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Neuropackaging: Understanding packaging through the lens of cognitive science.

Packaging is the second most important touchpoint for FMCG companies after ads. Yet they often do not seem to give it the importance it deserves.

While Marketing has long used disciplines such as neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and behavioral science to better understand consumers, learn how they make decisions and deliver more effective campaigns and activations for brands, packaging still has a long way to go to leverage these disciplines as useful tools.

I have been working in FMCG/CPG branding for more than 15 years and specialized in packaging. Over the last years, I have reviewed the literature from these disciplines and use it to better understand and gain insights on the consumer’s relationship with packaging.

I have called this “neuropackaging”.

To understand the basics of neuropackaging, we must first understand how our brain works.

Following the model of Daniel Kahneman (winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics), our brain essentially functions according to a couple of systems named as “System 1” and “System 2”. This has nothing to do with our hemispheres or with rational and emotional intelligence. In fact, for a long time these associations were made incorrectly.

System 1 is responsible for making our decisions implicitly and is referred to by Phill Barden as “autopilot”. It is the system we use when we perform activities intuitively or automatically, for example when we drive a car or ride a bicycle. System 2, on the other hand, is responsible for decisions that require more reasoning, such as a mathematical calculation. Our brain spends most of the day on System 1 (“autopilot”) because it is the most effective way to optimize the energy it uses. Therefore, when making purchasing decisions, system 1 is what drives our decision-making.

When we receive a stimulus, the first thing our brain asks is, “What is this?”, “What does this mean?”, and “How does it benefit or harm me?”. All this happens in a fraction of a second. In this way, it assigns a “value” to that stimulus. But where does this value come from? Our subconscious engages in a cost-benefit calculation (value vs. harm) that is based on our past experiences.

In 2007, neuroscientist Brian Kutson and his colleagues at Stanford University decided to conduct a study called “Neural predictors of purchases”, to find out whether it is possible to predict buying behavior by analyzing neural activity.

Their research began with images of products and brands -a box of chocolates, for example - shown for a few seconds. Then, in addition, the price appeared on the screen and finally the respondents had to indicate whether they would buy the chocolates or not by pressing a button. When brain activity was studied using brain imaging (fMRI), it was found that when the picture of the product or brand was displayed, the activation of the so-called “reward system” increased, which is known to be triggered when we value something. And when the price was added, a whole different area of the brain was activated, namely the insula. This area of the brain is the same area that is activated when we suffer physical pain or when we are excluded from a group. In other words, the price of a product literally hurts us.

The decision to buy is driven by a comparison between rewards and pain. If the rewards outweigh the pain, the individual will likely make the purchase.

Any effective brand strategy requires an understanding of consumer goals which may be implicit or explicit. It is extremely important to understand what the consumer’s goals are with our product. By “explicit goals” I mean the features of the product that the consumer is looking for. For example, a laundry soap that effectively removes stains. But if consumers were only looking for features, it would be almost the same for them to buy any brand. It is our job as brand strategists to understand what the implicit goals are and align branding with those goals. An implicit goal might be, “I want to feel safe and feel like I am giving my family the best.”

An example of this is the failed redesign of Tropicana’s packaging in 2009. The brand attempted to modernize its classic straw-in-orange packaging, but this new image clearly did not meet consumers’ implicit goals. In a blink of an eye, the brand lost the emotional connection it had built with its consumers over the years and made a $30 million loss in just two months. The company had to quickly return to its previous design.

Those of us involved in building and improving brands need to be aware that brands are driven by people, both externally and internally. For this reason, I believe it’s critical that we educate ourselves and understand how our minds work through existing studies and the sciences that study our behavior. The insights from this body of research are no silver bullet but they can certainly improve our decision making and enable us to design and course correct our branding strategies.


By Fernando Arendar

Founder at Nitid Studio. Expert with more than 15 years of experience in branding with a focus on packaging. He specializes in FMCG/CPG.

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