Sense and Sensibility in Branding: the First Steps of Capturing the Consumer's Attention

By: Ulyana Kozhevnikova

The practical side of design has always been a hot topic, but emotional one is rarely brought up. How does a consumer percept the color of a label, the graphics style, or the idea behind a logo? How do our choices affect whether a customer will like the packaging or not, whether they’ll give the product a chance? Human subconscious that stores answers to these questions is like a metaphoric black box—we put inside visual and verbal information about a brand without any real understanding of how it is going to be processed.

Meanwhile turning an unknown product into a dearly beloved brand is a cognitive process where main factors are attention, perception, comprehension, and memorizing. Let’s see how they work at every step of interaction between a consumer and a product and what tools are the most efficient to control the mysterious black box of consumers’ subconscious.

Step one: attracting attention

Connection between a consumer and a brand starts from the first glance at the shelf; if a product manages to spark interest, it leads to something marketing experts and brand-managers call a trial purchase. The producer and the advertising agency can remain mere observers who do not interfere with the natural course of events and can only hope that the package’s inner beauty will sell itself without any additional help. But such things don’t even happen between humans, so it’s definitely not likely in consumer-product relations.

The shelves are ruled by Trout’s principle: differentiate or die

Competition is considerably high here, and even unremarkable brands and mediocre packaging disrupt focus and distract consumers’ attention, which is already scarce. Every product yearns to:

  1. Attract people who are scanning the shelf looking for something new;
  2. Win over some attention from conservative people who are true to their usual choices and are not prone to experiments;
  3. Catch the eye of consumers who are just passing by and are not looking to buy anything of the sort.

Whatever category we may belong to, our attention almost always is entwined with sensory experience (when we are examining something) or with thought process (when we are thinking about something). Visual attention works like a projector—it helps us highlight one object against a variety of others and focus on it. At this moment we quickly and automatically assess all the physical properties of an object—its color, size, slope angle, dimension, and line orientation.

According to feature integration theory, which was developed and tested by American psychologist Anne Treisman, human brain contains some kind of a map of such features. The above mentioned “projector ray” travels this map and sews separate features together into complete objects that we are able to identify to then focus on and examine.

Differentiate or imitate?

According to Jeremy Wolfe, one of the top researchers of visual behavior and the author of a guided search model, human attention is spread between various objects depending on their level of importance. This level equally depends on how an object is similar to its usual surroundings and on what the observer is more inclined to in this particular situation. In other words, people have a built-in mechanism to notice what is similar and what is different, which determines the order of object evaluation during visual search. Application of Wolfe’s theory in branding leads to two equally effective, yet conflicting strategies: that of differentiation and that of imitation.

Differentiation strategy

Here we target consumers who are temporarily tired of familiar brands or are naturally ready for experiments. Those are the best observers—they are on the lookout for something new and unusual with or without any external attempts to guide their attention. Our task is to make their search simpler and faster by making a brand stand out in its category. As we have learned from Treisman’s theory, it takes people the least time to evaluate familiar basic features of an object. Product branding focuses on five basic features: color, style, shape, size, and level of detail. Therefore a brand has five ways to visually differentiate.

Way 1: color differentiation

Color is the most common and effective way to make a product stand out on the shelf. Obviously, that works only if competitive merchandise isn’t already a splash of colors and their combinations.

Myllyn Paras by Depot WPF, Isbjorn by By North, Milk Map by Nimax Brands, Raselli Tea by Plasmadesign

Curiously, according to research, color differentiation is made more effective not by chromatic contrast (i.e. how a color is different from its surroundings on the color spectrum), but by luminance contrast (i.e. how bright a color is compared to its surroundings). So don’t rush trying to create purple milk; try working with the blue color classic for milk shelves.

Oatly by Forsman & Bodenfors

Way 2: style differentiation

It may be a little bit less effective, but still very much loved here at Nimax Brands approach, which in addition to visual differentiation helps to refer to a brand’s positioning and not just make a product more conspicuous on the shelf. Due to inaction in many product categories on the Russian market, style differentiation is a potential gold mine for making a package very expressive.

  • You want to point out the quality of raw materials? Decorate the package with realistic meat slice texture designed in a craft linocut technique with nice roughness for greater effect.
  • You are planning to start a peaceful revolution on a retrograde wine shelf? And along the way show that wine isn’t always ceremonious but can just be fun? Stay clear of line engraving but use photographs and exaggerate emotions. Top it off with newspaper layout.
  • You want to tell about the producer’s heritage? This time, on the contrary, scan old engravings. But you can show the brand’s strive for experiments and its constant search for new shapes and tastes with the help of a collage, eclectic typography, and local usage of bright colors. Surrealistic? Sure, but at the same time distinctly positioned.

