Market Context
The Power of Packaging - Are You a Super Hero or a Super Villain?
What does a carton of apple juice, a school fair, an Xbox, the Incredible Hulk and conspiracy theories about Walkers branded crisps (aka chips in the USA) all have in common? They all feature in my latest article. Intrigued? Maybe even a little confused? Let's read on.
It's a warm Sunday afternoon. I'm at the school fair with my kids spending too much money, saying yes to any request that comes my way. So very, very out of character for me!

I was feeling quite content until one cursory glance at the nutritional values on my youngest's juice carton changed my mood. Contentment turned to despair, then fury as I transformed into the Incredible Hulk. As the saying goes "You won't like me when I'm angry!"

In response to seeing the eye-watering grams of sugar in a seemingly innocent bottle of juice, I did what any product marketer would do. I channelled my inner Hulk, picked up a pen and started writing.

In this article, I'll discuss the purpose of packaging, the role it plays in helping (or hindering) customer choice and a sobering reminder not to forget about the seemingly boring but ultimately really important stuff.

Plus conspiracy theories about crisps (for those across the pond, chips).

The Purpose Of Packaging

There are three purposes for our humble packaging:

1. Communication.

2. Carrying and shipping.

3. Customer experience.
It's good for you x it's wholesome x it's bad for you = decision conflict.
Can We Talk?

The basic role of communication is to inform, shape perception and aid decision-making. Each goes hand-in-hand.

But when done incorrectly, this combination can act as a knockout punch for indecision. Let's take a look at my son's juice carton to explain further.

'Five a day' has been a decades-long mantra in the UK. The drive to get people to eat more fruit and vegetables was backed by health practitioners, doctors and successive governments. Food retailers and 'big food' producers have used the phrase on packaging as a signpost for consumers looking to make healthier choices.

Being 'farm grown' is also a suggestion of a healthy origin. After all, it must be healthy if it comes from a farm right? The image conjured up and the reassurance it gives is tangible, especially for parents.

Then, as if Mike Tyson just punched me in the gut, the conflicted pain on seeing twenty grams of sugar in one small carton. There's a reason why this is highlighted in RED on the nutritional values. Because it's near the same sugar content as regular Coca-Cola (10+grams per 100ml)!

I would not let my kids drink full-sugar Coke. But the juice packaging is communicated differently. It's positioned as healthy. It comes from a farm! I felt like I was picking the apples from the orchard myself as opposed to shoving cubes of white sugar down my son's throat.

And this leads us to the algebra of this communication and the illusion of choice it creates.
The Xbox bundling program drove incremental value.
Some food producers are doing better than this but there's clearly a long way to go. Just don't get me started on breakfast cereal or the Hulk will appear again!

There's also the signalling of a proposition change.

In my early days of working at Xbox, we had but just one console, the Xbox itself. A piece of hardware that on its own does nothing, as you need games and services for the proposition of gaming to be delivered.

In the early days especially, a limited portfolio and significant competitors in the form of Sony and Nintendo posed many challenges for us.

We also needed something for key retailers to differentiate an offering that was in essence the same for everyone.

Enter the Xbox bundling program.

A program that would combine hero content with the console itself, creating different propositions for key retailers, increasing, and diversifying facings, elevating the games portfolio and providing gamers with better value. Key components aside, the main asset was…wait for it…the packaging.

The operational cost was $Millions a year and the logistical complexity was on a scale most will never experience. But the return on the investment was worth it.

Once we got going, hard packaged bundles accounted for 50% of console sales in Europe. Twenty years later, they are still a big part of the Xbox sales and marketing program.

The Boring Stuff Is The Important Stuff

As it directly relates to the above program and the high operational cost, the boring stuff is the important stuff, i.e. it's all about the details.

Twenty seven production lines for peak season, cost to serve analysis, cost of special inks and special packaging detailing - your marketing choices all have an impact.

Pallet size, weights and measures, all affect the bottom line and whether the ROI of your program will really hold water. Want to include more games and accessories in the box, without changing the external size of the box? An internal structural redesign is on the horizon. Need to shave time off the production turnaround time? A more flexible and versatile boxing method is required.

Grasp the nettle on this one and ensure great alignment with your operations team. Your program lives or dies here.

To OBEE Or Not Too OBEE, That Is The Question

Ok, that's quite enough Shakespeare for one article already. The way we communicate in every aspect is one of many key factors to how customers perceive your brand, and we call this the OOBE (pronounced 'ooo-b-eee'), or to use its full name, the out of box experience.

Everything, literally everything we do that a customer is aware of (and sometimes not aware of) eventually plays a part in contributing to the formation of a perceived brand image. Maybe it's the intended brand image, maybe it's not.

