12 May 2014

On Packaging

Source: Karen Mordechai

After writing a few posts on consumption from a marketing point of view, it seems I have involuntarily created a mini-series here. Today's subject has actually been suggested by a reader: packaging, and the influence of an object's presentation in our purchase habits and choices.

First, let me define what I include in the "object presentation". Of course, this includes the packaging - the wrapping, box or container the object is sold in. It also includes the object's design itself - its shape, colour, the shell it is stored in, the form beyond its functional purpose.

The "presentation" of the object should have limited impact on our purchase choices, as it is its container, not the actual object. Take a lipstick for example, no matter what wrapping it is in, no matter the colour or shape of the lipstick cap or brush, what matters is the actual product you put on your lips. Or, is it?

I guess you won't be surprised if I tell you that, on the contrary, packaging has a large influence on our consumption choices. Why else would brands spend so much energy and money coming up with fancy packagings? It is a full part of the brand's marketing strategy, branding universe and identity.

Why are we influenced by packaging, why should we be aware of it and how to minimize that influence to make careful choices as consumers? I would separate the problem in two types of "presentation": the packaging, or wrapping, in which the object is sold but that you throw away at the first use; and the object design, the "shell" or container of the object, that is part of the object itself and you will use every time you use the object.


I think the best type of product to look at when explaining the importance of packaging, is food. Next time you go to the supermarket, go to the aisle of, say, yoghurts, and look at all the colours,images, shapes brands have come up with to differentiate each other and drive the consumer's eyes. That is one of the main purposes of a packaging: it has to catch your eye.

I won't enter into the detail of communication codes and tricks, the one thing to keep in mind is that everything, from the overall shape of the packaging to its colours, the pictures on it, the brand logo, is carefully tested and chosen. Everything is studied to make you like the product based on its box.

I mentioned in the Marketing Targets post that brands create a universe, an identity, a mood they want you to identify with so you can have a link with them, and buy their products. Packaging is a part of that identity. Take a look at an Apple packaging: sleek, white, minimalist, all in line with the overall brand aesthetics.

As a consumer: the brands which universe appeals to you will create attractive packaging for you. However, since we are talking about wrappings and boxes that you will throw away at first use, don't let them fool you. My advice would be to take a look at the actual contents of the object: the ingredients, material, origin... A nice packaging is very pleasant to buy, but make sure the object itself is adequate, too, and that you are not making a purchase mistake just because you like the box.

The Object's Skin/Design

The second side of an object's "presentation" is its shell, its box, its container. Contrary to the "packaging/wrapping" above, you don't throw these away at first use, they are a part of the object. For example, the mustard container, the laptop plastic or metallic shell, the make-up palette's box and lid.

I have decided to treat it differently, because the object design influences how easy or convenient it is to use, and its overall aesthetics. Aesthetics may be a detail for a wrapping that you get rid of, but when you have the object sitting on a shelf in front of your eyes every day, it might be of bigger importance.

Just like packaging, an object's design is carefully thought by marketing/ R&D teams. The choice of shape, colour etc. is also deeply linked to the brand's overall universe and aesthetics. And like packaging, my first advice is still to check what is actually inside, recall your objective needs and requirements, and make sure the object itself ticks them.

However, I think an object's design is an important part of the experience, and the comfort to use. For example, an ill-designed tea cup that burns every time you pour hot tea in it is deeply inconvenient, no matter how beautiful, or cheap, or ethically produced it has been. In that situation, my advice would be to go to an actual retail store and get to see and handle the object yourself, and check out these:

  • First and foremost, does the object meet your objective criteria/needs, regardless of its design?

  • Is it going to be practical, easy to use? Will it make your everyday life easier?

  • Does it meet your constraints? For example, is that lipstick going to be small enough to fit in your everyday make-up pouch? 

  • Do you find it beautiful/pleasant to use? Does the object's design make the moment more enjoyable? It can be its fabric, how the touch feels on your skin, how it smells, how it looks...

