While marketing researchers have recently been discussing the power of visual cues in regard to social media, this isn’t new. If anything, it corroborates what psychologist Jerome Bruner of New York University found in studies: people recall 10% of what they hear, 20% of what they read and 80% of what they see. To add even more weight to this: educational researchers suggested in 2001 that 83% of human learning is visual in nature.* Additionally researchers at the Wharton School of Business found that the combination of visual and verbal communication was most effective; 67% of people in an audience confirmed this when attending a conference of presentations. So, how can we harness the power of visual cues to connect with consumers on an emotional level in package design?
What has changed is a world in which consumers have increasing demands placed on them; they are bombarded with stimuli almost 24/7, making them tune a great deal out. Added to that, consumers have less time and even less inclination to read. That’s why the power of visuals continues to increase, in my view, bringing us to the topic of packaging. The most effective package design leverages selective verbal brand communication, but only after it first attracts its core audience by emotive, resonant visual communication. Remember the classic adage before developing package design: A picture is worth a thousand words.
Which visual assets generate the most excitement among fans?
What excites fans about their favorite brands? And what turns consumers on to some brands over others for the first time? It’s seeing representations of these brands in an exciting visual manner. Nothing can deliver more of a punch than packaging; not a strong web site or the effective use of social media, even. Packaging makes the brand concrete and invites consumers to interact with it if developed properly. Structure, color and graphics all help to garner attention, but it’s imagery that makes emotional connections.
When consumers are in retail environments, one of three scenarios will happen. The packaging is so blasé or formulaic (has the expected category look and feel), that it is ignored. Structure, graphics and color are interesting, but the packaging visuals do not attract sufficient attention to prompt further examination of its verbal brand communication. Or, the visual assets on the package elicit full attention from consumers to the exclusion of everything else on the shelf – prompting interaction (picking it up to read the verbal brand communication) and then purchase.
Well-chosen imagery tells a story; it’s meaningful and adds weight to verbal brand communication. It matches the brands values. It feels authentic and depicts the subject matter in a natural manner. Nothing looks cheesy, contrived or inappropriate to the brand’s positioning. There are likely additional backgrounds or visual cues that are central to the brand, but the packaging isn’t so busy that it’s impossible for consumers to focus in on the key visual that conveys the brand best.
Visual assets should add brand value; they should represent the brand in consumer’s minds. When the brand is mentioned, a visual should come to mind first, and then the verbal concepts associated with the visual picture, to be effective.
In order to know which brand assets should be visualized, it’s important to conduct research. What are the purchase drivers that consumers are mindful of when shopping for items within the product category? Which specific drivers differentiate one brand from all of the others? Which associations do consumers make in their minds about the brand? How are their shifting wants and needs determining what matters most now, and does that align with the current manner in which visual and verbal communication are expressed? Do subtle changes, or not so subtle ones, need to be made to address what’s relevant to consumers now? What is the brand’s value proposition and does that clearly stand out on packaging?
How classic toy brands leverage visual assets on packaging
When a key visual asset is established for a brand, it should be retained, leveraged and consistently used in all marketing communication, including packaging. For example, a high-tech robotic mask is recognized by consumers all over the world as the icon that represents Hasbro’s Transformers. A flaming red and yellow swoosh stands for Mattel’s Hot Wheels. The color pink – specifically PMS 219 C, which is actually owned by Mattel – represents the Barbie brand. While other visuals might be contemporized over time on packaging, the key visual must remain the same. Even consistent placement and hierarchy, such as the iconic, red LEGO logo square always appearing in the upper left-hand corner of the front panel of all of its packaging, can build equity among consumers.
When we think about each of these visual elements, we realize how central each is to the brand and its positioning; how each speaks eloquently of that brand and no other one. Not only is recognition important, but even more so the brand assets that are called to mind by these visuals. No matter how many new products are introduced, keeping a key visual in place brings forth all of the emotions associated with the brand in the consumers mind, even as every other visual changes along with key verbal brand communication over time. That is especially important for licensed brands since consumer products can be launched in a myriad of categories.
What comes first: visual or verbal communication?
Does all of this mean that most verbal brand communication should be eliminated? No, it doesn’t. What it does mean is that, since people are visual, attracting consumers by leveraging powerful visual communication is the first order of business when it comes to packaging. Yet it must be supported by selective, well-developed verbal communication to seal the deal. This puts the onus on brand managers to hone in on the verbal messages that are key to the brand and the product; eliminating everything else in the process. It also puts the onus on marketers to first develop brand embodying visuals, as we can see… and that’s about more than having a well-developed brand identity and a nice product shot that looks like a billboard across the front panel of the package.
*Thriving in Academe: A Rationale for Visual Communication, National Education Associate Advocate Online, 12/2001