How Packaging Aids Our Psychological Health

September 12, 2017 9:33 am Published by

In the current environment of hostility directed at plastic packaging due to the pollution in our oceans, an associate in the flexible packaging industry put his head above the parapet and asserted that plastic is God’s gift to mankind. While the environmentally aware may baulk at such a seemingly audacious comment, as far as I can see the only questionable element was to attribute the creation of the first synthetic polymer to a deity rather than the Belgian chemist and serial inventor, Leo Baekeland. The sentiment captured in this bold claim was essentially sound.

Which brings me to my own similarly bold but justifiable claim about packaging (including the flexible variety that needlessly ends up in our oceans) which is that in our consumeristic society, packaging helps us to meet our fundamental psychological needs. Allow me to convince you of my rationale.

A primary function of packaging is the enablement of branding and, at the surface level, branding on packaging helps us negotiate a complex retail environment. A walk down the aisle is not an easy one – and I don’t just mean getting married, I refer to the weekly visit to the supermarket. With the average UK supermarket stocking 45,000 products and a typical weekly shop comprising around 50 items in 50 minutes, our brains must weigh up approximately 900 items a minute! To make such lightning decisions, our brains must take mental shortcuts by extracting certain cues from the environment to guide our buying decisions.

Branding on packaging is one of the most powerful cues in the retail environment that facilitates the quick and efficient selection from a huge assortment of products. The brain’s perception of a brand depicted on a product’s packaging instantly activates the retrieval of stored information from memory about familiar products (brought alive by TV advertising). Who doesn’t hear the “Beanz Meanz Heinz” ditty alongside an image of family life when seeing the distinctive green and black label of Heinz on a metal can, or the velvety West Country voice pondering “Devon knows how they make it so creamy” triggered by the rural scene portrayed on plastic-coated cardboard cartons of Ambrosia custard? Psychological research has shown that the old adage “familiarity breeds contempt” is wrong, in fact familiarity breeds liking. With seven out of ten buying decisions made in-store, a well-known brand encapsulated in a striking logo on a printed pack speaks (and sells) volumes. It is not for nothing that packaging is known as the “silent salesman”.

The mental processes that are triggered by brand recognition and prime our memories and our emotional reaction to it take place at lightning speed, below the level of conscious awareness. The power of branding lies in the fact that we are frequently not aware of the cues we have used to arrive at our decision. As an illustration of this, a 1999 field study1 showed that playing German or French music in a wine shop on alternate days impacted on wine sales. On days when German music was played, German wine outsold French wine, however the reverse was true when French music was played. While people were aware of hearing the music, they were not aware of the effect it had on their buying choices. In true Freudian fashion, this sub-conscious processing is the reason that using sex in advertising is one of the most powerful selling tools – the primeval drivers of survival and reproduction, once triggered, are difficult to ignore and will influence our behaviour. Billboard campaigns such as Wonderbra showing a well-endowed and attractive female with the caption “I can’t cook. Who cares” or Burger King promising to “BLOW your mind away” with their “Super Seven Incher” with a side-on view of a young blonde about to take on the challenge could not be described as subtle in their sexual connotations. Yet they do the job, even while we smirk at the companies’ clumsy ploys to capture our attention.

The capacity for sub-conscious processes to influence our buying behaviour inevitably leads to suggestions that branding made possible by packaging is sinister since it leaves us open to manipulation by profit-hungry big business to spend our hard-earned cash on products we don’t need or pay more for products that are simply no better than unbranded alternatives. Disparity in pricing of branded drugs is a good example. The cost of 16 tablets of a branded ibuprofen, Nurofen, costs £1.98 in UK supermarket ASDA compared with their unbranded version that costs just 25p. The active ingredient is the same yet the brand commands a 793% price hike. So how can being encouraged to buy well-known brands be a good thing? At first blush, one may justifiably claim that not only does packaging pollute our planet, it also facilitates us being ripped off at point-of-sale!

At a deeper level, however, branding on packaging plays a far more important role in our lives than simply being a way of differentiating products on the supermarket shelf. Indeed, the utility of branding does not stop with the benefits of the product. Even in the absence of any functional benefits of a branded product compared with an unbranded one, research shows that we derive psychological benefits from a positive brand experience. From a survey of 20,000 consumers across 12 countries, it was found that engaging with a trusted brand is associated with feelings of satisfaction, being reassured and safe and made to feel important2. These emotions mirror our deeply-rooted basic psychological needs to feel good about ourselves, connect to others and seek safety and stability in an uncertain world – needs that we are innately driven to satisfy whether we are conscious of them or not. Indeed, neither reason nor logic feature strongly when it comes to brand choice, it is our emotions that are the primary driver. As with our personal relationships, heart rules head every time, and it is packaging that facilitates the emotional bond with a brand for us when we brave the supermarket aisle.

