For many products and brands, the package is the principle advertising medium. Without the support of media advertising, the package carries the full burden associated with marketing the brand. This makes it crucial to properly research the packaging before introduction. At the same time, good packaging research promises to help brands win their competitive battles at the ultimate moment of truth -- the final point of purchase.
How package research works
Package research begins before any design work begins and may continue after the product has been introduced on the shelf. Common techniques include co-creation, eye tracking studies, in-depth interviews, focus groups, virtual shopping, ethnographic studies, and of course surveys.
These techniques are further broken down into qualitative and quantitative research techniques, though the dividing line is a blurry one. As a rule qualitative research is smaller scale and "interpretive," which is to say it is searching for deeper motivations which cannot be quantified, whereas quantitative research tends to be larger scale and oriented towards generating solid numbers.
Qualitative research is most important in the early stages, to give the designers a solid base of information to work with. As the packaging design is closer to completion, researchers will use more quantitative techniques to assess competing designs and verify that the packaging will be well received by the market.
Generally before anyone sits down with a consumer, packaging research begins with an ethnographic study: how do consumers behave in stores? A researcher will visit several different stores (generally more than 10) which carry the brand and study the section of the store where it is sold.
Spending time in the relevant aisle the researcher is able to observe how consumers shop. How long do they take to examine displays and make their choice? How many packages do consumers examine and pick up? Do they examine all the different panels? Do they buy one brand, or multiple brands at once? Who are the buyers, what do they look like?
The ethnographic study may be further continued with in-home research, where a researcher visits consumers' homes and observes them using the product.
One of the most powerful new research techniques, co-creation allows a selected group of consumers to participate in creating the packaging design. It is not a design competition -- there is constant interaction between the consumers, designers, and manufacturer. Co-creative techniques result in extremely rapid idea generation, make it easy to weed out concerns and problems early on, significantly reduce the risk of failure, and align the final design very closely with actual consumer demands and needs.
Co-creation may take place both offline or online. In offline groups, smaller groups create a real connection between consumer and brand, helping to truly nurture ideas. Online co-creation (using special-purpose online communities) tends to be faster, taking input from a wider variety of people from different regions and demographics.
Focus groups and surveys
Focus groups and surveys are the most traditional and still most widely used tools for any kind of market research, packaging research included. 8-10 people in a focus group facility will discuss the proposed design and their thoughts; led by a moderator, the group often produces useful insight. At the same time there are many hazards (such as 'group think') which are known to skew the results.
Surveys -- often done online -- make it possible to obtain quantitative data from hundreds or even thousands of participants. In packaging research, survey participants will either answer questions on a specific design (in order to better understand how the market responds to it) or compare multiple designs in order to screen out any "dogs."
The importance of direct feedback from consumers is clear, but eye tracking provides objective details to complement the rest of the research effort. An eye tracker allows the researcher to see exactly which elements of the product are observed -- the brand? the pictures? the captions? -- and delivers solid data on where the package design may be improved. In many cases eye tracking reveals how to improve the design as well, suggesting whether to increase the size of or restructure text for example.
Since eye tracking can be used in many different situations, it's often used at the same time as other research techniques.
In an in-depth interview, a market researcher spends 90 to 120 minutes interviewing either one or two consumers. The interview covers everything from their view of the market category to, of course, their specific thoughts on the packaging design. Among the 'traditional' techniques of market research, depth interviews are still one of the most powerful and widely recommended -- especially in the early phases, where the underlying motivational insights provide extremely useful insights to the design team.
Virtual shopping techniques may combine multiple forms of research -- the quantitative approach of surveys and eye tracking, the qualitative benefits of focus groups and depth interviews.
Virtual shopping is simply creating a 3D virtual example of the packaging and placing it in a realistic-looking digital shelf. Depending on the design of the study, virtual 'shops' may be used to compare many different package designs, or they can evaluate how design changes affect e.g perceived price.