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Does Product Package Shape Equals Brand Status?

Relevant topics Archive, Strategy

  • Neuromarketing Principle:
    Package Shape Informs Brand Status Categorization and Brand Choice
  • Application:
    Package design can serve as a tool to simplify and speed up how consumers categorize and choose brands and products.
  • How do you judge a person's status? Do you look at his or her clothes? Or their possessions?

    According to the Shape-SES theory, most people tend to infer a person's socioeconomic status from his or her body shape. And this turns out to be the case for products and their shapes as well! 

    So, what kind of package shape do you think of as luxurious? Or what would you describe as a high-status product?

    A recently published paper suggests that packaging shape affects how we categorize products and judge brands' status. 

    Do you want to learn more about how product packaging is used to position a brand in the consumer's mind? Continue reading!

    Does Product Package Shape Equals Brand Status?

     Thomas Hine was right when he stated:

    “During the 30 minutes you spend on an average trip to the supermarket, about 30,000 different products vie to win your attention, and ultimately make you believe in the promise of the product. When the door opens, automatically, before you, you enter an arena where your emotions and your appetites are in play, and a walk down the aisle is an exercise in self-definition. ..... But the package is also useful to the shopper. It is a tool for simplifying and speeding decisions.”

    With this observation, Hine acknowledges three marketing axioms: 

    • First, there are an overwhelming number of products that a consumer has to choose from in a relatively short span of shopping time. 
    • Second, making a choice is “an exercise in self-definition” in which a consumer scans the environment and attempts to categorize products as “for me” versus “not for me” to narrow down the available options to a convenient choice set.
    • Third, package design can serve as a tool to simplify and speed up how consumers categorize and choose brands and products. 

    Product packaging plays a very vital part in consumer decision-making. But, does package shape play a role in how consumers classify (luxury or high-end vs. mass or low-end) and choose brands whenever they are faced with countless options?

    Brand Status Categorization 

    Brand status, which refers to the status or social prestige value attached to a brand, plays a pivotal role in buying decisions when consumers seek to gain social status or enhance a sense of self. 

    Yet, in the absence of other cues that show the brand's status – such as price, brand name, and retailer, how do consumers infer the brand status of various products?

    In this article, we adopt the perspective that in a crowded marketplace, the time-pressed consumer relies on a brand's "visual equity" as a cue from which to discern the brand's status and differentiate it from other brands on the shelf.

    More, we propose package shape as a visual feature that helps consumers categorize brands as high-end versus low-end, thus acting as a brand status categorization cue.

    Therefore, we look at package shape as a cue that consumers rely on to categorize a product as high status or low status.

    The Lay Theory Effect

    A lay theory, or lay belief, is a common-sense explanation consumers use to understand people and their environments. Lay theories are formed through personal experience and observation of the environment, or environmental cues encountered in daily life. 

    Take food for example. Consumers have a belief that healthy foods are expensive and not tasty ("unhealthy = tasty"). This belief leads to a negative effect on the perceived healthfulness of a food item on its judged tastiness. Also when evaluating food items, consumers use health information to infer price in a manner consistent with the notion that healthy foods are expensive.

    This is a common example of how lay theories direct our decision-making.

    Lay theories are everywhere and marketing seems not to be an exception. It appears our consumers also have a way of classifying and choosing brands based on the shape of the product. This happens to have something to do with a psychological effect known as the “Shape-SES Lay Theory”. 

    The Shape-SES Lay Theory

    The Shape-SES theory is about the association between a person's body shape and his or her socioeconomic status. This lay theory was formed by the common observation that taller stature and lower BMI (a measure of weight to height) are associated with higher SES (socio-economic status), especially in developed countries.

    Higher SES (socioeconomic status) results in taller stature due to higher standards of nutrition in childhood. At the same time, taller people often have higher average incomes, which is caused by better health, higher self-esteem, higher social dominance, and superior intelligence that go with their stature. 

    On BMI, people of higher SES usually have lower BMI because they are more attentive to obesity issues and have greater access to health-promoting food and resources such as sports facilities, fitness clubs, and walking or biking trails. High BMI is also likely to induce bias, stigmatization, and discrimination, all limiting access to high SES. 

    Based on such observations about the association between body shape and SES or personal experience, consumers might form a Shape-SES lay theory. 

    The media also plays a pivotal role in shaping the association between body shape and SES. For example, female models and celebrities featured in popular magazines are taller and thinner than the average female. Besides, many online articles and blog posts equate the general ideal of tall and thin with fitness and success. Thus, exposure to media coverage enhances the belief in the Shape-SES lay theory. 

