Perhaps because it is the final step of the production process, packaging is often not given the same strategic consideration as other marketing and branding elements. While advertising, pricing, and distribution are usually considered quite early, strategic and careful thought about packaging as a brand element is less common. And whether due to a lack of time or other resources, decisions about packaging are too often made without the benefit of consumer research. That could be a costly mistake.

Consider this. Little Bird Curious Confections is a candy manufacturer trying to break into mainstream retail distribution. But – as the name suggests – this isn’t your run-of-the-mill candy. Little Bird’s specialty is candied jalapeños. They recognized their cellophane bag packaging needed a serious upgrade to compete with other national and global candy-makers. Working with a branding firm, they created a distinctive pouch that stands upright on the retail shelf. The graphics were also redesigned, focusing on – what else? – the jalapeño.

The result? A 500% increase in revenue. And the only change was the packaging.

So rather than missing out on a key branding opportunity by allowing packaging decisions to be made as an afterthought, make these important decisions as an integral and purposeful step in your product development process. There are three main functions that packaging serves, and each of these should be evaluated with consumer research:

  • Form Meets Function: A well-designed package can enhance the functionality of the product and improve the user’s experience. Does the package open and close easily, and properly? Is the package easy for the consumer to handle? Does the package make the product easier to use? Does the package store easily in the consumer’s home or refrigerator, especially where space might be at a premium? All of these areas can make or break consumer acceptance and adoption of your product.
  • Form Meets Manufacturing and Distribution: An additional consideration for packaging is getting the product into the package, and then getting the package to the consumer. Your manufacturing processes, needed shelf-life, and shipping requirements are all considerations that go into designing the optimal package. Balancing manufacturing costs and logistics against the consumer and commercial benefits of packaging changes can guide decision making. Changes in any of these factors might necessitate large investments, so you want to be sure you’re going to have a healthy payback.
  • Form Meets Communications: Packaging is your in-store communications. It’s interesting that most manufacturers would never run an ad campaign without testing its efficacy, but routinely make packaging changes without any consumer input. Shouldn’t your packaging receive the same attention as your advertising? After all, packaging has to play many communications roles in the retail setting. Your package must first stand out on the shelf to get the consumer to stop and pay attention; it must quickly communicate the key benefits of the product and then tell your story in a way that leads to purchase. And do it all in a few short seconds. Your advertising may not be at the retail aisle; your packaging is. Conducting packaging communications research will help you optimize your packaging for the retail aisle.

One other critical piece of knowledge is an understanding of how your customers shop in your category: their path to purchase or decision journey. Do they typically search out a brand first followed by variety, and would switch varieties to stay with their brand? Or do they switch brands to get the variety they want on that particular shopping trip? Think about cake mixes: if you were shopping for an Angel Food cake mix and you didn’t see that flavor with your preferred brand, would you buy another brand or another flavor of cake? Knowing how your customers are likely to behave in-store must inform and guide package communication.

Whether you are introducing a new-to-the-market product, a newly re-formulated product, or simply a package redesign, consumer research can help to make sure your packaging works hard for you. Understanding the role of packaging in your consumers’ purchase and usage journey could pay big benefits for product success.