Packaging research shows that only 90% of new packaging re-designs fail to drive sales. Why? Brain plasticity may be one of the culprits.
I recently attended a lecture about brain plasticity given by Dr. Norman Doidge, author of The Brain that Heal Itself, at the Center for Brain Health in Dallas. He defined neuroplasticiy as the property of the brain to change its function and structure in response to mental experience (perceiving, motor action, imagining) and other forms of stimulation (e.g. electrical), which goes on in many levels in the brain.
Through many case studies, Dr. Doidge illustrated the incredible ability the human brain has for continuous change and great potential for providing cures. This has always been the truth, but it has taken us 400 years to recognize it because of:
- Lack of technology to observe the changes
- Notoriously poor prognosis for brain injury
- The mechanistic model: mankind has had three main analogies for nature – nature as organism, nature as machine, nature as historic process
- The plasticity paradox: plasticity gives rise to both rigid and flexible behaviors, and our rigid behaviors lead us to assume that the brain is overly rigid
The fact is that neuroplasticity is responsible for not only cures, but also for illnesses, which led me to think that brain plasticity may be one of the reasons new packaging often fail to motivate shoppers to buy. Scott Young, president of Perception Research Services, argues, in an article published in the 2010 January issue of Quirk’s Research Magazine, that the increase in shelf visibility through contrast (via color blocking, unique shapes, and strong brand identity) is the single strongest driver of sales increases. This explanation makes sense, but only explains it from the stimuli perspective. The question still remains as to why consumers would need a contrast jolt to buy a product because of its packaging.
From the consumer perspective, we may find the answer in the core laws of neuroplasticity, which are:
- Neurons that fire together wire together, neurons out of synch fail to link
- Use it or lose it
- Plasticity is competitive: trained neurons fire faster more efficient signals
When a consumer is exposed to a product in a particular packaging, connections are made in the brain so that the product is associated with that particular packaging structure (its colors, shape, and brand logo). The more exposure she gets to it, the stronger the connections become as neurons get trained, leading to a “rigid” perception of the product. Consumers may not recognize it if presented in a new package or even revolt against it, as it happened when PepsiCo tried to change the image of the Tropicana orange juice in 2009.
In order to succeed, a new packaging needs to be able to create connections by first attracting attention, but then motivating consumers to give it a second look. Through studies conducted in collaboration with Wharton and INSEAD, Young found that reexamination of a product is an even more powerful predictor of purchase.
So in order to succeed with a new packaging re-design, marketers should conduct research to find the right balance between deep rooted aspects of the brand identity and new elements that strengthen positive perceptions of the brand and create new neuronal connections. These new elements should be enticing enough to persuade the consumer to give it a first and a second look and, assuming that the product meets her needs and is affordable, ultimately buy it.