The Power of Packaging

Lessons from an unusual source - the redesign of  a court summons.

Ask any FMCG marketer and they will tell you just how important product  packaging is. IT IS OUR last opportunity to influence a shopper before they make a purchase. Consequently, marketers tend to try and include too much information on the packaging. They want to emphasise every possible reason to buy all at once, which can overwhelm and confuse shoppers. Sometimes less really is more. Evidence to support this comes from a range of sources, including one slightly surprising one. The redesign of a court summons. At first glance you might think that the design of a court summons is not going to impact its effectiveness. You’d think that no matter how a summons is designed, you are going to read it carefully, ensuring you attend court on the right day and at the right time. However, in practice this is not the case. Of the 250,000 summons issued in New York, 100,000 people failed to turn up. Or to put it another way, 40% of people failed to turn up to court and were issued with an arrest warrant.  Consequently, a team of behavioural scientists were brought in to see if they could understand the cause of the problem.

A brief look at the summons and the issue was clear.

For a start, it was not immediately obvious what the form was, as it simply had the title ‘Complaint/  Information’. Even if they did read the form, it was confusing what to do next. And if you had any questions, there was no obvious contact information. The redesign sought to address all of these issues. The new form had a clear and explicit title - Criminal Court Appearance Ticket. It provided step by step instructions on what you needed to do, and in which order. And if you still had questions, there was clear contact information. These changes may sound small, but the implications were significant. After switching to the new design, the failure to appear dropped from 47% to 40.8%, a relative reduction of 13%(1). This may not sound like a huge change, but in practice this meant that 30,000 fewer arrest warrants were issued, saving the city $140,000.

So what can we learn from this when it comes to packaging design?

Marketers spend a huge amount of time fretting over little details. We are so involved with our design, that we assume shoppers and consumers will be as well. But this is not the case. In the aisle, shoppers spend very little time looking at individual products. For example, when it comes to buying laundry detergent, the average time it takes shoppers to make a purchase is only 8.5 seconds(2) – and this includes the time it takes to walk down the aisle. And the situation is not much better for other categories such as coffee, toothpaste, margarine, and cereal. In these categories, the average shopping time is less than 12 seconds, and 42% of shoppers spend five seconds or less(3). If customers cannot find what they are looking for in 8-10 seconds, they generally walk away without making a purchase(4). But it is not just a simple case of finding the product you are after, it can also be about finding product information. If you are buying a healthy breakfast cereal, you will want to know what makes it healthy – for example, how many calories or how much sugar is in a typical bowl? The process needs to be as easy as possible. It does not matter if the information is on the packaging, the customer needs to be able to spot it quickly and easily – just like with the court summons.

If customers cannot find what they are looking for in 8-10 seconds, they generally walk away without making a purchase.

Not convinced? 
There are numerous eye tracking examples where a customer has stopped, looked at a product and moved on. When we’ve asked them why they did not purchase the product, they explain that they did not know if it did XXX, even if it clearly stated this on the packaging - it just didn’t stand out enough from the clutter. Brands may test how their packaging performs, but unless you test it under realistic supermarket conditions, where people are distracted, and only half paying attention to the category, only then will you start to understand how it will perform.