Packaging Psychology

Packaging Psychology

What’s the best size, shape, material, and design of product packages?

Size

Bottle of beer seems bigger than can of beer

Tall Packages Seem Larger

Customers use height to estimate sizes.

Bottles of beer seem larger than cans of beer because customers fixate on the height (Raghubir & Krishna, 1999).

However, elongated packages come with a drawback: Since these packages seem larger, customers buy less.

Researchers analyzed 20,000+ purchases of light beer. Turns out, customers buy cans at a 64% higher quantity than bottles (Yang & Raghubir, 2005).

The Takeaway: Tall packages might perform better for one-time purchases because they seem larger, but wider packages might perform better for bulk purchases because customers buy more.

Tall cosmetic bottle seems more luxurious than short and wide bottle

Tall Packages Seem Healthy and Luxurious

We’re wired to see human traits in objects. It’s called anthropomorphism.

Packaging is no exception.

Customers subconsciously compare packaging traits to humans, which can mold their perception of a brand—e.g., tall packages seem healthy because they remind customers of a tall and slender person (van Ooijen, Fransen, Verlegh, & Smit, 2017).

Tall cosmetic bottle looks like silhouette of beautiful woman

Tall packages seem luxurious, too. Participants believed that tall and thin people belonged in a higher socioeconomic class, and—in turn—they believed that tall packages would be more effective in high-end markets (Chen, Pang, Koo, & Patrick, 2020).

Wide carton looks heavier than tall and thinner carton

Wide Packages Seem Heavier

Heavy objects are stable.

And customers erroneously believe the reverse: Stable objects seem heavier (Yang, Yan, & Raghubir, 2021).

Researchers varied stability for three food items—chips, chocolate, yogurt—by adjusting their orientations. The “stable” food seemed heavier, and participants were willing to pay a higher price (Yang, Yan, & Raghubir, 2021).

A triangular chip seems heavier if one of the sides is horizontal so that it seems resting upward

Selling yogurt? Wider packages should perform better for a rich and creamy brand of yogurt because these containers seem heavier.

A shorter and wider yogurt container is better for a rich and creamy brand

You can also manipulate the package shape. A “healthy” brand should shorten the width at the bottom of their package because this instability will make the container seem lighter.

An unstable yogurt container (narrower on bottom) is better for a lighter yogurt

A smaller can seems more intense in flavor than a larger can

Small Packages Seem Dense and Powerful

Products seem tighter and denser in small packages.

For example, coffee seems more intense and bitter from a narrow cup (Van Doorn et al., 2017).

Reasons:

  • Condensed Average. Imagine an averaged sized cup of coffee. If you see a smaller cup, you might conceptualize this transformation in two ways. The smaller cup is (1) a smaller sample from the average cup, or (2) a condensed version of the average cup. The second transformation will make the coffee seem more intense.
  • Higher Price Per Unit. Products in small packages are more expensive per unit, which inflates the perceived quality. Customers preferred the taste of Pringles chips from a small (vs. large) can because their expectations were higher (Yan, Sengupta, & Wyer Jr, 2014).
  • Full Portion. Participants preferred a 1 oz. serving of Gatorade when it came from an individual packet (vs. a 32 oz. container; Ilyuk & Block, 2016). Customers prefer individual servings because they seem like a full portion. When you extract a serving from a large inventory, it feels like a partial serving (and thus less effective). Perhaps that’s why some brands of laundry detergent are now selling individual capsules (e.g., Tide Pods).

Scooping a serving feels like a partial serving, whereas a dedicated packet feels like a full serving

Shape

Round Packages Seem Sweet and Feminine

Customers evaluate brands by comparing them to humans.

For example, shapes imply gender: Angularity seems masculine, while roundness seems feminine because of evolutionary roots (e.g., female bodies are more curved; see Van Tilburg, Lieven, Herrmann, & Townsend, 2015).

In turn, this belief affects packaging: Angular packages seem masculine, while round packages seem feminine (Pang & Ding, 2021).

Gender has other traits, too. Round packages seem feminine, so they inherit feminine traits, such as sweetness (Velasco, Salgado-Montejo, Marmolejo-Ramos, & Spence, 2014). Choose a round package for sweet chocolate, yet an angular package for spicy food.

A laundry detergent bottle with an empty gap for the handle

Maintain the Full Shape of Your Package

Some brands insert a hole in their package for functional or aesthetic reasons.

But any missing section makes the package seem smaller and less desirable (Sevilla & Kahn, 2014).

Instead of using empty gaps as makeshift handles, consider adding a separate attachment.

A pasta box with a transparent window

Transparent Windows Convey Freshness

Customers prefer food packaging with transparent windows because the food seems fresher and higher quality:

“…the ability to see a food product directly through a transparent window would make it more salient in the mind of the consumer (compared to just a printed graphic of the product), thus eliciting greater levels of hunger and food cravings” (Simmonds, Woods, & Spence, 2018)

However, be careful with breakable products (e.g., chips). Allow transparency if you’re confident that products will remain unbroken.

Material

Container of vegetables without a lid

Remove Packaging From Fresh Products

Do you need packaging at all? Maybe not.