I believe an adequate object is a mix of both: practical, easy to use, but also enjoyable. With the lipstick example, the product itself has to be the right colour and texture to produce the intended effect on your lips, but the shape of the lipstick tube has to be adapted to how you will use it (will you travel with it or not, what size is your make-up pouch...), and be designed so that the lipstick is easy to put on. 

Now, if you have a choice between a "meh" looking object and a nice looking one, why not indulge, but only once all of these criteria above are met. Otherwise, trust me, no matter how beautiful or well packaged the object is, if its unpractical to use, it will be that kind of little annoying detail that will make you stop using it, effectively making it a purchase mistake.


  1. Nice article; I like that you separately discussed temporary and permanent packaging. I started to pay more attention to packaging when it hit me that I use these things almost every single day. I started with peeling off nasty barcode stickers from my nail polishes to give them a cleaner look. I couple of my make-up products are in somewhat impractical shells, but I would feel guilty about replacing them without finishing the quality product inside.

    1. It is true that it is more pleasant to use objects that are practical, and aesthetically appealing to use. My solution for quality objects which unfortunately have not such a nice 'shell' is to buy beautiful boxes or baskets (from Ikea or Muji for example) and hide them inside. It has the double utility to help organizing, and hide the ugly :)

  2. I'm such a sucker for pretty packaging! I am trying to get better about judging it by the contents inside first, as you suggested.
    Also I thought it was interesting that recently, an acquaintance of mine who is a nutritionist was asked "how can you tell that it's healthy?" and her response was "It's your healthiest option if it has no packaging". I thought it wasn't a bad rule of thumb when it comes to food.

    1. I'm a sucker at pretty packaging too, I have to admit. Even when I'm picking up a travel book at the airport, I tend to select those with the nicest cover first (even though I'm still reading the summary before making a choice). I think it's a natural tendency, and we need to actively make ourselves look at the contents and rationalize our decisions.

      I think I agree with your friend on that packaging thing too. You know, when there are lemons in a product, they don't feel the need to put a big picture of a lemon on the packaging. When there is only the artificial flavor though... Have you seen George Carlin's video on food ad words? It's hilarious: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1c04M7JfuK8

    2. I hadn't seen that video! It cracked me up, especially when he got to the word "natural", SUCH a bullshit word.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Hey Kali,

    I recently saw an episode of "The Checkout," which is an Australian series aimed at revealing advertising tactics and promoting consumer rights to viewers. One thing that really stood out to me was their discussion on gendered marketing and brand segmentation. For example, they talked about how a particular brand of deodorant had used brand segmentation so that they effectively had a whole population of males and a whole separate population of females buying their products, thus increasing sales. The deodorant, which was essentially exactly the same product, was marketed specifically towards males with the use of darker colours, harder/sharper looking font, and more science-y explanations. The female deodorant was marketed using lighter pastel colours, florals, and more petite packaging. As such, the same product when bought by a male was more value for money because it was in a larger tube and cheaper than that sold to females. The thing that struck me about this was when they said that because we have products specifically marketed for our gender, we tend to only look within our section, and don't think to look at alternatives in the other genders male area - which could save money in the long run if you're not overly concerned about having manly packaging for your product (if you're a female).

    1. That's a very interesting series, I wish they did the same type of shows here in France. Yes, it is true that products are "segmented" depending on the target aimed, changing the packaging but not necessarily the content. The most well-known example of that being diet coke (for women) versus coke zero (for men).

      You're right that it is important to take it into consideration, as we may find adequate objects in sections we wouldn't even think about looking into. I know I buy razors at the men's section for example, they are way cheaper and more efficient than women ones. Also, marketing tends to tell us what the object is for and how it is meant to be used, but when you pay more attention to the product itself than the packaging and the way it's sold, you can find what you need for a much cheaper price for example (the site Ikea hacks is a good example of that - showing how else Ikea objects can be used, other than what they've been planned for).