The Right Questions

Posted: September 17, 2009 by
Simon Gainey

I frequently encounter brands, businesses, and clients who have heard the story that packaging could be The Answer, and they are on a mission for innovation. Left unguided, they apply a "scatter gun" approach to this quest in the hope that they will stumble across something that meets the "must be innovative" checklist of their bosses, that has never been seen before, or that feels like a "Wow." The calling cry for help becomes: "We need packaging innovation!"

So what happens next? An ideation team is formed, and on a rainy afternoon in some airless conference the team huddles to ideate. The die is now cast and the process seems to take on a familiar air. Somebody brings in a few bags of packaging from their local grocery store, suppliers are squeezed for their best ideas, ideas are sketched and scribbled, and manufacturing squirms as team members let their minds free spin.

Ideas are then ranked against harsh criteria: "Is it new, innovative, and a Wow?" After the top five ideas are selected, pretty pictures are drawn. If any of these ideas makes it through the wider "Can we make it?" net, test-market consumers deflate, pick apart, and reject the ideas in the last 10 minutes of focus groups. Sound familiar?

What happens next is another round of "innovation." A new team is chartered, the agency contacted, suppliers pushed, new ideas created, prototypes developed but someone always says: "We can't make these" or "These are not innovative enough." It's a never-ending cycle. The need to quickly satisfy internal perceptions of innovation, inexperience, ego, and a lack of understanding produces a lackluster set of results.

The problem with this all too familiar approach is fundamental. It's like building a car without a means of propulsion or house without foundations. The first fault is that this process is not consumer-focused. Package innovation needs to be driven by a deep, intimate understanding of your consumer and their relationship and experience through the "cycle of use" (from store to disposal). Second guessing, focus group thoughts, generic needs, and personal experience really count for very little when it comes to mining for change.

Instead, knowing your consumer intimately is the foundation stone and knowing "who is your 'who'" is the cement. In the unproductive process, the success criteria are all wrong and innovation is always relative and ill-defined. Our personal interpretation of "new, innovative, and Wow" is a weak basis to create and screen ideas. Innovation should never be an end-goal in itself.

Knowing your consumer

Understanding who your consumers is the key to unlocking the innovative process. The kind of questions that you should be asking are: What motivates and inspires my consumers?; How do they feel about the product and the packaging?; How do they really use it?; What do they experience?; How do they perceive it at the store?; How do they adapt their behavior to use your product or package?; How do they connect emotionally to the product and package?; What might make them crave your product and package?

Unfortunately, the standard mode of operation to learn about consumers and packaging has been the focus group. As a research tool the focus group has its place, but focus groups do not provide the depth of insight and learning to help you truly understand your consumer and help you answer these questions.

So what is the right packaging research approach to understand and experience consumers' in a deeper way? Package ethnography has yielded great results when researchers immerse themselves with consumers to understand the diversity and commonality of consumers' packaging needs. Package ethnography studies consumer experiences and behavior, and usually involves five critical steps:

1. Carefully defining and screening consumers. Who is your who? What is the appropriate range of consumers you are looking for? It's important to immerse with the right consumers.
2. Developing a thorough discussion guide to facilitate an unbiased, deep learning experience. Moderating and guiding this immersion is critical and needs to be led by an ethnographer with packaging expertise.
3. Spending quality time with consumers at the store, at home, and in the use environment to help understand their packaging and product experiences.
4. Using tools and techniques throughout the immersion process to understand how consumers use, compare, scan, feel about, bypass, decode, think about, prioritize, and deal with packaging. Employ visual, verbal, written, cognitive, and emotional techniques that can help you see and understand the whole picture.
5. Expert analysis and evaluation to help make sense of all the research information in a way that can be used to drive innovation is the key to success of any research. Often it's about connecting all the dots beyond the obvious.

Mapping out a plan

Depending on budget and time and the required outcome, package ethnography can be used in variety of different ways to learn about consumers. The research methodology and scope can be adapted to suit a variety of business needs, but usually has to fall within four levels of study: 1) multi-city, broad study of 30-100 subjects; 2) targeted sampling of 20-40 subjects; 3) in-depth "pro-sumer" study of 8-10 subjects; or 4) one-on-one immersion at a controlled facility.

The real point is that packaging ethnography can give you the focus and insights to help bring authenticity and realism to your quest for innovation that will ultimately pay off. The technique has a large range of potential applications to help business and brands add value through packaging to help you:

1. Understand underlying consumer needs, attitudes, perceptions, and behavior to help focus innovation, creative solutions, and improvement opportunities.
2. Develop and specify "what's important to consumers" to create design criteria on a new project; focus resources on priorities; or create a framework for technology exploration.
3. Decode consumers' perceptions of packaging on-shelf to help understand how packaging creates "a reason to believe" in the product and brand.
4. Understand emerging trends and needs and help them translate to design.
5. Explore and understand how new technologies and innovations deliver consumer benefits. How often do you find someone pushing a package technology without a real grasp of what it actually does for consumers?
6. Get closer to consumers' emotional needs versus purely functional needs. Bringing a "crave" or "must-have" factor to your packaging will rely on more than functionality alone.
7. Compare and benchmark your packaging versus the competition.
8. Identify cost improvement opportunities.

The real value of this style of research is that it creates a common foundation of real consumer-driven insight that can help focus the innovation and design process and perhaps get you market success—faster and at a lower cost than ever before. The calling cry might then become: "We need packaging ethnography!"

Simon Gainey is a principal of Competitive Innovation LLC, a package design and development company in Media, PA. He can be reached at 610-627-1699 or