Heinz Catsup

D URING A TYPICAL 30-MINUTE SHOPPING TRIP down the aisles of an average Amencan supermarket, about 30,000 products vie for your attention. Ultimately, many will make you believe they are worth a try.

How? Packaging—the silent but nevertheless persuasive salesman.

Each box and jar, stand-up pouch and squeeze bottle, each can, bag, tube and sprayer has been carefully designed to speak to your inner self. Are you a good parent, a good provider? Do you care about the environment? Do you appreciate the finer things in life? Wouldn’t you really like something chocolate?

Every detail has been carefully considered, reworked and tested in mock-ups on store shelves. Refinements are measured in millimeters, for the designers want you to see far more than a container and a label You are buying a personality, an attitude, perhaps even a set of beliefs.

A PIONEER IN STUDYING PEOPLE’S emotional response to packages was Louis Cheskin, a specialist in the psychology of marketing who began his research in the 1930s. He placed identical products in two different packages, one emblazon-ed with circles, the other with triangles. Then he asked his subjects which product they preferred, and why. Over 80% chose the product in the box with the circles. They believed the contents would be of higher quality. “I had difficulty believing the results after the first 200 interviews,” Cheskin wrote later. “But after 1000 interviews, I had to accept the fact that the majority of consumers transferred the sensation from the container to Its contents.” And there was another surprise: even after trying these identical products, people overwhelmingly preferred those in the package with the circles.

Cheskin repeated the experiment for a wide variety of product types. He found, for instance, that the look of the package has an enormous impact on how crackers taste or how soaps are perceived to clean. Cheskin named this phenomenon sensation transference.” It became the foundation not only of his career as a consultant to companies like Procter & Gamble, Standard Oil of Indiana and McDonald’s, but of much of the research in package design done since. Despite increasing consumer sophistication, Cheskin’s original concept still works. A blind test of beers can be repeated over and over again, with a strong consensus about taste and quality. But when the beer bottles are introduced, they change the way peopie taste the beer. One of the most dramatic versions of the Cheskin experiment involved an underarm deodorant mailed in packages with three different color schemes to a test group. The group was told that three different formulations were under consideration, and was asked to judge them.

Results: color scheme B was considered just right. Scheme C was said to be strong-smelling but not very effective. And scheme A was deemed downright threatening. Several participants developed skin rashes after using it and had to consult dermatologists. Yet all three deodorants were exactly the same.

As Walter Stern notes in a prominent textbook on the subject, “Consumers generally do not distinguish between a product and its package. Many products are packages—and many packages are products.”

One leading package design firm, Primo Angeli of San Francisco, has carried this principle to a money-making extreme: the firm designs packaging for products that do not yet exist. The packaging is then tested and the marketing concept refined. Only when it’s clear that the company has a winner on its hands will it need to go to the expense of actually developing the product. Among the products created in this way: Just Desserts toppings and a forthcoming product from Nestlé.

Tide Detergent


Studies of eye movement have shown that color triggers the fastest response of any element of a package. Take, for example, V8 Vegetable Juice. For decades the general arrangement on the V8 label has stayed more or less the same: a horizontal array of tomatoes, defined by greenery and punctuated by vertical celery and carrots. What you might not notice, but will probably feel, is the intensity of the vegetables’ colors. V8 vegetables are not printed with the standard four-color process used in magazines and books, but with five colors. This lets some of them take on a strikingly vivid hue. Thus, the vegetables are mysteriously compelling.

TIlE POWER OF A PACKAGE may depend on a resolution of opposites—a conflict between the aggressiveness required for getting noticed in the store and the need to appear soft and un-aggressive when the package is brought home. Triangles and other pointy figures attract notice. But as Cheskin’s early experiment proved, just because people can see triangles doesn’t mean they like them. And color presents a similar dilemma. Cheskin thought that the most noticeable hue was yellow, which for some products has negative connotations.

As you walk around a store, you’ll see a great many importuning, pointy, explosive masculine forms on packages, often in bright yellow. These strident shapes get attention. But superimposed on them are kindly messages like “New and Improved” “29 Cents Off” or “Free Offer!” Because they don’tread as part of the basic pack-age design, these shapes and the messages they bear are known in the business as “violators.” The violators are what consumers value when deciding whether to bring the product home.

Baking Soda

FEMININE FORMS— circles and ovals that suggest completeness, receptiveness and enclosure—provide the underlying theme for many packages, because these forms have the most positive associations. But to work well, they must also be inflected with some other symbol. Thus, Tide’s concentric circles are played against bold lettering, and the oval of the Amoco logo is bisected by a torch and filled with the company’s name. Cheskin worked with McDonald’s when the fast-food giant was about to abandon arches as architectural elements of its outlets. His research showed, he said, that the arches were great assets because they had “Freudian implications in the subconscious mind.” Exactly what he meant by this is uncertain, but Davis Masten, who runs the company that Cheskin started, recalls that Cheskin also referred to the arches as “Mother McDonald’s breasts”—a powerful association if you’re replacing home cooking.

There is no doubt that people have visceral responses to colors and shapes. But just how these translate into the purchase of a pound of bacon or a jar of moisturizing cream is not well understood. The process is certainly not rational. “I can’t ask you why you like a certain package,” says Stan Gross, a marketing consultant based in Haverford, Pa., “and you can’t tell me. The package is not silent. It screams—but it screams to your inner mind.” To plumb this inner mind, Gross asks groups of subjects sometimes consumers and sometimes package designers—to play games meant to elicit inner, prerational responses. Formed into teams, the subjects are given a series of packages and challenged to tell stories about them: “If this toothpaste were a person, write its obituary.” Or, “If this detergent were a movie, what would it be about?” He encourages such playfulness because he thinks it bypasses rational judgment and elicits truer reactions. One group, working with Tide, saw it as Sylvester Stallone. “The positive side of this was that the product gets your clothes clean. It gets the job done,” says Gross. “The negative is that the product seems a little bit crass.

Another group saw a familiar brand of detergent as a slut who stayed out all night at 14, was pregnant at 17, and attended a Halloween party wearing a loincloth and no top. Gross’s interpretation: the product is “easy,” promising too many features to too many people—most of them lazy people.

“We once did a logo for a line of new food products that knocked your eye out,” says one package designer. “We thought it was great, and research showed it was highly recognizable. Then Stan Gross tested it—and it was described as Fatal Attraction.” On the strength of this reaction, the client decided to tone down the color of the logo, and the designer now thinks this was wise. “The earlier design was just too seductive, and probably not appropriate for the product.”

Ritz Crackers

Obviously, Gross and other psychological marketers are dealing with fears and desires that go deeper than whiter laundry. Parents worry that they are failing their children. individuals feel lonely and unfulfilled. To assuage these anxieties through such palliatives as a frozen steak sandwich or a pack of cinnamon chewing gum—

doesn’t that seem cruel? 7

Gross argues that people know, on some level, that the purchases they make will not fulfill their deepest wants. “Buying things is a way of coping,” he says. As the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion discovered, the Emerald City offers compensations for the deficiencies we feel in ourselves. We may know they are empty symbols, but we pursue these bright baubles because they satisfy us. And perhaps because, at still another level, we enjoy watching their gloriously sophisticated competition for our favors.




Copyright @ 1995 by: Thomas Hine

Published by: LITTLE, BROWN and COMPANY,

                       1271 Avenue of the Americas,

                        New York, NY 10020

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