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Structured Experimentation in Package Design

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Alex Gofman and Howard Moskowitz show how Rule Developing Experimentation (RDE) helps designers to use a disciplined approach that sifts through multiple combinations of possible design features to discover what works best with consumers for package design.

Timing in the design process is critical. Productive guidance should occur before designers spend lots of valuable time exploring options that consumers could have told them would not "fly" anyway. Providing productive guidance to artists/designers ensures that they can concentrate on the most profitable direction.

Optimizing Packaging

It's believed that the first packages were utilized to store raw and prepared food about 15,000 years ago. Initial usage of primitive materials such as tree leaves, bark, woven grass, and so on led to eventual utilization of animal intestines and skins and later to pottery, glass, etc. For most of human history, packaging was utilitarian. About 15,000 years ago, late Paleolithic settlers in Japan produced some types of pottery. It's quite conceivable that they or other early humans adorned their creations with the same fascinating images we find now on the walls of the caves in which they lived. [1] Ancient civilizations possibly witnessed some early known usage of professional art and graphics on food related packages in the form of artistic amphorae and so forth (albeit limited to upper classes).

The main purposes of such packaging were to provide a safe and convenient storage for food or other goods, protect it from spoilage and pests, and make it possible to transport the product easily. The aesthetic side of wrapping the mainstream items came only in the last two hundred years. [2]

While serving the four main functions of packaging (containment, protection, convenience, communication [3]), the technological marvels that keep milk unspoiled, for example, were beautified by the top designers, making it into an art form. [4] Unfortunately, this merited approach all too frequently leads to creations of art on the shelves of supermarkets without regard to consumer needs and tastes, sustainability and environmental issues, etc.

On the opposite end of the scale, there is no dearth of experts and readily available best practices that guide many producers in their efforts to create packages. Some suggest that the approaches that work well in other media—minimalist design, for example—do not apply to package design graphics. Products must figuratively "jump out" at the consumer for the consumer to pick it off the shelf, where it competes with many other offerings. Experts advise that the graphics design should be as bold as package configuration, space, and stacking position allow, using lively, persuasive colors; striking typefaces; and prominent, creative photography or illustration. [5]

Multiple stakeholders with very different views and goals are inevitably involved in packaging—marketers, designers, product developers, brand managers, etc. Each tries to improve the creation, often resulting in packages that are too "busy," with too much graphic and text information. Some of the graphics and text overwhelm, others in contrast often are irrelevant.

Although you might think that there is little or no harm in placing an extra message or visual on the package, the desired consumer response, either comprehension or selection, might actually suffer as a consequence. Consumers search the package in a determined fashion for information that supports the product's ability to deliver the expected benefit. Any additional information is viewed as irrelevant or disconfirming, thus "diluting" the perception and weakening the consumer's belief that the product will provide the desired benefit. [6]

It's difficult to overstate the role of correctly choosing the right visual parameters for packaging. Recent studies have shown that even when shoppers are open-minded and directly consider a category (as opposed to picking up their usual brand), they completely ignore more than one third of the brands displayed. However, a unique appearance consistently helps in attracting shoppers' considerations and driving purchases. [7]

Perhaps the most dependable and effective way to satisfy consumers is by involving them in the actual process of package creation. Focus groups and other forms of direct questioning on a post-hoc basis, although still popular, don't usually produce actionable results. These groups or survey techniques ask the consumer to evaluate what has been created, and perhaps to identify aspects of the package or product that are liked versus those that are disliked. These groups and surveys often do not guide as much as they evaluate, and thus often these methods are "inactionable." The problems associated with the "actionability" of simple post-hoc evaluations have led to other approaches. For example, to increase the actionability of consumer involvement, some researchers and practitioners have gone so far as to abandon attempts to understand user needs in detail in favor of transferring need-related aspects of product and service development to users through the use of toolkits. [8] This effort is purely utilitarian, with the goal of creating the product and service by an evolutionary approach that doesn't produce knowledge of "rules" or "reasons why."

The truth falls somewhere in between direct questioning in order to understand but not create, and direction creation that doesn't necessarily seek understanding. One point is clear in either approach: Consumers should be involved in package creation. In fact, consumers should co-create the package in one form or another to ensure that they will eventually buy it. The full range of consumer involvement in every step of new package design creation is beyond the scope of this article. [9] We focus here on selecting the right package graphics, and the role of consumers in both rule development and co-creation.

This process uses experimentally designed packages (viewed as a combination of individual package attributes/parts) in a simulated environment typical for online market research activities. It's based on Rule Developing Experimentation (RDE)—a new paradigm developed by the authors in cooperation with Prof. J. Wind (Wharton Business School) and introduced in our book Selling Blue Elephants: How to Make Great Products That People Want BEFORE They Even Know They Want Them. [10]

Widely used to optimize product composition and messaging, RDE has been applied successfully to packaging design as well. Although RDE doesn't replace the creative involvement, it allows for the creation of new and attractive packages based on actionable consumer insights. The approach is based on the notion that customers might not know or be able to articulate what they like when asked directly (for example, in focus groups), but they will know what they like when they see it. To find the right package design and graphics, follow the same six RDE steps used in sensory and message optimization:

  1. Create multiple permuted experimentally designed prototypes.
  2. Expose the prototypes to a target group of consumers (for example, via a web-based tool).
  3. Collect the ratings of their interest or purchase intent.
  4. Estimate the individual contributions of each graphics elements to the dependent variable, with that variable assessed by a rating scale (for example, purchase intent).
  5. Create rules that could be utilized by the designer to build new packages.
  6. Search for latent segments in the population for better targeting.

RDE applied to graphics design is an extension of RDE methods involving just text and individual pictures, which has been widely used for the last 25 years or so. [11], [12], [13]

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