CES: Product Packaging, Consumer Electronics and Baseball

Everyone knows that making it into the big leagues in any sport is hard...really hard...nearly impossible actually. The truth is less than half a percent of high school seniors playing baseball today will wind up getting drafted by a Major League Baseball team (that's 0.45% for those who are mathematically inclined). Of those drafted an even smaller percentage will make it out of the minors and an even smaller percentage will have long, successful, multi-million dollar careers.

"Now, you might be asking yourself "what's with all of the baseball talk?"

Over the last decade, almost a quarter of a million new products have been announced at the Consumer Electronics Show (WCES) in Las Vegas. And what percentage of these product launches have actually led to sitting on a shelf at Best Buy or WalMart stores around the country? You see my point right?

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There are many factors at play in getting your stuff into those stores, and I will address those with another column later. What I want to share here is an idea that can help you win once you have been "drafted." In the unassisted sales floors of big box retail, it's your product packaging that has to do the heavy lifting and there are more factors to success than simply making it look pretty to you and your executive team.

There are 2 ways in which we have found that most companies review and judge product packaging, the right way and the wrong way. The right way would mean developing it with the actual stores in mind and the wrong way is how everyone else on planet does it...in their offices. A typical packaging review is held in a board room with soft lighting while sitting in cozy chairs. They sit back and hold the package comfortably in their hand and calmly take in the entire piece at a leisurely pace. Most of the time the key decision makers are surrounded by their highly trusted team of expert advisers who collectively know every nook and cranny of the product from its conception all the way up to this reviewing moment. The group will hypothesize about the customers interpretation of the packaging but to be honest, this group is WAY too close to this project to be very objective about the reality of how people shop and the factors that play into their decision making process. This is wrong way to do it.

So, what is the right way? How can you be sure that your packaging design will work in a store if the first time it's ever seen the inside of one was the day it was placed on the hook? At that point we could be talking about years of R&D, expensive tooling and manufacturing cost, the expense of sales, PR and marketing, not to mention how much it costs for fulfillment and shipping. Such a long, exhausting and expensive road all to bet that people are going to line up for a chance to buy your product. Strike three...you're out!

Now, we realize it's not very cost effective to build a retail environment in most offices and doing field studies with an entire team is hardly efficient. We'd like to share a little method we use to overcome this obstacle and help manage the transition from your office to the retail floor. The concept is very simple. Your product packaging has to "speak" differently from a few different vantage points in the retail selling process. And by selling process I simply mean from the moment the customer walks through the door until they walk out with your product under their arm. How does your product packaging communicate from across the showroom floor, to what it communicates as part of a wall full of product and finally when it's in the customer's eager little hand. If you think of your packaging as a communication tool that has different stages of communication, then you're on the right track. We call this method the "25, 10, 2ft rule." What is your product packaging "saying" at 25ft, then at 10ft, and finally at 2ft to build trust, convey a compelling solution, and ultimately make the sale?

@25 feet: Use shape and color like a tractor beam

Let's say you've just walked through the front doors of your local Best Buy. The guy that checks the sales receipts has greeted you as you scan the "sky" for a ceiling sign that will help you find the section of the store you're looking for. If you came here today because you actually need something, you've probably done a little preemptive online research and want to get a closer look at the different options that are available. Then, if your shopping experience has built the sufficient "crave" or motivation in your limbic brain you'll "go home happy" with your new purchase in hand. For now, you've found your section of the store and as you make your approach the first things you'll be affected by are shape and color. Meaning the broad strokes of color and physical structure of the packaging itself. What we're really talking about here are the building block of a brand. A great example of a brand doing a world class job of this is Logitech. You can spot their products from across the room, far before you can read any of the printed information. The combination of a plastic blister and paper box materials enable them to establish a very original look. Logitech was also brave enough to stick by their guns while the competition made numerous attempts to copy their success. Being the first to establish this look and having the nerve to stick with it, is why you notice their products from 25 feet way. Customers approach them with confidence because Logitech now owns that real estate in their "retail subconscious mind." You can only achieve this by starting with a strong design and sticking with it no matter how the other factors in the market around you try to sway you from your path. It is at 25 feet where shape and color are used to pull in prospects like a light house guides a ship through the fog of the retail environment with its poor lighting, distracting noise, and crowds of people.

