Strategies & Insights

Number One Book on The New York Times Best-Seller List Taps Packaging Experts

Posted: December 11, 2009 by
Ron Romanik

Blink, the best-selling non-fiction book by Malcolm Gladwell, drifts from topic to topic trying to weave a story of how we humans process the world we perceive. Gladwell turns to package design right in the middle of the book, in a chapter titled "Kenna's Dilemma: The Right -- and Wrong -- Way to Ask People What They Want". An excerpt is reprinted here courtesy of Time Warner Book Group.

Then there's the issue of what is called sensation transference. This is a concept coined by one of the great figures in twentieth-century marketing, a man named Louis Cheskin, who was born in Ukraine at the turn of the century and immigrated to the United States as a child. Cheskin was convinced that when people give an assessment of something they might buy in a supermarket or a department store, without realizing it, they transfer sensations or impressions that they have about the packaging of the product to the product itself. To put it another way, Cheskin believed that most of us don't make a distinction - on an unconscious level - between the package and the product. The product is the package and the product combined.

One of the projects Cheskin worked on was margarine. In the late 1940s, margarine was not very popular. Consumers had no interest in either eating it or buying it. But Cheskin was curious. Why didn't people like margarine? Was their problem with margarine intrinsic to the food itself? Or was it a problem with the associations people had with margarine? He decided to find out. In that era, margarine was white. Cheskin colored it yellow so that it would look like butter. Then he staged a series of luncheons with homemakers. Because he wanted to catch people unawares, he didn't call the luncheons margarine-testing luncheons. He merely invited a group of women to an event. "My bet is that all the women wore little white gloves," says Davis Masten, who today is one of the principals in the consulting firm Cheskin founded. "[Cheskin] brought in speakers and served food, and there were little pats of butter for some and little pats of margarine for others. The margarine was yellow. In the context of it, they didn't let people know there was a difference. Afterwards, everyone was asked to rate the speakers and the food, and it ended up that people thought the 'butter' was just fine. Market research had said there was no future for margarine. Louis said, 'Let's go at this more indirectly.'

Now the question of how to increase sales of margarine was much clearer. Cheskin told his client to call their product Imperial Margarine, so they could put an impressive-looking crown on the package. As he had learned at the luncheon, the color was critical: he told them the margarine had to be yellow. Then he told them to wrap it in foil, because in those days foil was associated with high quality. And sure enough, if they gave someone two identical pieces of bread - one buttered with white margarine and the other buttered with foil-wrapped yellow Imperial Margarine - the second piece of bread won hands-down in taste tests every time. "You never ask anyone, 'Do you want foil or not?' because the answer is always going to be 'I don't' know' or 'Why would I?'" says Masten. "You just ask them which tastes better, and by that indirect method you get a picture of what their true motivations are."

From the book BLINK (c) 2005 by Malcolm Gladwell. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.

by Malcolm Gladwell
Available where books are sold.
Hardcover; 288 pages
Little, Brown; January, 2005