Let’s talk packaging

As consumers browse supermarket shelves, a product has less than a tenth of a second to grab their attention. However, it is not the shape or colour of the packaging that attracts the eye, but rather the words written on it. By Jo-Anne Flack

Shopping in a large supermarket can be stressful. No matter how many ads are created with smiling women patting their bottoms, chatty check-out staff, and aisles clear enough to skateboard down – real shoppers know all about manoeuvring trolleys through dense crowds, the horror of finding the store layout has changed overnight, and feeling bewildered by the vast array of products on display. This is all before waiting to pay in a queue that often takes longer than doing the actual shopping.

So what are product owners, own-brand labels and their designers doing to make life easier for shoppers? It seems that providing more information on the packaging is one way that some product owners are giving themselves an edge. This sounds crazy given the statistics – a large supermarket stocks about 30,000 products and the average time of a shopping trip is 40 minutes. This means that a product has just under 0.08 seconds of the consumer’s attention.

SiebertHead planning and development director Simon Sholl says: “Under these circumstances, logical reasons to purchase start to break down. Faced with this level of choice, consumers resort to instinctive, rather than rational, thinking when choosing products or even deciding whether they need to buy something from a category at all.”

However, the truth is that, over the past 18 months, far more attention is being paid to the words on the pack – obviously in the knowledge that shoppers stop and read, even under stressful circumstances.

One obvious example is the New Covent Garden Food Co, which has just unveiled its re-designed soup cartons. Although the copy on the new packs cannot be faulted, the effect is like a magazine, where you feel you have to put it down and come back to it later because there are so many different pieces of information.

And it is at this premium end of the market that the trend for more copy on packaging seems to be most common.

Wren & Rowe account director Nicole John says: “At the premium end, we like to think that we are informed about the products we buy. We want to know about the journey of the product. In this context, packs can stand a lot of text. We call them talking packs. And it works. In blind tests, the product that tells the story may not taste as good as a competitor, but it tends to sell better.”

Packaging that tells a story works well in some obvious categories such as wines and real ales, where the labels are always read. Leo Beaumont is client services director at Butcher & Gundersen, whose client Badger Brewery has launched a number of premium real ales, and in each case the story on the back of the bottle was crucial to the success of the product.

Beaumont says: “Premium ales are bought by reasonably knowledgeable people. It is seen as a treat to be taken home and enjoyed. These people want to find out about the history of the ale and how it’s made. With bottled ales you have two bites at the cherry. First, the design of the label will attract attention and, once someone has picked up the bottle, they will always turn it around to read the back. The story about the ale will then convince them whether to buy it or not.”

Speak my language

But it would be a mistake to believe that own-label is being left behind. True, at the functional end of own-label, the packaging is clear and simple on the front, with ingredients and use-by dates on the back. But it is with the introduction of brands like Tesco’s Finest, and Sainsbury’s Be Good To Yourself and Blue Parrot Café ranges, that real innovation can be found in terms of packaging and language. One source says that big retailers are hiring copywriters to work on own-brand labels.

Pemberton & Whitefoord has just relaunched Tesco’s Finest brand after being asked to examine all aspects of the brand, from the visual identity and pack livery to the printing processes – a task that brand owners rarely ask their design consultancies to undertake.

Smith & Milton design director Nik Bedford says that own-label products “are getting more savvy with their offerings and are adept at targeting different niches.”

He adds: “In fact, big brands are beginning to copy what supermarkets are doing with their products. For instance, talking brand names [like I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter] are becoming more popular, and ranges like Sainsbury’s Be Good To Yourself brand talk to consumers in the same way.”

Most people identify the PJ Smoothies as the first brand to use language on its packaging to engage the consumer (although Pearlfisher creative director Jonathan Ford says a product called Fresh Samantha’s in the US was doing it first). Smith & Milton head of retail brands Lawrence Barnett says: “The playful street-smart pack patois of PJ Smoothies played a large part in creating a profile for the brand beyond the excellent quality of the product. Its owners realised that surprising, amusing and subtly educating language was an essential ingredient when launching an unknown product – an exercise they did so successfully it effectively pioneered a new sector.”

In addition to PJ Smoothies, Barnett believes there may be a lot of imitators, but no one has yet got the pack language technique right. And telling a product story doesn’t necessarily mean long copy.

He says: “If Ronseal really does believe ‘it does exactly what it says on the tin’, why is half the pack given to the sort of rambling copy that would be found on a product that is less sure of itself?”

There was a brief moment of expectancy within packaging circles when the US tradition of the talking brand name I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter made its entry into the UK. “Yet to read the side of a pack today suggests that only those with a science degree will find much enlightenment,” Barnett adds.

Brand language

For the purposes of this feature, Bedford walked around a supermarket one lunchtime to do some quick research. He says: “It was incredibly disappointing. There are very few products out there that engage you with language. A lot of the time, clients are relying on big brand names to pull people in.”

However, he did find two exceptions. “Bisto uses a steam device on the pack and the ‘aaaahh’ conjures up the smell of gravy. It’s very simple, and it works. The other is Knorr Sizzle & Stir – the words make the product sound appetising,” he says.

But apart from the groceries, one area that has really used what Ford at Pearlfisher describes as “the back of pack on the front of pack” approach is the cosmetics sector.

The US cosmetics brand Kiehls has long been a proponent of plain packaging filled with copy, mainly on the front, about what the product is and what it does.

Ford says that this idea has been used and developed by other brands such as Philosophy and Modern Organic Products, “which use honesty and directness in their language, rather than blatant images of beauty that you find on other products”.

He says this trend across brands is consumer-led in a world where, “people like to be communicated with in a simple and direct way. They don’t want the bullshit anymore. They want messages to be easy to understand and meaningful to absorb.”

For Ford, the clever use of words is still “an underestimated and little-used tool in the design arsenal. It is increasingly important and can be more important than pack structure, especially if you don’t have the ability to work with a new structure.”

Is the pen mightier?

Barnett says: “The beauty of the written word is that it can give you a change of pace – something the quick-hit visual can never match. Given that a major weapon of advertising is to leave the consumer of it with some resonant strapline, the absence of this idea transferring to genuine pack prose is baffling. David Abbott can sleep peacefully until someone realises that this ambient medium is ripe for product eloquence. We have always maintained that stopping customers and intriguing them into picking up your pack is only half the selling task. If you can get them to start reading and engage them with your good sense, wit or repartee, the chances are you’re destined for the basket.”

And it gives shoppers something to read while waiting in that checkout queue.

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