    In sum, personal observations and experiences coupled with media exposure contribute to the formation and consolidation of the Shape-SES lay theory - the belief that tall, thin people are more likely to be members of a higher social class than short, heavy people. 

    So how do consumers transfer this lay theory from interpersonal observations to brand perceptions and use it to judge a product's brand status?

    Influence of the Shape-SES Lay Theory on Brand Status Categorization

    It is well established that consumers infer missing pieces of product information, that is, fill in the gaps based on the lay theories that they hold, regardless of whether the theories are correct or not. 

    For example, when asked to make inferences about a camera's durability, consumers rely on the intuition that durability and warranty are related and thus rate durability based on the camera's warranty rating.

    In the absence of other cues that show the brand's status (e.g., price, brand name, and retailer) or when consumers are seeking information and need to rely on an available heuristic, they use package shape to infer brand status and categorize a product as a high-end product or a low-end product.

    Thus, a product in a tall, slender package is more likely to be categorized as a high-end product (high brand status) compared to a product in a short, wide package that holds the same amount of product.

    When consumers hold the Shape-SES lay theory strongly, a product in a tall, slender package is more likely to be perceived as a high-end product (indicating high brand status) compared to those in a short, wide package. However, the effect would be weakened if the Shape-SES lay theory weren’t strongly held by consumers.

    In purchase contexts in which brand status is a primary buy consideration, consumers are more likely to choose a brand presented in a tall, slender package than a brand presented in a short, wide package.

    Implications for Brand and Retail Managers

    The findings from this research generate practical and actionable implications for both brand and retailing managers. 

    Brand managers can use package shape as a strategic visual cue to help position their brand in the consumer’s mind as a high-end or low-end brand, influencing whether or not it gets into a consumer’s choice set, and ultimately determining choice. 

    Consider for example, when Procter & Gamble’s Crest set out to develop a premium-whitening product in 2003. The packaging designers did not design a horizontal toothpaste box but instead created a vertical package “to convey ‘premium. Thanks to the new package, Crest toothpaste sales rose by 5% in 2005, whereas its competitor Colgate’s sales fell by 6%, according to IRI, an American market research company.

    This example illustrates the importance of package shape in communicating brand image and influencing consumer choices.

    On the other hand, retail managers need to consider package shape when making decisions on what products to stock. A tall, slender package creates the perception of higher brand status largely than a short, wide package. 

    Therefore, retailers in the high-end market can stock more products in tall, slender packages to communicate and enhance their positioning. It is also important to display these products in their shop windows because consumers passing by might judge status based on the products displayed.

    Retailers in the low-end market, on the other hand, face more complicated decisions. Should they stock more products in short, wide packages? On the one hand, consumers who are aware of the retailer’s economic positioning (low-end) might still prefer a product they perceive to have a high brand status over one perceived to have a low brand status, all other things being equal.

    On the other hand, for new consumers who know little about the retailer, high-perceived brand status may lead to a high estimation of product price, and turn price-sensitive consumers away. 

    Now for the sake of new consumers who aren’t aware of the retailer's economic positioning, it’ll be best to display (in shop windows) products in short wide packages. This is going to serve as a decoy, luring the price-sensitive buyer into the store. Thus, giving a clear indication about their economic positioning. 

    Take-Home Points:

    • Package shape can serve as a tool to simplify and speed up how consumers categorize and choose brands and products.
    • Customers are more likely to buy products in tall, slender packages when price isn’t an issue.
    • High-end retailers can enhance their positioning in the marketplace by displaying products in tall, slender packages.
  • Does Product Package Shape Equals Brand Status?
  • Reference:

    Chen, H., Pang, J., Koo, M., & Patrick, V. M. (2020). Shape Matters: Package Shape Informs Brand Status Categorization and Brand Choice. Journal of Retailing, 96(2), 266-281. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jretai.2019.08.003

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    Further Reading

    • Increase Future Sales By Making Customers Think About The Past

      Increase Future Sales By Making Customers Think About The Past

      Imagine walking through the electronics store looking for a new coffee machine. Suddenly you hear a familiar melody echoing through the shopping corridors. It happens to be that one song you played over and over again back in high school. Overwhelmed by nostalgic feelings, you continue your search for that coffee machine and you notice two offers. One is the store's #1 best-selling coffee machine, while the other is a limited edition machine with unique features. What do you do? Will those nostalgic feelings affect your choice? 

      A new neuromarketing insight suggests that nostalgia undoubtedly affects the choices we make by influencing our tendency to either conform to or deviate from the group, which is moderated by the existing social ties between the consumer and others.

      Are you curious to know which coffee machine you would prefer? Keep on reading! 

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