How Package Designers Use Science to Influence Your Subconscious Mind

Neuro-marketing triggers emotions, not reason

How do you sell shoppers on duck, a product that’s served in many restaurants but that many people do not feel comfortable cooking at home?

That was the challenge for U.K.-based design consultancy Elmwood after packaged-foods maker Gressingham Foods asked it to recast its brand identity as premium but accessible.

Elmwood uses biomotive triggers in its designs, arguing that certain graphic elements conjure instinctive responses from consumers. A cusp shape (think a shark fin or horns) conveys fear or caution, while curves represent softness and comfort. Elmwood’s clients also include Walmart, Schweppes, and Saucy Fish Co.

While neuromarketing is gaining favor (it’s also the topic of a Starcom MediaVest Group/TED event at Cannes Lions this year), most marketing efforts still forgo the subconscious in favor of targeting the rational mind.

Most, but not all. Campbell’s famously tugged at consumers’ emotions by adding a picture of a steaming bowl of soup to its label. Other companies, including Frito-Lay, Hershey’s and Coca-Cola, are said to be using neuroscience in evaluating their own marketing efforts. (None of the companies or their agencies responded to our inquiries.)

For Gressingham—competing in a supermarket aisle full of rectangular containers—Elmwood rounded not only the package but also the label and logo. The brand’s signature gold was infused with a warm amber. The result: A brand in decline rose 47 percent in sales after the mid-2012 redesign, free of added marketing support.

“Our brief was quite specific: disrupt the category,” said Steve Curzon, associate marketing director at Gressingham Foods. “Biomotive was about making design more effective. It makes you look at design in a functional way, not just at the way it looks.”

Added Simon Preece, Elmwood’s director of effectiveness: “This is about recognizing the emotions you want to trigger and create, to make the brand sticky with consumers.”

“The body responds to color and imagery,” noted Joe Lampertius, chief of Grey’s global shopper marketing practice. “I wouldn’t use neuroscience by itself, outside of traditional research, but it acts as a kind of lie detector where you can see what people actually feel rather than what they say in focus groups.”

Neuromarketing tactics could be particularly effective in the retail environment where packaging is often the only brand identity a shopper comes in contact with, and where the brand has just two to three seconds to communicate with the consumer using three to four visual elements.

“A lot of designers look at packaging as a shrine unto itself, but you have to consider it in a retail context,” said Lampertius.

Roger Dooley, author of Brainfluence, noted that 95 percent of our thoughts, emotions and learning occur before we are ever aware of them, and yet so much mystery still surrounds the subconscious.

“Consumers,” he said, “still find this subject a little scary.”