June 9, 2014

Guest Post – The Psychology of Product Packaging: Where’s Waldo In The Cereal Aisle

“There he is!” your five-year old says after what seems like hours of searching.  It’s a tattered “Where’s Waldo?”  book. You yourself smile and wonder quietly how in the world anyone would have the patience to draw so many red and white stripes onto one page.  It makes  for quite the visual puzzle to hide in plain sight.  You are happy to sit with the toddler and take all the time in the world.

If you’re job, however, is to be the artist designing a cereal box for someone to pick out of a crowd, you have quite the opposite objective.  You need the adult to find your cereal box instantly.  With all the packages roughly the same size, you want to be anything except Waldo.  Just think what it is if you are the consumer —you walk into the cereal aisle, dread taking your toddler and if you do, you are more likely to do the fifty yard dash, grabbing the first thing that catches your eye.

Competition for Consumers

The deep, deep challenge for anyone selling any product, but especially food, is that consumers today are bombarded from all sides with sensory stimuli to encourage people to purchase.  The human brain, as a coping mechanism from very early tries to cope with the stress of this stimuli by deciding among elements that cause cognitive dissonance (Kitayama, Conner Snibbe, Rose Markus, & Suzuki  2004).  As a person develops their belief systems, they create heuristics or decision making tools that quickly decide for one item and against another (Epstein, 2003).  Some of the people buying cereal may take a second to read for sugar content but many times we want to please our children and so packaging has smiling cartoons that “make us happy.”  We reason that if our children are happy we are good parents.

The thing to note when you are presenting the package of food is that you are not simply offering a type of oatmeal, pizza or muffin.  Many people have seen teenagers walk around all day with headphones on of some sort with their favorite music.  Think of cognitive dissonance as those set of headphones.   Those headphones are playing beliefs about self, love, the opposite sex, children and any other host of values people may hold about the world.  The only way to stop them sometimes is to engage them in a conversation about a song they are listening to.  Does everyone have the distracted attention span of a teenager?  Categorically yes.  The level of stimuli in our culture demands nothing less.  The result is that this conversation for a purchase happens between the consumer and your product very quickly.  It also typically has to last three seconds or less. Whose doing all that fast talking?  The package wrapped around your food item.

It’s all about me-Impulse and Culture

But why does that buying decision happen in less than three seconds? Kacen and Lee (2002) reported that upwards of $4 billion dollars in sales in the U.S. happens due to impulse purchases.  This purchasing phenomenon is great for food merchants in the U.S. Kitayama et al. (2004) and Kacen and Lee (2002) both state that Americans hold to a more individualistic self-concept.  That viewpoint goes directly into how they make their purchases.  The packaging therefore, is able to overcome many barriers of cognitive dissonance that may be telling them to delay a purchase, or hold out for the preferred brand.  This is especially true of lower cost items such as the food they eat.  Quite often we snatch the cereal and put aside our values about sugar or diet.  Americans are more likely to ignore social norms as long as it upholds the value of their individuality.  The purchasing environment plays a much larger role.

The eyes have it

Kitayama et al. (2004) studied eye movements around purchasing and found that color and location do indeed impact the purchasing decisions of the consumer.  The surprise was that in a rapid shopping decision this even overcomes habits of preferred branding.  This isn’t to mean that wrapping the package in bright yellow and putting a flashing red beacon on every box top will automatically stop them in their tracks.  There are other variables that go into the entire shopping environment.  The eye tracks at a certain level and so location and even lighting can impact a decision as much or more than a bright color.  As you can also see on every cereal aisle it becomes a rainbow of colors as all the merchants compete to make sure their product stands out the most.

In the end the sciences of neurobiology and psychology are only a piece of the puzzle.  There is an art, or aesthetic that comes into play when packaging and many times being able to tap into that side of the packaging concept is what touches the hearts and value systems of your target consumer.  Whatever you do to package your food item just make sure you are “playing their tune.”

Doug  Johnson is one-half of the entrepreneurial team behind Whims of An Angel which he started with his wife.  He also holds a PhD in Psychology and likes to put his educational background to work while watching consumer behavior. 

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