Leaving apple juice behind and moving onto Apple the company, we can summarise Apple's brand image as:

1. Simplicity.

2. Creativity.

3. Humanity.

Now think. Last time you bought a new Apple product and opened the packaging, how did you feel? What did you think?

It was an experience, right? The Apple OBEE delivers on their brand positioning perfectly.

Now, just for fun, let's take a look at the extreme opposite. Many years ago, during my time at Microsoft, a video went through relevant departments like a dose of bad street food would go through music festival goers.

This video is called When Microsoft re-designed the iPod packaging. Sure, we were able to laugh at ourselves, whilst admitting the essence of it at the time was true. Enjoy. Much has changed at my former employer for the better thankfully.

Ignore The Unboxing Trend Online At Your Peril

The experience of unboxing a product, whilst it's still packaged all the way through to knowing if what's inside is any good, has become a massive global trend online.

It's not enough to know it, you have to show it.

This trend is personified by YouTube videos and none better than the Unboxed Therapychannel that has over 18 million subscribers at the time of writing. The most popular video has amassed 74M views and many of their posts each hit the 20M mark.

Never thought of the OBEE? Think again. Your intended brand image needs to ring out with every look and touch.
UK top 10 flavours.
Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue…Or Are They?

In the UK potato crisp (chips) market, flavours are categorised by the colour of their packaging. Why? This is to act as a mental shortcut to aid consumers in their system 1 decision-making.

Daniel Kahneman coined the terms system 1 and system 2 in his 2011 bestselling book "Thinking Fast and Slow" and this popularised the distinction between automatic and deliberate thought processes.

In summary:

• System 1 "is the brain's fast, automatic, intuitive approach". System 1 activity includes the innate mental activities that we are born with, such as a preparedness to perceive the world around us, recognise objects, orient attention, avoid losses - and fear spiders! Other mental activities become fast and automatic through prolonged practice.

Example: fast decisions like, buying a bag of potato crisps.

• System 2 is "the mind's slower, analytical mode, where reason dominates". Usually, system 2 activity is activated when we do something that does not come naturally and requires some sort of conscious mental exertion.

Example: considered choices that take time and use reason, like buying a new car.

Back to the potatoes...the table above shows us the most popular flavours in the UK.

With me so far? Logical right? What's not to like?

The biggest manufacturer and brand in the UK (Walker crisps, source Nielsen) 'swapped' the colours of their salt & vinegar (blue to green) and their cheese and onion (green to blue) and this is a PHENOMENON in the UK!

Hold on, what's going on here, did I teleport to a previous time where these two flavours of Walkers crisps were the same colour as the rest of the market?

Many think so, until recently, including myself! I swore that for three decades, Walkers were playing a trick on us by secretly switching the colours. This is such a strongly held belief by many Brits that what we might be witnessing in fact is The Mandela effect playing out.

The Mandela effect got its name when Fiona Broome, a self-identified "paranormal consultant," detailed how she remembered former South African President Nelson Mandela dying in the 1980s in prison (although Mandela lived until 2013).

Broome could describe remembering news coverage of his death and even a speech from his widow about his death. Yet none of it happened.

If Broome's thoughts occurred in isolation, that would be one factor. However, Broome found that other people thought the exact same as her.

Even though the event never happened, she wasn't the only one who felt like it did. As a result, the Mandela effect concept was "born."

Another way to describe the Mandela effect is "collective false memories." A large group of people collectively always say a particular saying or memory a certain way when, in reality, the truth is different from the memory.

And despite the wealth of discussion, mass media coverage and a dedicated and celebrated podcast, Walkers flatly deny switching the colours, maintaining that their salt & vinegar crisps have always been green, and their cheese & onion has always been blue. They have even stated this in the FAQ on their website.

The Virtual Reality Is More Like Actual Reality

The more logical explanation for anyone who understands branding and packaging, is that Walkers played with the brand code of colour for good reason.

Brand assets, or codes as some call them, are signals to customers. Some are shapes, sounds, logos, or as we have it here, colours. In this case, the market-wide brand code of colour = a particular flavour. By choosing the opposite colours to the status quo, Walkers have made their biggest sellers more distinctive and thus it's become a signature for Walkers over time.

Walkers FAQ on the matter concludes:

"We've no plans to change these designs, as they're signature to our brand." Heck! They even state it in black and white! Or should that be blue and green?

Thinking Inside And Outside Of The Box Is A Lesson For Us All

So there you have it. A simple day out at the school fair proved to be a timely reminder about the purpose of packaging, and that I am in fact, not the Incredible Hulk.

There is much to learn for a product marketer regardless of whether you are in a physical or digital domain, lessons and skills that are transferable that will serve you well over the long years of a career.

Stay safe, look after one another.


© Harvey Lee 2021. All Rights Reserved.
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