitely stands out on a perfume counter full of rounded, curvilinear bottles. 

Texture

Young child driving a kid car with a teddybear behind him.

People judge books by their covers, and they always have. But what some publishers have realized in recent years is that they judge them not only by the look of the covers, but by the feel of them too. Hence, you’ll see new books at the library or bookstore that are given a textured coating that feels completely different from the smooth dust jackets and shiny paperback finishes we’re used to. 

Don’t discount the importance of the consumer’s tactile experience when they pick up your product to learn more about it. When a person physically holds an object in their hands, they gain a certain sense of psychological “ownership,” and this can be a powerful driver of actual purchasing behavior. 

Have you ever picked up a plush toy in a store and been surprised at how soft it was? That’s by design. The manufacturers know that when people pick up something and it physically feels good, they’re more likely to give that product positive associations, and if they don’t buy it this time around, they very well might next time. 

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Typography

If a Supreme Court brief was printed out in the Comic Sans font, would you take it as seriously? Probably not. The psychology of typography has grown tremendously in importance since the internet started taking off. We have all read messages and blog post comments written in all capital letters that give the impression that the composer is shouting. 

Typography becomes closely associated with brand personality, as you know from brands like Disney, Nike, and Coca-Cola. While there are no hard and fast rules, here are some of the traits commonly associated with fonts we see every day:

  • Serif fonts (Times New Roman and the like) are associated with reliability, tradition, and respectability
  • Sans serif fonts (like Arial and Helvetica) come across as clean, modern, and objective
  • Script fonts appear elegant, creative, and friendly
  • Slab fonts, with bold serifs (like Courier) appear bold and strong
  • Modern fonts (like Eurostyle) are often used to convey a sense of looking forward

Messaging

The messaging on consumer product packaging is both verbal and nonverbal. Here, truthfulness is critical, because if the picture on the packaging bears no resemblance to what’s inside, people will lose trust in the product and perhaps the entire brand. Basically, people want to know what the product is and what it’s for, and they shouldn’t have to pick up the package and hold it to find this out. After all, some products are stored on high shelves, and some people are short. 

While a person doesn’t need to be able to see every detail about a product from their vantage point in the store aisle, they do need to know the basics of the brand and product. “Messaging” takes the form of a conglomerate of typography, words, color, shape, and imaging. Product messaging may come across as “quaint” and old-fashioned, or it may come across as futuristic. It’s essential that the messaging people see from your product packaging is what you intend for it to be. 

Practicality

Two cartons of eggs.

To succeed, your product has to function in real lives and real households. If there are problems with any aspect of that, then the product has a lot to overcome to be successful. People are willing to put up with “challenging” packaging (like hard-plastic clamshell designs) when they believe the packaging is necessary to protect what’s inside. But for the most part, people want consumer product packaging to be both attractive and easy to use. 

An increasingly important aspect of “practicality” today is sustainability. Is a particular type of packaging beautiful enough to overcome the fact that it’s not easily recyclable once the product is used up? It’s something you have to consider, particularly in certain markets. Brand sustainability efforts and ease of recycling are two factors that people use to judge brands and products, and the more you speak to these with your packaging choices, the better your impression will be among most consumers.

Ability to Stand Out

To someone who has bought your product for years, knows exactly where it is located in their preferred retailer, and who puts the product into their cart without giving it much thought, how much a product stands out from others on the shelf isn’t that significant. While these long-time brand loyalists are great, you also want to be bringing in new “converts” to your brand and products, and to do this, you have to “advertise” to consumers from the retailer shelf. 

There are any number of ways to do this, such as by making your product packaging color, shape, texture, typeface, messaging, or practicality obvious. Or, you might combine several of these elements. In general, bright colors and clear, readable typefaces help you, and dull colors with small type will cause your product to fade into the background.

Perceived Value

Ultimately, all the choices that go into your consumer product packaging should work toward making the consumer feel as if they are seeing something, or holding something in their hands that has perceived value to them. If a consumer purchases something to which they don’t normally give a lot of thought, then they’re likelier to act on impulse. If it’s something important, like a key ingredient in a specialty dish they plan to prepare, they’re going to give a product more scrutiny.

There’s an extent to which a consumer is willing to engage with a product, and your packaging must operate within that window of engagement. However long or short that engagement time is, your product packaging must get across that this item fulfills a need at a price that is fair and reasonable. If it sounds like something that’s tricky to do, it is! That’s why it’s important to pay attention to all of the choices that go into product packaging before your product appears on shelves. 

PKG Brand Design is always on the forefront of new CPG branding and packaging initiatives; please subscribe to our blog for the latest package design industry news!

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