Krasnogorie by Nimax Brands, Carpe Diem by 43’OZ, Thomas J Fudge’s by Big Fish

Top class is the ability to smartly incorporate a brand into a category using only one feature (for example, the color), but at the same time definitively make it stand out in other features (for example, style solution). Such design, given it’s used smartly, works equally well for essentially different groups of conservative and open to experiments consumers. 

Brothers Cheburashkini by Ermolaev Bureau

Way 3: shape differentiation

It’s the most complicated, costly, and thus affordable only for “celestials” way of differentiating a product on the shelf. It takes money not only at the stage of developing an originally constructed package, but also at setting up the production line.

Due to tactile particularities of design and material, shape differentiation works well not only at the stage of attracting a consumer’s initial attention, but also at the stage of further examination of the product.

Karamelleriet by Bessermachen, Wishbone Coffee by Also Known As

Way 4: Level of detail differentiation

This approach takes uniformity of competitive field at the level of detail used for packaging, which makes it applicable not in all product categories. Try making a minimalistic package and then put it among heavily overloaded with fonts and graphic elements merchandise. Or, on the contrary, make a highly detailed, tapestry-like label where all the other brands limit themselves to minimalistic typography and color.

Labels rich in shapes, textures, and graphic details (with consistent quality of execution) also stand out because they call for closer examination. In some cases one can do it almost forever.

Minimalistic packages work differently: they save consumers’ time and attention, which can come as a welcome relief in cases of excessive selection. But there are some risks, too. When taking the path to minimizing the level of detail on a label, it’s important not to cross the line where the product blends with store brands of a low price range that also gravitate towards a minimalistic design.

Emily Fruit Crisps by Big Fish, Myllyn Paras by Depot WPF, Harmonian by Mousegraphics, Vivana by Anagrama

Way 5: size differentiation

This approach to separating out a brand is rarely used and has some logical limitations: you can’t infinitely make the size of a package or the amount of the product inside bigger or smaller. Standard package sizes in different categories are already established and directly relate to a certain way a product is consumed. We can, of course, attract consumers’ attention with a ten-liter carton of milk, but can we make them buy it and change the usual way of its consumption? Not likely.

Experiments show that differentiation of even one feature already makes an object stand out against the others, regardless of the number of distractors (i.e. additional plausible but incorrect alternatives that distract respondents in doubt). But speaking from our experience, in context of a dense shelf we can go further and smartly combine several ways of brand differentiation on one package label.

Imitation strategy

This is an opposite approach to attracting consumers’ attention and an ideal strategy for appealing to conservative buyers who react to something familiar and reject anything new. In this case consumers are looking for something specific, which means they tend to look at the objects similar to their target first.

With imitation strategy we again proceed from Treisman’s theory basic features: color, style, shape, size, and level of detail. But if in differentiation strategy we used them to stand out, here we rely on the same features to mimic competitors; and to increase the resemblance we must work not with one, but with several features at once.

Let’s skip cases of total imitation (essential, communicative, and visual) of already present on the shelves major brands. Far more interesting for the market and for us are the examples of selective imitation, where a brand visually—partially or completely—imitates its competitive environment, but is fundamentally different in terms of positioning or communications.

Pervim delom by DDVB

Imitation strategy is an ideal option for the careful. Following this strategy we rely on trial-and-error experience of all the producers who have ever presented their merchandise for sale. However, visual similarity does not imply low-quality design even if it is characteristic of all the packages of the same category. With a clear understanding of what methods work in a given category and staying within the boundaries of recognition, we can always get a better result and stand out in terms of quality of execution.

Tops and roots by Anna-Maria Kandales-Vorobeva

According to research, when a consumer is looking for a particular familiar object (for example, a pack of their usual “Prostokvashino” dairy product), they automatically scan everything that comes into their visual field; moreover, they continue doing so even after they have found their target product. This gives us hope and improves our chances to capture consumers’ attention regardless of what product differentiation strategy we have chosen. We will discuss what to do with this attention in our next chapter. Our second step is securing consumers’ attention with the help of an emotion and influencing their choice, which is often far from being logical, balanced, or predictable.


Ulyana Kozhevnikova
Ulyana Kozhevnikova is a Head of Branding Department at Nimax Brands since 2010. She is an expert in creating brand-platforms for corporate, consumer and product brands and develops brand strategies for key clients of the company. Speaker of main digital Russian conferences—RIW, Specia Conf.