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Planners or magpies

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The impact of 2020 in changing our collective shopper mindset could hold the key to unlocking a long-running debate about the role of packaging in the path to purchase.

What is the purpose of packaging?

For years, getting research groups to talk about packaging could be an uphill battle. To cut a short story even shorter, most people gave it very little thought and when they did, their key motivation was to have to think about it for as little time as possible. The shopping experience was the key driver in this narrative: tiring, time-consuming and tedious, people reported that they wanted to get it over with as fast as they could – and the job of packaging was not to get in the way. The prevailing shopper mind-set demanded ease and speed: help me find what I want, grab it and go. The stats seemed to back this up – suggesting that around half the products appearing in people’s baskets were the same on each and every shopping trip.

But there was a counter-narrative in which packaging was a brand’s primary marketing tool particularly for those without the deep pockets needed to fund advertising support. This story had a different shopper at its heart – one who was less furious, more curious and prepared to have an open mind towards the things that caught their eye on-shelf. Evidence existed for this version of reality too. Setting aside the argument about the proportion of purchase decisions made in store, the success of emerging challenger brands that relied almost exclusively on design to make an impact, offered proof that packaging could persuade as well as locate. Of course, the degree to which shoppers were generally engaged with categories made a difference – but even supposedly low interest categories, such as household cleaners, saw entrepreneurial brands using design to help gain a foothold in aisles traditionally dominated by multinationals.

The role of packaging in marketing

And therein lies the heart of a debate about the role of packaging design that has rumbled on for years. One side of the argument is the belief that design cannot create attitudes towards brands, only symbolise them. In this scenario the primary role of pack is as a trigger of associations and, as such, design must be distinctive and memorable above all else. On the other is the idea that packs are, in essence, on-shelf advertising – not simply a tool to direct and unlock pre-existing desire but a means to stimulate it. According to this view, the entire shopper journey could be compressed into a moment where almost simultaneously, a shopper could move from not being in the market for a product, to making a purchase decision. The logic of these two positions drives very different perspectives on designing and redesigning packaging. One suggests cautious evolution over time – retaining and reinforcing visual equities and avoiding the risk of dislocation that might come with more radical change. The other isn’t just more open to change, but actively demands it because if no one notices, how can anything positive be achieved?

While real-world decisions are rarely so binary, the disruption to CPG shopping behaviours seen in 2020 might yet tip the balance of the debate. Key to this outcome will be the shopper psyche that dominates in its aftermath: will we be confirmed as practical planners focussed on efficiency, or as maverick magpies with an eye for the shiny and new?

Common sense suggests that a time of rolling global pandemic and simultaneous recession is not one to be adventurous – and the emerging evidence supports this. The rising tide of smaller brands, against which the multi-national players have struggled for some years, has been stemmed – with shoppers returning to the comforting familiarity, and widespread availability of the Global A-Listers. With so much uncertainty, it appears that the contents of our shopping baskets can be a source of reassurance and stability. The task for these brands in the months ahead will be to secure and retain these gains – particularly against lower-priced competitors. It will be a brave big-brand, therefore, that rocks the boat – suggesting a focus on the reinforcement of core product lines, established equities and strong quality messaging. 

While the jury is out on whether the rediscovery of old favourites will stick, commentators seem to agree that 2020 is the year that online grocery shopping came into its own and the acceleration in uptake will be sustained. This would seem to be a decisive shift in favour of pack design for a planned purchase mind-set, since on-line shopping is planned by its very nature. Much like classified advertising, it works when you know what you are looking for but don’t expect much in terms of inspiration. But still, logic dictates that the sheer ease and convenience of doing your shopping in the comfort of your own sofa, and having delivered pre-bagged to your doorstep means those who have experienced it for the first time will never go back. And if browsing the shelves becomes a thing of the past, why would anyone design a pack with that behaviour in mind?

The future of packaging design

So, will 2020 be the year when the magpie shopper becomes an endangered species and pack design moves decisively towards a focus on the consummation of the journey rather than an attempt to play the role of self-sufficient salesman? Perhaps – and some would argue amen to that. But the counter-narrative is not quite dead yet.

First the argument underestimates quite how onerous some people find forward planning. Take those trying on-line grocery shopping for the first time. For every one of them converted to its ease and convenience, there will likely be someone else whose mind went blank when it came to plotting a week’s worth of menus. Or who panicked at the thought of managing a fridge full of sell-by dates without waste. Or who missed the gondola end that reminded them that they needed more bleach. These are people for whom shopping is a more organic process – a browse-y drift towards an open end rather than a foregone conclusion. And second it misses the point that even the most natural planners amongst us will, from time to time, want to go ‘off-liste’ in search of something fresh and new.

It’s this desire for freedom and spontaneity – not just a preparedness to have our eye caught by something different but a pleasure taken in it – that will keep the magpie spirit alive. And while that remains the case, there will continue to be a strand in packaging design that seeks to play to it.


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