“…packaging acts as a symbolic barrier that separates the product from nature, decreasing perceived product naturalness and leading to less favorable product responses” (Szocs, Williamson, & Mills, 2022)

All else equal, an unbagged assortment of carrots will seem fresher than a bag of carrots – even if both carrots originate from the same source.

If freshness is important, remove your outside packaging.

But if you need packaging, emphasize a connection to nature:

  • Sustainable Materials: “Packaged in corn plastic.”
  • Physical Connection: “Plucked from the vineyard.”
  • Psychological Connection: “Packaged at the vineyard.”

Those statements offset the reduction in freshness.

A glossy chip bag seems less healthy than a matte package

Matte Packages Seem Healthy

Glossy packages are shiny, while matte packages are smooth and dull.

Oftentimes, glossy packages contain unhealthy snacks (e.g., chips), while matte packages contain healthier snacks (e.g., crackers). Based on these real-world exposures, customers believe that food in matte packages are healthier and
more natural (Ye, Morrin, & Kampfer, 2020; Marckhgott, & Kamleitner, 2019).

Food in a glossy package seems fattier, perhaps because glossiness resembles greasiness (De Kerpel, Kobuszewski Volles, & Van Kerckhove, 2020).

A textured sack seems rougher (and more masculine) than a smooth sack

Rough Textures Seem Masculine

In one study, participants preferred masculine scents on rough paper, yet feminine on smooth paper (Krishna, Elder, & Caldara, 2010).

If your product is masculine, add rough textures across touchpoints (e.g., brand identity, packaging, product material).

examples of rough textures in masculine products. logo with textured pattern, whiskey packaging with frayed edges in the bottle, pillow with tactile patterns in fabric

The same juice seems tastier in glass (vs. plastic) bottle

Glass Seems Better Than Plastic

Customers prefer products in glass (vs. plastic) packaging (Balzarotti, Maviglia, Biassoni, & Ciceri, 2015).

Perhaps you can measure the increase in preference (and whether it would offset the extra cost of glass).

Design

A customer reaching for a non-Coke brand in a beautiful package

Unknown Brands Should Invest in Packaging

Suppose that your new brand will compete with cheaper, well-known brands. Do you stand a chance?

Turns out, yes—if you develop the right packaging. Research confirms that customers will select a new (and more expensive brand) if the packaging is beautiful and attention- grabbing (Reimann et al., 2010).

Many images of chips on the front of a package of chips

Show More Product Units on the Package

Research shows that customers equate the imagery on a package with the contents inside: More units on the outside? More units on the inside (Madzharov & Block, 2010).

However, be careful with organic products. Customers are drawn toward organic products with minimalist packaging because they believe it’s more natural, as if this food is free from chemical preservatives (Margariti, 2021).

A carton of orange juice seems organic with one orange (vs many oranges) on the package

A cheesecake package with a real photo of cheesecake

Display Realistic Images for Emotional Products

Some products evoke strong emotions (e.g., desserts).

In these contexts, realistic images are more persuasive because they depict the product experience more vividly (Ketron, Naletelich, & Migliorati, 2021).

Do the opposite for negative product experiences (e.g., vegetables, exercise). Use symbolic or digital images to obscure this potentially harmful mental imagery.

A package of cucumbers with a digitally created image of cucumbers

Chocolate bar with the image of chocolate on the right side

Place Heavy Products in the Bottom or Right

Do your customers want a heavy product? Then place images in the bottom or right of the package (Deng & Kahn, 2009).

  • Why Bottom? Heavy objects sink to the bottom.
  • Why Right? Visual canvases are conceptualized like a teeter-totter. Objects on the right seem heavier because they “pull” downward (Arnheim, 1997)

Left side of a chocolate bar resting on a teeter-totter with the right-side image pulling downward

Conversely, choose the left side for light products. Food seems healthier when it appears on the left, and these locations influence the flavor and amount eaten (Romero & Biswas, 2016; Togawa, Park, Ishii, & Deng, 2019).

White package seems healthier than black package

Choose Light and Natural Colors for Healthy Products

Dark colors seem heavy, while light colors seem…light. In other words, they seem easier to lift (Arnheim, 1997).

Hand is lifting white package of chocolate more easily than dark package of chocolate

Customers attribute this heaviness to the product. Chocolate in dark packaging seems rich and filling, but chocolate in light packaging seems lighter and healthier.

Light colors seem natural, too:

…au naturel colors are defined as undyed, non- artificial, untreated, and unprocessed colors, that bring to mind something earthy, genuine, unadulterated, and expressing authenticity. Hues of beige (e.g., cream, sandy beiges, and mellow browns) belong to this color family (Marozzo, Raimondo, Miceli, & Scopelliti, 2020)

Customers prefer healthy food in natural packaging. Researchers compared beige and orange packaging for rice and carrots, and beige outperformed orange for both foods (including carrots that are typically orange; Marozzo, Raimondo, Miceli, & Scopelliti, 2020).

Chart that shows people are willing to pay a higher price for beige packaging than orange packaging

Indeed, food seems less healthy in brightly saturated packaging (Mead & Richerson, 2018). If you sell healthy food, choose a muted and natural color for your package.