@10 feet: Inform like an air traffic controller

Once the prospect is through the "maze" of people, structures and aisles, it's now time to help them get the right product into their hand. At 10 feet there's a new set of guide posts that come into focus such as logos (brand), quality level (good, better, best), specifications (length, power, etc.) and product design (Industrial Design, color, etc.). All of this information needs to be well organized and intuitive whether it's presented typographically or infographically. For example, web designers make wireframes of their websites before they add in graphical treatments so they can present the structure of information without the distraction of opinion. The same should be done with product packaging. Make sure that the pertinent information is reaching the viewer at 10 feet to help them pick up the right product for their wants or needs.

Given all of these factors, the most important one of all is association. Different brands are going to resonate with different people depending on how they are presented at retail. For example SOL Republic headphones are directed at the young and trendy urban dweller and might not "connect" with the adrenaline junky that would gravitate towards a pair of Skull Candy headphones or the older demographic that would be attracted by a more reference brand such as Sennheiser. If your brand is truly authentic and presents as such, then it's from 10ft that your target customer needs to be guided in. 

There's no mistaking it, the 10 foot battle is the toughest. It's like picking teams for that Saturday pickup baseball game where 2 captains choose their players from a crowd of eager kids. The only difference here is the customer has more participation. At this vantage point its going to be the packaging that communicates most clearly that has the upper hand.

@2 feet: Create crave, educate and make the purchase easy

Now that you've attracted the prospect by first using the broad strokes of shape and color, then skillfully guiding them into the approach by informing them of where they need to be, you should have them sitting in the palm of your hand. Or rather, your product should be sitting in the palm of their hands, and its job now is to stay off the hook. If you try and push fancy terms or "snake oil" features and benefit technologies, again, here's where you'll be exposed. Here is also where all of those expensive refinement stages come into play and the time and effort of your marketing team really shines. The more your communication is presented in a clear and simple manner, the more confidence it will convey. This is not to say that you should create Apple-esque packaging because as much as we all love their style, being Apple-esque is better left to the good folks at Apple themselves. For the rest of us without 10 years to spare and millions of advertising dollars to spend, the packaging has to work a bit harder to sell!

Simon Sinek in his book "Start with Why," amongst many others, has shown us that WHY is far more important to the success of your brand than how or what you make. "People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it" and when a piece of product packaging is in the hands of a prospect its the very best place to drive this point home. Not by calling it out verbatim but by choosing the attributes that are critical to selling the reasons why you made it in the first place. What are the reasons that compelled you to bring this product into existence? Too often we're asked the question "what if a customer is holding 2 pieces of packaging, one in there left hand and the other in there right, how can we win if we don't communicate more than our competitor?" Our answer would be to not play the feature and benefit game and instead play the "why" game. Have a truly compelling reason for putting that product out there and let your packaging sing those attributes. So, let's try that comparison question one more time, "if you have a product in your left hand that is telling you WHAT it does at great detail and another in the right had telling you WHY it exists and the belief system behind it" which one is going to home with you? The "what" packaging "talks" more like a commodity that a customer can bargain shop for online, but the packaging that sold their belief system that resonated with the customers own set of beliefs will serve to inspire. When you get in this ballpark you're selling more than an a to b solution, you're selling ideas. Ideas are not subject to price comparison, or buyer remorse; ideas get bought and go home right then and there.

So, if you follow our "25, 10, 2 foot rule" then you're on the right track, save one more baseball analogy. In the movie "Bull Durham" there's a classic line that goes, "This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains." Now, the rain reference aside the rest of that line works perfectly for our purposes here. It's a simple game, so don't complicate things. Keep your messaging and graphics simple and when the urge strikes to use up all of the negative space or shoehorn in everyone's ideas from the CEO to the marketing assistant, resist it. Over designing and over communicating will only serve to do one thing, and that's intimidate the customer and hinder the sale. If you try and communicate one point, then the customer will receive one point, but if you try and communicate too much information you'll end up communicating nothing.

I hope the next time you're in a retail store you look at its environment a little differently and spot the brands that understand the game.

By: Jamie Capozzi

Jamie Capozzi is the founder and creative director of Theory Associates, the strategic branding agency that creates crave for some of the worlds leading technology brands. He can be reached at 415.904.0995