There are many reasons why a company may want to design or re-design a product package, these range from the launching of a new product, to revitalising an existing one. It may also be the need to re-position a product, brand or simply be necessary due to technical or legal constraints. But whatever the reason, any new design initiative must be preceded by some form of market investigation, because without an understanding of the context within which a package or brand must communicate, any such initiative would be undertaken with a virtual blindfold on!
Of course there are many professional research companies specialising in market analysis from in-store analysis, sales tracking and scanner panel data collection to consumer behaviour research, but if budget restrictions mean that this is not an option, then another way must be found. Often this comes down to going out to visit stores and seeing what’s happening for yourself, but in most cases such store-checks are undertaken without any specific methodology or plan. The aim of this article is to give some guidance and methodology, in order to make your future store-checks both effective and useful to understanding the market context and aiding the design and marketing process.
So, you are planning to re-design your package and you are off down to the store to see what’s going on – what should you do first?
Before you start you need understand where your (or your clients’), most important sales are made and who are the main competitors. So to begin with, make a list of the type and names of stores you should visit, in order to get a complete picture of where consumers meet your product and packaging. Take into account your distribution dynamics and plan to visit the different types of stores where your product, and your key competitors products, are found, Distribution channels can be unique to different markets and the display situation may radically change between store types.
In my experience, going out with your sales manager is not as effective as doing this on your own or with your design team, typically the Sales Director will only want to show you where their product is successfully displayed, so you may not get a true picture of your brands’ display situation!
When you visit small stores, it’s always best to ask permission to look around, small storekeepers are generally friendly and accommodating, whereas most supermarkets will not allow you to openly do store-checks, so you will need to be prepared to work in a more clandestine way. Of course, I cannot in this article condone or encourage you to do this, but if you decide to follow this plan of action, you will need to go prepared. Therefore, it’s useful to carry a camera and a recording device to make notes and record what you find, today these last two elements can be found on most high-end telephones. Using your phone to take notes will not make you look like a researcher, making it less likely that you will be challenged in-store.
First Moment of Truth
By now everybody in the fmcg marketing world has heard of The First Moment of Truth, it’s that split second where you see or don’t see, understand or don’t understand, are inspired to buy or not. Well, it makes sense that if that’s how it works, that this is the way you need to approach the category and the shelf. Go right in and take a quick look and then walk away and record what you see. Register which packages stood out and your general impression of the shelf display and the ‘findability’ of your brand. With most purchases being made in ‘automatic pilot’ mode, the stand-out effect of your brand is of fundamental importance in winning ‘The First Moment of Truth. This is not a scientific approach, but it will help you to be a little more objective. You should always remember though, that your view cannot be totally neutral, because, as a professional, you are prone to see your product surrounded by the competition, whereas consumers will see your product as part of a range of different choices!
Now you can go back to the shelf and start to analyse in detail:
First of all, make a note of how the shelf is filled, are products displayed by product types, or blocked together as brands? Is there an opportunity to create ‘colour blocking’ or is there a need to create a strong range design that can easily identify your brand when it’s mixed up with all the others and displayed by variety?
Where is your brand placed, in comparison to the competitive packs, is it on the left or the right (in western society we read from left to right, so packs placed on the left will often have a visual advantage over others)? Are the packs placed high (at eye level, where visibility scores are high), or lower down (where a design will have to work harder to gain attention)?
Finally, make a note of how many facings are awarded to each brand and private label. This is important, because it gives the designer an idea of the ‘stand-out’ challenge, it also exposes if there is an opportunity to make a repeating design or not.
Now it’s time to look at the packaging itself and make a note of the physical construction, of course, design projects that require new packaging forms are less common, because of the investment and lead-time needed, but the role of a store-check is to look at, and be aware, of what’s happening on the market, as this may also influence future decisions concerning the packaging form. This is the moment to see if competitors have any physical packaging advantages, these may be in display, use, transport or storage. Advantages may also take the form of original, innovative packaging solutions or printing innovations.
In the 1930’s Louis Cheskin developed a theory called ‘Sensation Transference’, which proposes that ‘people’s perceptions of products or services are directly related to aesthetic details of the design’. Bearing this in mind, here is the moment when you will need to look at the emotional cues that are displayed by the packaging on shelf.
Ask, how your brand, and the competitive brands, fit within the context of the whole category, do they look like they belong, do they deliver on product and consumer expectations? Take a moment to examine how each package interprets the visual stimuli of this communication, and look for points of difference or possible advantages that can be exploited.
Discern the emotional cues that are employed and how emotion is expressed via the design, these may be from the way a product is shown to be, for example: hot and steamy or cold and fresh, to how a product or brands’ quality level is expressed. Design is an integral part of quality positioning, whether it be, value, mainstream or premium, it’s the surface design, materials and packaging form that creates this quality perception in a consumer’s mind.
It’s a good idea to stand around a while and watch how people ‘shop the category’, is this group of products bought on impulse or is a more reflective purchase? – the way in which a category is ‘shopped’ will influence the approach to design – impulse purchase products tend to have bold designs that catch the eye quickly and communicate instantly, whereas more reflective purchases tend to use shape, texture and printing techniques to awaken the senses. They may also carry extra product or usage information to reassure consumers of their choice.
You can also take this opportunity to observe consumer gender and age, and to make note of what seems to draw their attention. Watch how they interact with the packages that are in front of them, and observe if their behavior is passive or active, for example; are they just looking at the packaging on offer, or are they actively picking product up and studying the labeling information?
Read the Labels
It’s always worth making a note of who owns what, looking at the back label will in most cases tell you this, but sometimes it is not easy to identify if different products come from the same manufacturer, so here’s where keeping up with press announcements of mergers and acquisitions will help you to build a knowledge of who’s who on the shelf. This is important, as you will be able to spot similarities, as well as design and communication trends. For example, different brands from the same manufacturer may be, for cost reasons, in identical packaging forms or carry similar, or linked promotions.
Price and Content
Lastly, it’s always a good idea to record prices, having a clear idea of price versus quality positioning and content, will put the whole shelf and brand positioning in context – for many consumers price is a significant factor in their decision making process, therefore, you need to be aware how your brand is positioned in the category, from both the price and the quality communication, in order to discern if you’ve got the mix correct!
It’s amazing just how much information and how many insights you can gain from a simple store-checking session. It’s guaranteed to give you a new perspective and a greater understanding of what works and what doesn’t, and will become the keystone in planning your brand and packaging development.
To go with this article, I have developed a store-check check-list, if you would like a free copy please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rowland Heming© 2011
See also: http://rhpkg.wordpress.com