Psychological research backs the $1 trillion product packaging industry. Companies use these findings to plan and carefully execute every product detail.

What goes into product packaging?

Psychological research backs the $1 trillion product packaging industry. Companies use these findings to plan and carefully execute every product detail.

Itry to eat healthy foods these days. I’m always shopping for good kombucha, for example. But I’ve recently switched over to probiotic soda. Why, you might ask? Well, I just can’t help but love how the cans feel. 

We’ve all seen those eye-catching products at the grocery store. You might know Hershey’s bars by the dark brown wrapping. Or you might also be caught up by the texture of soda cans and find yourself buying them regularly. 

It turns out there’s a science behind all of this that is researched in the field of visual ecology. According to researchers at the University of Zurich, “visual ecology is the study of how different species perceive their visual surroundings.” Humans are often studied for product packaging research. Companies use findings to plan and carefully execute every product detail, from the fonts and package size to the color and weight. 

Adam Peek, SVP of Meyers Printing, is an expert in the packaging industry. Peek hosts a podcast about the $1 trillion industry. He says a lot goes into packaging these products. “There’s a short period of time to grab the attention of somebody walking by,” he says. “Typically, that time frame is under four seconds.” 

Peek’s company manufactures product labels, boxes, retail displays, store signage and RFID labels. Peek didn’t start in packaging, though. He began his career as a pastor, where he developed a love for people. He went into the clergy and then got a job in the packaging industry. “I thought I was going to leave the packaging industry [to go back to clergy],” he says. “Then, I realized everyone needs packaging. It impacts a lot of people, and no one really knows about it.”

Color is one of the better-studied marketing tactics in packaging. Blues indicate sincerity, a sense of trust and honesty. Red is a daring, adventurous color. Green shows a commitment to sustainability and freshness, and orange and yellow show strong, cheerful and optimistic attitudes, according to an article by MJS Packaging

Maybe this is why I’m drawn to health sodas. The blank canvas and simple greens, pinks and yellows of Recess drinks make me believe they care about my health. Similarly, Bella All Natural, a vitamin brand, often uses greens and pinks to “signify health, natural sources and energy,” a Forbes article says. 

Color also tends to be associated with brand names. What do you think of when you think of mac and cheese, goldfish or Reese’s? Each has a classic orange color known and loved by its consumers. 

"There’s a short period of time to grab the attention of somebody walking by. Typically, that time frame is under four seconds."

Packaging material also plays a huge role in signifying brand status and construction. For example, you won’t find high-end products boxed in cardboard since it signifies function over beauty. Higher-end products will be seen wrapped in the luxurious materials of wood, metal or even plastic, according to Forbes. 

Once you pick an item based on its look, the texture can seal the deal. A lot of products are glossed with spot UV varnish, Peek says. “This creates a gloss contrast on their box or sleeve label.” Foil-based packaging is another strategy used to make products stand out. 

The more natural feeling, the better, Peek says. There is something called soft-touch varnish, “when you pick it up, it feels like skin,” Peek explains. “We intrinsically trust what seems most like us.”

The field of psychology studies these trends, and third-party for-profit companies collect and sell data to companies looking to bolster their products on the market. Retail Aware, for example, boasts of its ability to measure product outcomes using censors on the products in the store.

“A [Retail Aware] customer will implement sense technology within their displays in-store to measure shopper impressions and dwell time,” their website says. This is done by utilizing a battery-fueled motion censor to gauge how many shoppers pass by, stop and linger at the product location. 

This information can be collected and packaged neatly in a visual presentation available for purchase for any company wanting insight into its packaging effects. 

Additionally, companies might want to hire experts who can stay on top of sustainability issues. The average person might not know that there are existing laws and standards that companies must follow. The Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Laws are one such case. OECD cites them as “an environmental policy approach in which a producer’s responsibility for a product is extended to the post-consumer stage of a product’s life cycle.”

But whether or not brands play their role in producing sustainable packaging, consumers must also choose those products. Consumers often do not choose sustainable packaging because the sustainability labels are not present enough in the visual field on the packaging. The authors from the University of Zurich suggest those labels should be expanded up to two standard deviations from what they currently are. 

“If you are a brand owner, you will have to pay money for using certain types [of packaging] that are negatively impacting the environment,” Peek says. That money goes toward supporting composting and other sustainability practices.

Brands are trying to figure out how much unsustainable material they use in their products and how much can be reduced. Can they buy more recycled content? What can they do to reduce the costs? 

“If you picked up some vitamins, there is a company who makes the cap, who makes the induction, makes the cotton ball, the bottle, the box, the label, and all of those materials that are being used to make the vitamin box needed packaging to get to the place where they will get used for packaging,” Peek says. “There’s a wide range of this industry that people don’t even know about. And that’s what makes this industry exciting.”