Episode 28: The Role Packaging Plays In Marketing

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In this podcast, Maureen interviews Michael Keplinger of SmashBrand on the role that packaging plays in marketing, how to stand out in a saturated market, and why building a strong brand is foundational to having great packaging.



Michael and his business partner run SmashBrand.  He leads their research team to develop strategies for clients and to optimize branding and packaging through testing.  He uses this best foot forward approach to optimize packaging from a consumer’s perspective.   Over the past decade, he has developed an agile methodology and proven platform for consumer testing.  He has integrated this directly into SmashBrand's entire process.  Learn the role packaging plays in marketing, and how to implement this scientific method into your own packaging design.



What Got You Into This Industry?

Michael began in computer engineering and worked in highly technical roles.  He and his business partner started their own consumer brands 20 years ago.  Following their own trial and error, they were able to create a powerful process coupled with science.  They now offer a process that integrates science with creative to design what works for consumers.  This is what makes their approach so unique.


What Role Does Product Packaging Play In Product Marketing?

With online shopping, things are changing.  However, some products will always be on the shelf.  With those products, like food items, packaging has to do almost all the work.  Until a brand becomes more well-known, it’s up to packaging to attract consumers in the store.

In eCommerce, packaging still has a huge focus.  You’re so limited on what you can put on packaging that you have to focus on what is important.  When you search online, the first thing you see is the front of the product.  Regardless of product or category, every product needs engaging packaging.

Even with big brands, one of the biggest questions Maureen was asked was what information needs to be on the front vs. the back of the label.  Unfortunately, this process remains highly subjective.  Michael shares that it doesn’t need to be subjective.  

There is a highly specific, scientific answer to what consumers care about.  If you can only fit three of the five benefits of your product on a label, testing will show you which ones are most important.  Not only does it reach your consumer, but it helps you stand out from your competitors.  The bottom line is that these decisions directly impact how well your product sells.


What Product Packaging Characteristics Are Best?

While those answers are different in every product category, it is important to pay attention to key differentiators.  Occasionally, there is a moment in time that competitors will come out with something innovative.  When that happens, it creates a shift in the focus.  Things that were once a differentiator becomes a table stake.  If you don’t have this feature, you’re losing out to your competitor.  If it becomes even more common, you don’t need to state it.  Instead, it becomes assumed that this is a part of the product.  This frees up valuable space on your packaging to create a different message.


What Impacts Sales or Market Share When It Comes To Packaging Redesign?

Differentiation is still the key factor.  Visual differentiation makes your product stand out on the shelf.  It needs to quickly grab a consumer’s attention and quickly communicate how you’re different.  In many categories, the formula is almost exactly the same.  However, the emotional connection with consumers or a premium look to packaging is going to make the difference.

You should also keep an eye on what matters to consumers. Then, look at how your brand is staying different.  While nothing can beat a product that is truly different, having stand out packaging can make it different.

How Often Should You Redesign Packaging?

Byron Sharp has shared that packaging changes don’t make a huge impact on sales.  However, he does not believe in differentiation.  Michael shared that it is important to seek true differentiation, and packaging can play that role.  Especially when you launch, or if you have a new formulation, it is important to use packaging to get traction.

While doing a refresh simply for the sake of refreshing, this may not move the needle.  However, when you’re strategic with your redesign, it can communicate to customers that you’re innovating.  This can be true of packaging design that is ten or twenty years old.  However, common products like a cereal may not need this.

Ultimately, you need to understand what it is in your brand visually and conceptually that is driving awareness and what matters.  If you can maintain those things moving forward, it will promote sales.  Or, if what matters to your customers has changed, then your packaging needs to speak to what they care about.  A refresh from that perspective is beneficial and sometimes needed.


How Can A Small Brand Compete In A Highly Saturated Market?

Smaller brands can come in and disrupt a market.  They’re known as “ankle-biters” or “challenger brands” because they have nothing to lose.  However, for every one that is successful, there are at least ten that have failed.

If you look at successful brands, probably half have guessed and gotten it right.  However, other small brands understand the market and apply their solution to where they found a gap.  A good example of this is Olly vitamins.  While you don’t want to bank on getting lucky, finding white space in the market can be a great way to find success.

Another successful brand is Starface. They make teen acne products, and they found unusual success.  They understood the dynamic that everyone wanted to hide acne, but that everyone has it.  They took the little colorful star stickers you might get in school and put acne medicine on the bottom.  This turned acne into something you could treat and be proud of.

Whoever understands the consumer best is the brand that will be most successful.  This includes creating effective packaging.


Why Is The Traditional Approach To Consumer Research No Longer Effective?

Because it is impossible to truly differentiate every single product, the traditional approach may not work.  In these cases, standing out as a product is the best way to reach consumers.  Many market research approaches put everyone into a “one-size fits all” box.  But instead, if you skip product research in a category like wine, you already know a lot about the consumer.  Many people want to try new wines.  This means that the purchase decision in the face of hundreds of wines will be based on the grape and pricing.  But then you have the label.  You could make forty different labels and test what is pulling off the shelf.  This will narrow packaging.  However, a consumer will try it and then decide whether or not they will repurchase.

In brands that have differentiation, unlike a wine, you need to communicate what is different up front.  It’s important to know what level you should pull in your product category.

Byron Sharp also shared that memory structures influence purchase decisions.  Disrupting a highly saturated category with products that look similar means creating a memory that makes your brand stand out.  Michael agrees that even if you are highly differentiated, this is still important to amplify your brand.


What Barriers Exist For New Brands?

While the internet makes entering the market easier, there are still barriers.  On Amazon five years ago, you could have sold a white label product and have it do well.  However, with more and more sellers joining Amazon, you need a true brand.  To create long term success, you have to come from a position of building a brand.  If it is a consumer product and you want it on shelves, you have to create all the pieces of the brand.  This includes packaging, but there is so much more.  The perception of your product, memory structures, and distinctiveness are all important factors.  

If your product is something that is purchased just once every few years, consumers may be able to find and purchase from smaller brands.  However, products that are frequently consumed need to have a strong brand alongside a good formula.  Consumers shift, so you need to stay relevant to their needs.  Then, you have to communicate what you offer.  However, all of this is born out of a strong brand.  When you have a solid brand, all the other pieces amplify that work.


Tips For Emerging Entrepreneurs Who Want To Scale

Assuming that you’ve done the brand work, the way to find success depends on your audience.  The way you want to scale a brand and reach your audience will be different.  If you’re targeting baby boomers, you won’t use the same methods used to reach teens.

Get your product in front of consumers.  Then, create a way for people to share about the product with others.  If you’re selling direct to consumers and then switching to wholesale, you have a lot of work that needs to be done.  While there are a lot of decisions from a channels perspective, don’t let go of your consumers.

Read every single review from your consumers and pay attention to your data points.  Use that information to direct your decisions.

Find out more!

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