To satisfy our need to feel good about ourselves, we choose brands that communicate personality traits we identify with or wish to emulate, whether that’s a liberal thinker, a good parent, young and trendy, rich and sexy, etc. For example, Apple’s “I’m a Mac I’m a PC” campaign portrayed a young casually-dressed dude (the Mac) consistently outsmarting a staid, conservatively-dressed man (A N Other computer brand), the inference being that having a Mac means you are tech-savvy, hip and smart. By buying a certain brand we also join other people like us, we connect with others who buy the same product – we can live the American dream through our ownership of a Harley Davidson motorbike – “Stop dreaming and start riding” – but more than that we can then connect with like-minded others at Harley Davidson clubs or simply join the fan-club on Facebook. Hey presto, we belong – another tick in the psychological needs box!
Trusted brands help us feel secure in an uncertain world. A sense of nostalgia and a yearning to feel safe and secure was cleverly captured by Hovis’ famous TV advertisement of a young lad out on his bike on cobbled streets delivering loaves of bread against the strains of a brass version of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. The Hovis logo emblazoned on a diverse range of printed polyethylene bags on the supermarket shelves has good honest and traditional values metaphorically written all over it. Choosing Hovis allows us to share in the stability of a brand that has stood the test of time for more than 130 years ago. Coca Cola’s iconic advertising campaign in the 1970s of a choir of people from around the world on a hilltop singing “I’d like to teach the world to sing … in perfect harmony” is alleged to have helped shift public opinion against the Vietnam War. The strong emotional connection that good brands have with their consumer is never more powerfully illustrated than by the “Pepsi paradox”: Blind tasting indicates that people prefer the taste of Pepsi to Coca Cola, yet people tend to prefer Coke when they know what they are drinking. Brain imaging studies have revealed increased neural activity in a frontal area of the brain which is associated with the warm and fuzzy feeling from contemplating a popular brand3. Fascinatingly, individuals with damage in this area of the brain also prefer the taste of Pepsi to Coke in blind trials but DO NOT switch their preference when they know what they are drinking4. Without the ability to experience the warm fuzziness, there is no Pepsi paradox. So when we reach for the iconic red metal can, we are not just buying a brown, sugary drink but mentally teaching the world to sing.
Conversely, when a brand loses its trust the result can be catastrophic. Who doesn’t remember the spiral of decline in 1991 of Britain’s former biggest jewellery group, Ratners, due to the ill-judged comments of its founder, Gerald Ratner. Ratner’s public denigration of one product as “total crap” and another as “cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but (it) probably wouldn’t last as long” caused the company to lose £500m in value overnight. Logically the product quality and prices were no different after the speech than they were before it but it was no longer a brand anyone wanted to identify with. By openly belittling his products, Ratner caused his customers to feel stupid and betrayed – just as any of us would feel if we discovered the object of our affections was nothing more than a charlatan. In short, a negative brand experience just makes people feel bad … unimportant, unconnected and unsafe!
Yet more striking than such positive psychological benefits, research has shown that branded products can lead to improved performance …so that our emotional bias towards the brand impacts positively on our own behaviour. A series of studies showed that students were 20% more successful at sinking putts on a green using what they believed to be a Nike putter compared with a generic putter, even though the putter itself was exactly the same in all circumstances. Similarly, individuals performed significantly better in a maths test when they wore foam ear plugs (to minimise distractions) which they believed to be made by 3M, a strong brand, compared to ear plugs that were allegedly un-branded, despite the ear plugs being exactly the same5. The results of these studies suggest that the use of a strong brand causes an effect akin to that of a placebo, that is, an improved outcome that is attributed to an individual’s belief and not the product. The take home message here seems to be that if you believe Nurofen is worth paying more for than an unbranded ibuprofen, it really will make your headache disappear faster!

There is one important caveat in all of this, however, and that is brands have to deliver what they say on the metaphorical tin before they can evoke that warm fuzzy feeling and influence our behaviour. Paul Geddes, CEO of Direct Line Insurance, likens the prerequisites of a good brand to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – just as we need to have our basic needs met, such as food and shelter, before we can be motivated to seek higher level needs such as love and personal fulfilment, so brands must offer Competence in what they do and Convenience in how they offer it before they can aspire to Connection with the consumer (the three Cs)6. Just take a look at the backlash from consumers against the attempt of certain major supermarkets to hoodwink us by using branded packaging with fictitious farm names such as WM Morrison’s Helmsley’s or Tesco’s Boswell Farms or even Asda relaunching its Smart Food range as Farm Stores. The false portrayal of locally farmed, British food – when it simply wasn’t – was a ham-fisted attempt to play on our psychological need for feeling safe and secure. Without the Competence the supermarkets couldn’t hope to get away with the Connection. It’s akin to not being able to fake falling in love – it simply has to be real!

In sum, packaging provides the means through which we can engage with our favourite and trusted brands in the retail environment. Without packaging our weekly shop would be a mentally exhausting chore of trying to make endless choices from an array of undifferentiated products. But worse than that, it would be an emotional black hole devoid of any of the positive benefits to be gained from brand engagement that ticks the boxes of our basic psychological needs to feel good about ourselves, connect with others and feel safe. Without the fuzzy warm emotions that come from meeting these needs, the positive boost derived from indulging in a little retail therapy simply wouldn’t exist! For those among us who just take no pleasure from shopping, maybe there is some comfort in knowing that the experience could be a whole lot bleaker without those polythene bags, metal cans, laminated pouches, glass jars, cardboard boxes and yes, even plastic bottles. A final word of caution, however, while teaching the world to sing, let’s not forget to help the world too by reducing, re-using and recycling!

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This post was written by Nicky Fussell