Jerry Thomas

January 26, 2015

9 Min Read
Qualitative package design research reveals key consumer insights
Watching consumers use packages, a.k.a. ethnographic research, reveals more insight into their preferences and can reveal unmet needs. (Photo pulled from Watch Me Think video.)

Package design research is much more important now than it was 30 years ago, since the great majority of brands now receive relatively little media advertising support. In many instances, the retail package is the advertising campaign. In a few seconds—at the point of purchase—the retail package must attract attention, tell the brand’s story and evoke positive purchase interest.

It’s a tall order. And it’s the reason companies need to seriously consider qualitative research in the early stages of package design or redesign.

While many quantitative methods (hard numbers) are used in package design research, sometimes we overlook the importance of the softer side of research—the qualitative techniques to investigate the “why” behind attitudes and preferences. So, here are some basic ideas and best practices for the use of qualitative research as a component in the package-design research plan.

Gaining insights

When a new package is to be designed, or an old one redesigned, the process should begin with qualitative research, so that the package design work is informed by a better understanding of consumer motivations, knowledge levels and perceptions. Insights into the shopping experience and brand-choice decision process can also influence design decisions.

Let’s take breakfast cereals as our product category and assume that the marketing group for Wheaty Flakes, a fictitious cereal, is interested in a new package design. How could qualitative research be used in the creation and evolution of a new Wheaty Flakes package?

What is “qualitative,’’ anyway? The line between qualitative research and quantitative research is blurry. The two methods share many commonalities and some important differences. We define qualitative research as:

• Small scale, generally with fewer than 50 respondents).

• Nondirective and open-ended.

• Limited in structure.

• Exponentially interactive, meaning the questions and probes can vary a million ways, depending on answers to prior questions.

• Ethnographic, in that observation is almost always a part of good qualitative research.

• Non-democratic, meaning that better respondents carry more weight than poor respondents, a stark contrast to quantitative surveys where everyone is equal.

• Non-statistical, in that there are no percentages or counts.

• Interpretative, or generally searching for deeper motivations, cultural influences, unconscious forces and symbolic meanings. Qualitative is especially useful in revealing the “why” of consumer behavior.

The best techniques

While focus groups are the most popular qualitative technique, they are not recommended for packaging research. Much of package research revolves around what the respondent knows, perceives and understands. When one respondent in a focus group blurts out some fact or opinion about a brand or its package design, the remaining respondents’ awareness, knowledge and perceptions are instantly changed. Group dynamics, group pressures and group biases undermine the value of focus groups for most package-design research. Also, group discussions do not allow enough time for the moderator to dig into the minutia of package design.

For packaging research, depth interviews and ethnography are the recommended qualitative techniques. Both of these methods avoid most of the bias and contamination inherent in focus groups. Depth interviews provide granularity and great detail—often up to 10 times as much information per respondent as a focus group. During the depth interview, a respondent cannot hide behind a mask of silence, as often happens in focus groups. A respondent cannot learn from or be influenced by other participants during the depth interview.

Ethnography, or observation research, is likewise free of bias and contamination. Consumers can be observed shopping, reading labels and interacting with the package—with minimal bias and distortion. During a depth interview, the moderator is also using ethnographic techniques; that is, the moderator is carefully watching the body language, facial expressions and movements of the respondent.

Let’s take a closer look at four stages of qualitative research: face to face, sampling, store visits and depth interviews.

1. Face to face

In-person depth interviews are typically recommended over online depth interviews, but not always. In an in-person depth interview, the moderator can observe how the respondent reacts to, manipulates and interacts with the proposed package and/or package designs. The moderator can observe body language and facial expressions, as well as listen for nuances of voice, tone and inflection. In touching and handling packages, respondents can sense texture, rigidity and weight—elements missing in online depths.

2. Sampling

Sampling is a tricky issue. If you err in who you interview, your project may be doomed to failure. Generally, if it’s an existing brand, it’s best to talk to your core users and competitive users you hope to attract. In general, if you have a high-share brand, it’s more important to talk to core users. If you have a low-share brand, it may be more important to talk to prospective users. If you are developing a totally new package design for a whole new product category, then you will want to talk to concept acceptors primarily, with perhaps a few concept rejecters just to be safe.

