Insights into technology and media


Technology packaging design and research


These are some of our thoughts on how successful packaging works based on our thinking around behavioural economics. Though much is drawn from FMCG, there are implications for technology package design, and some lessons on how to conduct package design research.


Successful packaging is partly about creating uniqueness. We understand Sony as being 'Sony' because it doesn't look like it belongs to Samsung or any other electronics brand because of its unique logo, typeface, colours, imagery, slogan and so on. But if a product's packaging is very similar to that of another product, things get fuzzy. Apple has its Chinese clones, designed to look like Apple products. Through similar design, they borrow meanings people attach to the Apple brand.

Xiaomi phone box

Successful packaging will also create responses without us even thinking about it. Even if the brand name for each of the following logos escapes us, it's likely we almost immediately experience some form of recognition and response when we see it because of what it points to.

As Daniel Kahneman puts it, these types of responses are the brain's 'System 1' thinking in action. But what might happen when a brand owner decides to change some of the elements in a product's familiar packaging?

Familiarity bias

Borrowing from another brand category, you have probably heard the story of Tropicana, when it attempted to modernize the brand in the US and play up the emotional connection people had with Tropicana. It got rid of the straw and the orange and reduced the emphasis on the Tropicana brand logo, and instead played up the 100% orange claim instead. Within two months, sales had dropped by 20%. Why? Because Tropicana had deleted the very things that identified the brand to people. This is the 'status quo bias' or 'familiarity bias' that we use to help us decide on what to buy. This familiarity is especially important because it helps us when we're distracted whilst shopping because of things like noise and children. The changes Tropicana implemented made the brand stand out less because it was no longer familiar, and shoppers chose a competitor brand.

Packaging design and research implications:

  • If you are designing for an existing brand, people need to be able to quickly identify the brand from the new logo and overall design to ensure they aren’t too disrupted out of habit and buy something else. Packaging needs to retain enough of the brand’s familiarity and 'distinctive assets', and associations that was built up before, and not harm the brand. Gap and Kraft are examples of rebrands that failed to do this.
  • In terms of research, make sure people can still find the brand under pressure. For example, recreate the short amount of time people take to look at packaging on shelves by setting a time limit, or simulate the distractions they experience when they're scanning a shelf for a product such as by playing the soundtrack of shop noise.


Framing is another way that informs how we feel and think when we encounter packaging. This is Wall Street's charging bull that was installed in 1989 after the 1987 stock market crash to represent America's financial resilience.

In March this year, an asset management company and its agency added a bronze statue of a girl with her hands defiantly on her hips in front of the charging bull as part of its new campaign to pressure companies to add more women to their boards. This subsequently caused a furore, with the bull's sculptor saying it changes the meaning of the bull to male dominance instead of financial resilience.

This is a good example of 'framing', which is when people react to a particular choice in different ways depending on how it is presented. People will more likely choose a product with a perceived positive message than a perceived negative message even when the outcome is the same. For example, people are more likely to choose something that is labelled '95% fat free' than they are '5% fat'. Online participants in a research study in the US were more likely to choose a more expensive environmentally friendly option when the additional cost was called an 'offset' than when it was called a 'tax'. L'Oreal products are so appealing because they are framed with the statement, 'Because you’re worth it'.

Packaging design and research implications:

  • In terms of design, think about the messaging you want to give and how you want to frame your product in terms of claims and graphics. In-store, how is your product likely to be framed in terms of competitor products nearby? In terms of the research consideration needs to be given about how the new pack is framed. A reason for doing monadic testing is so participants aren't influenced by what else they have seen for the same brand in the research. Also consider placing the product alongside its competitors.

Transaction utility

Transaction utility is closely related to framing. This is when we judge the value of something based upon how it is presented. We are predisposed to want something and pay more for it if its packaging or setting seems more expensive. Through its packaging, Apple seems naturally elegant and sophisticated and therefore justifiably more expensive (simple design, lots of white space.)

Packaging design and research implications:

  • Explore if there is a gap in the market for a more premium looking product and look to understand the values and aspirations of your target market to see if this type of packaging is aspirational. Find out what kinds of messages and aesthetics best communicate 'expensive' to them. If you're revamping packaging for an existing product, find out how credible it is for your product to have packaging that looks more premium.

