Food Marketers Use Food Packaging to Trigger Emotions

How some food marketers use emotional triggers and sensory cues in packaging design to attract buyers and to create a bond with the brand.

By Kate Bertrand Connolly, Packaging Editor

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Ask consumers what they like about a food package they've never seen before, and chances are they won't be able to put it into words. They have an emotional reaction to the package, which, best case, makes them desire the product and leads them to purchase it.

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To elicit those positive emotional responses, food processors can put consumer psychology to work as they design their packaging and leverage the unconscious triggers that predispose consumers toward products.

Thin is in: They may look like other packages in their categories, but Kellogg's Smart Start cereal box and Coca-Cola's Tab energy drink are a little thinner than competing packages.

The rewards of this package-design strategy extend far beyond product trial. If the product and package are satisfying during use, the consumer's initial reaction to the package is reinforced. The natural follow-on is to buy the product again. And again.

Consumer research has shown that consumers transfer their perception of a package to the product it contains. Louis Cheskin, a mid-20th century marketing innovator, coined a phrase for this phenomenon: "sensation transference."

"Sensation transference is the theory that whatever people see on the package, they attribute to the product," says Katy Haberkern, director-account management with consumer insights-based consulting firm Cheskin (, Redwood Shores, Calif. In other words, "The package is the product."

As an example, Cheskin conducted a taste test of 7-Up that had been filled into cans that were more yellow than the packaging consumers were used to. Although the drink was the same as in the original can, tasters thought the formulation had changed. The can looked different, and that created a perception of difference in the product's flavor.

Creating the desired perception of the product requires detailed attention to not only the package's looks, but also how it feels in the hand and even the sounds it makes. The package's sensory cues are an enormously important contributor to the consumer's experience of the product.

"Sensory cues today are very advanced," Haberkern says. "The challenge is determining which cues add value to the brand."

The color component

Some marketers contend that of all the visual cues a package incorporates, color is the single most important. Consumers have only seconds to make a purchasing decision in the supermarket, and color registers much faster than text or complex graphics.

Colors are associated with various emotional states and need to convey an appropriate mood for the product and/or brand. In some parts of the grocery store, like the cereal aisle, the colors on the packages "are screaming 'buy me,' but not all products want to do that," says Ed Cristman, design director at Axion Design (, San Anselmo, Calif. 

Tanimura and Antle's graphics position the brand as friendly and approachable while reinforcing its heritage as a family-owned produce company.

Products such as wine and gourmet items, like dipping oils and tapenades, are designed for a sophisticated consumer; therefore, the packaging tends to feature "tasty, earthy colors" rather than bright, bold hues, Cristman explains. These items are "savored over time. You don't just shovel them down. It's more experience-based."

Dan Olson, creative director at Duffy and Partners (, Minneapolis, adds: "So much of food packaging is about appetite appeal. We don't want our potatoes green or our ketchup blue, and the package shouldn't miscue the experience of the product" by incorporating inappropriate colors.

Olson adds that "sweeter things are more forgiving" in terms of package color, because they are perceived as fun or pleasing rather than a source of nutrition. A walk down the candy aisle in any store demonstrates the abundance of color on packaging for sweets.

Package color is influenced by trends, as well. Green has emerged as a popular color for products positioned as healthy and/or environmentally friendly; historically, green was rarely used on food packaging. Blue is still used somewhat tentatively, except in two categories: milk and water.

Graphic subtleties

Additional visual cues include the package's typefaces, logo, illustrations, photos and other graphic design elements. These components individually communicate the brand's attributes and equities, and do so even more within the completed design.

Note to Marketing
Designing a package that elicits the desired emotional response to the product is becoming more scientific, thanks to a new method that combines consumer psychology with package design.
Called NeuroDesign, the proprietary technique is grounded in a combination of neuroscience, psychology and iconology. The method is in development at design and innovation firm laga.
"Emotion drives purchasing decisions," explains J. Duncan Berry, laga's director of applied iconology. "NeuroDesign is the application of consumer insight to enhance performance at shelf using emotional cues. This method brings the upstream conceptual thinking into a funnel to drive the development of actual designs."
The NeuroDesign deliverables include a visual encyclopedia, or Emotional Analog Map. This document includes images of facial expressions, gestures/postures and archetypes, all keyed to consumers' emotional engagement with the product.
Using the map, the designer can create a package that resonates with consumers in a way they feel deeply. Their subsequent behavior, not surprisingly, is to buy the product.

For example, package graphics for Tanimura and Antle Inc. (, Salinas, Calif., position the brand as friendly and approachable while reinforcing its heritage as a family-owned produce company. The package graphics include an oval logo and a curved, flourishing typeface. They also incorporate an illustration of the company's founding partners talking in the field, which expresses the brand's down-to-earth and fresh attributes.

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