Now, we are ready to go to work on Wheaty Flakes’ package design. The first step is the alignment meeting. Here, the chief considerations are:

· What is the marketing strategy for Wheaty Flakes?
· What role does media advertising play?
· Will the new package design be supported with media advertising?
· Who are the primary retail chains that carry the brand?
· Which brands compete most directly with Wheaty Flakes?
· Why does the brand group want to change the Wheaty Flakes package?
· What are the marketing and business objectives of the proposed change?
· Why does the brand group think a new package design is needed?
· What core elements of the current design, if any, should be retained?
· What are the risks?

Naturally, the moderator will ask many questions and probe to make sure she understands the goals and constraints of the project and has the information she needs to design and execute it.

3. Store visits

A good place to start is inside typical retail stores. The moderator should visit 10 to 15 different stores that carry the Wheaty Flakes brand to study the cereal section of the store. She should observe the marketing strategy for Wheaty Flakes, the characteristics of the retail displays, the amount of space devoted to the category and how the various brands and types of cereals are organized.

The information gleaned from retail observation will stimulate questions later on in the depth interviews and will aid in interpretation of the answers.

4. The depth interview

Assuming an in-person interview, the moderator would begin with some small talk to help relax the respondent. The moderator would then explain the interview process and reveal the presence of observers behind the one-way mirror and reassure the participant that the observers are harmless. So long as the moderator is nonchalant about the observers, respondents tend to accept their presence and soon forget about the viewers behind the glass.

The first set of questions typically focuses on the participant’s background, where he grew up, his education, family situation, employment and hobbies. People generally like to talk about themselves, so these background questions help relax the respondent and help create a bond of trust between moderator and participant.

The next set of questions would revolve around usage of the product category. Then the moderator would begin to ask about specific brands and how often each is consumed.

· When and for what purpose is each brand used?
· How are the brands used similar?
· How are these brands different?

The questions and probes would be designed to uncover category motives, and more importantly, the specific brand perceptions and brand-choice motivations.

The moderator would ask the respondent to think back to recent shopping trips and to recall everything she can remember about how she shops the category, and how she buys. These answers would be cross-checked against the observational data in the moderator’s mind and probed accordingly. The respondent would be asked about the packages and packaging elements of the brands she used. The moderator would note the colors, patterns, designs, illustrations, claims or images that were recalled for each package, and some emphasis on the Wheaty Flakes brand, but not so much as to reveal the research’s sponsor.

The new package design would then be shown, along with three or four competitive packages. The line of questioning would revolve around which package designs are most eye-catching, which do the best job projecting desired product attributes, which arouse the greatest purchase interest, and so forth. The moderator would ask many follow-up questions and probes.

The last questions would involve a panel-by-panel review of the text and design elements for the new Wheaty Flakes package design. The moderator would search for any places in the package copy and art elements where respondent comprehension breaks down, or some type of miscommunication occurs, or vital information is missing. The moderator would explore with the respondent how to rephrase or rewrite any errant copy or omissions so that communication is absolutely clear.

Very often, multiple new package designs are taken into qualitative exploration. The greater the number of new designs, the less time the moderator can spend on each. Some of the questioning topics must be eliminated as the number of designs increases. When the number of designs reaches five or more, the questions about shopping habits, buying motivations and design-element recall might have to be abbreviated or eliminated. It’s best to restrict the number of designs to five or fewer so that all of the important topic areas can be explored adequately.

High-share risks

Qualitative research is only the beginning, and two or three sets of depth interviews may be required, especially if the number of new designs is large. Regardless of the number of depth interviews, the final testing should be quantitative, based on 200 to 300 completed interviews per new design, with major competitive brands’ packages as the control in some type of simulated retail display.

Where the risks of a new package design are great (such as in the case of an established high-share brand), it is always wise to distribute the new package in a limited geographic area until the new design proves its mettle. It is also wise to explore the possibility of using media advertising to introduce the new package—to reduce downside risks.

Jerry Thomas is president and chief executive of Dallas/Fort Worth-based Decision Analyst Inc., a leading international marketing research firm. He may be reached at [email protected], 800-262-5974 or 817-640-6166.

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