Association bias

Association bias result from the things we hold in our heads about a brand and the experiences we have had with it. Launched in 2012, Fabuloso was often mistaken for an energy drink rather than a cleaning product as it did not follow category norms in that it the packaging is clear and in the shape of a drink product. Better Buy was associated with competitively priced products but lost this association when it changed its logo in 2008 (since reverted).

Packaging design and research implications:

  • If you are an existing brand, it is vital you understand what positive (and negative) associations your product has in the minds of people and what it says to them. What are your core assets, which you will therefore likely want to maintain? If you are a new brand, understand what the category norms are and then look to understand what need to be maintained and what opportunities there are to challenge conventions.

Social proof

We tend to like to fit in and follow what other people are doing – especially those we esteem - because they help indicate what 'the right thing' is to do in a situation. There are lots of examples used in FMCG products, but less so in technology products.

  • Experts.Credible experts are often used as authorities on a product, from flu remedies, anti-wrinkle creams and toothpaste to pet food, movies and computer games.
  • Celebrities. Approval or endorsement from celebrities (paid or unpaid) are often used to keep us 'on trend' and inspire our confidence. Think Cheryl Cole and L'Oreal, Angelina Jolie and Louis Vuitton, and Kendall Jenner and Givenchi.
  • Users.Marketers also often use people, such as user ratings, testimonials and reviews for products and brands, including Amazon, Netflix and eBay.
  • Peers. Recommendations from family and friends are one of the most effective sources of social proof.

Packaging design and research implications:

  • Endorsements are used less in technology products, despite this being an opportunity for technology brands. To have an impact, there has to be a fit between the endorser, the product and the target market. Using celebrities or athletes to promote something that people in the target market have little interest in will have little effect. Thus, research will need to look at the fit of the endorser to the product and the target market, their credibility, and how trustworthy and inspiring they are.

The halo effect

Emotional responses can play an important part in creating associations and have a big influence upon our purchasing behaviour. If we experience a positive emotion when looking at a product, we're much more likely to feel positive towards it and therefore more likely to choose it, even if it's very similar to another product. As Kahneman explains, this 'emotional priming' means we're also more likely to believe rational messages about a product or brand. When in place, "you like what you see, believe what you hear, trust your intuitions and feel that the current situation is comfortably familiar".

Packaging design and research implications:

  • The overall look and feel of the packaging colours, typography, imagery, container all need to come together to create a particular mood. Therefore, what feelings do you want people to experience, for example, warmth, familiarity, surprise, happiness, excitement or trust?
  • In terms of research, integrating facial tracking through participants' webcams to garner emotional responses whilst they're looking at the products on offer can yield interesting results. However, this often runs into problems technically and sometimes due to participants' reluctance to be 'filmed' (although this can be better controlled in more laboratory type conditions). Alternatively, asking participants to quickly select emoticons or photographs of facial expressions that best reflect how they felt can be more practically realistic.

A social activity

Choosing a product in a store is rarely a solitary activity. People regularly shop and make decisions for other people. They also go shopping with others, such as their kids, shared household members and partners. And they buy products to make positive statements to other people about themselves.

Packaging design and research implications:

  • In terms of design, include elements that help people make decisions on behalf of other people such as their children and partners and demonstrate they are making the 'right decision' for them. Also, where appropriate, incorporate elements that say something positive about the people buying them when they have them in their homes.
  • In terms of research, as with familiarity bias, efforts might be made to replicate distractions people face from their kids and others when they shop. Include measures that uncover whether the packaging is inspirational, if it reflects the kinds of messages people want to communicate about themselves to others, and if it helps them with their roles within the family.

Clearly, there are many considerations for designers and researchers to think about, and they need to prioritise in terms of the messages brands want to communicate. Having a good understanding of how people think and how they make the decisions they do is vital, and we have highlighted here some of the top factors that influence decision making and should be considered when undertaking packaging research: familiarity bias, framing, transaction utility, association bias, social proof, the halo effect, and how shopping is often a social activity.


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