How Hard Is Your Packaging
Working for Your Brand?

Trust in packaging

Build Consumer Loyalty & Trust with Cognitive Ease.

In 1999, Amazon redesigned their brand identity in a way that greatly enhanced what psychologists call “cognitive ease.” The new logo includes a graphic device that connects the a to the z. The device forms a cheeky smile with a dimple that pushes up the z. The dimpled smile also shows up by itself on the brown shipper boxes that ship Amazon’s products out into the world.

What is cognitive ease, and how do smiles, and other graphic devices, increase it? Cognitive ease is a state in which things look familiar and feel good. This state, in turn, increases trust and loyalty. Smiles are a case in point. They subconsciously increase positive affect (good mood) and, in turn, prime customers to feel more trusting and loyal than they would otherwise.

To understand how something as simple as a smile can affect mood and purchasing decisions, package designers would do well to read Daniel Kahnemann’s treasure trove of psychological research, Thinking, Fast and Slow. In the book, Kahnemann suggests that we have two different ways of thinking. The first way (what he calls System 1) is fast, automatic and largely unconscious. It can detect hostility in a voice and can effortlessly complete the sentence “bread and ….”. We use System 1 because the other way of thinking, rational logical processing, is slow and feels like hard work.  Just try to multiply 23 by 17 in your head. In order to avoid unnecessary hard work, the brain constantly monitors whether anything is amiss. When alerted to risk or danger, System 2 kicks in (you felt it working if you tried the multiplication problem). This part of the brain results in different customer behavior. It causes us to be more analytical, more vigilant in our thinking. We question stories that we would otherwise unreflectively accept as true because they are facile and coherent. If put on alert, customers become more vigilant about reading labels and comparing ingredients. They do the math and figure out the unit price. They may even notice what’s not included on the principal display panel (PDP).


Incorporating cognitive ease in packaging

To keep shoppers out of System 2 skepticism and put them back in System 1 trust mode, package designers need to remember two things:

  1. Use a clear display
  2. Prime a good mood

Clear Display

When laying out messages you want consumers to believe, make sure the text is clearly legible and easy to read. Cognitive psychologists have conducted research on what they call “Truth Illusions,” which test the believability of statements that vary only in how legible they are. Compare the following two statements:

Product X supports brain health.

Product X supports brain health.

Experiments have shown that the first is more likely to be believed. Additional tests revealed that highly contrasting colors between the copy and the packaging background also increased both legibility and believability.  More muted tones and smaller fonts demand greater cognitive effort and, in turn, made label readers more skeptical.

When designing the packaging for Schiff Nutrition’s new product, Mega Red, the IMG team focused on creating a clear, believable PDP display. The team designed a custom type treatment to increase contrast and emphasize key messages. In addition to the font choice, the team punched up the contrast with a bold red and white color scheme, which it carried throughout all marketing materials. Numbers were also used to give consumers a faster read of key information. These reinforcements proved helpful in building confidence and increasing belief in the product’s efficacy. MegaRed is still one of Schiff Nutrition’s highest selling brands because consumers believe the product works.













Tip: To increase believability of claims, increase the legibility of key messages.

Another factor of a clear display is to boil down information for customers and include the most important messages on the PDP. While this may seem self-explanatory, a simple move like including key ingredients on the front of the label in a large easy-to-read font helps customers feel informed without them having to turn the bottle over and dig out their reading glasses.

When the IMG team designed the LifeSeasons product line, we deliberately placed the key ingredients on the front panel, while removing as many distract messages as possible. After the line launched, sales reps from Whole Foods and Sprouts markets commented that the inclusion of key ingredients on the PDP made it easier to explain product benefits to consumers. Consumer feedback indicated that consumers liked knowing which ingredients to pay attention to when purchasing a joint health product, for example, and used the information on the LifeSeasons labels to compare competing products.  “This one’s got everything I need in it,” represents the most common consumer response to the LifeSeasons product line.

Tip: Maintain a clean template that focuses consumer attention on key messages.

Prime a good mood

Priming works because our memories associate ideas.  For example, if asked to complete the word fragment SO_P, what you see right before that fragment will greatly influence you. If you see the word EAT, you’re more likely to complete it with the word SOUP. If you see the word WASH, you are more likely to complete it with the word SOAP. Primes can influence mood as well as word choice. Positive affect primes include smiles, humor, fun, puppies, babies, play, and flowers. These elements all put customers in a good mood.

So, just how does mood impact shopping? After customers were primed with a smile (even when the smile was forced by making them bite a pencil between their front teeth), they paid less attention to details, anticipated fewer problems, and tended to like products better. On the other hand, induced frowns caused them to question claims and become more analytical in their thinking.

Here’s an example of how IKEA worked both a smiley face (using the negative space under the crab) and a dose of fun into a new package design for this crab food paste.

Tip: Want them to buy your product? Put a smile on their face.

Smiles aren’t the only indicators of good mood. Romance also increases consumer feelings of well-being. When IMG designed the packaging for Sibu Beauty, we romanced the main ingredient, sea buckthorn berries, with a custom illustration that looked much better than the real thing. The berries glow with health and the leaves lend the entire illustration an exotic air.

Tip: Romance consumers into a good mood with illustrations and photos that glow with goodness.


Much more could be said about the wealth of research that reveals the effects of cognitive ease and priming on consumer behavior. Without getting too bogged down in details, packaging designers can do much to improve the believability of their messages by making those messages (1) easy to read and (2) easy to like. After all, getting consumers to fill in the blank is easy as pi_.

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One Response to How Hard Is Your Packaging
Working for Your Brand?

  1. Camille Fletcher says:

    Thank you for such a useful and relevant article! (I always appreciate the insight of your blog posts.) It is fascinating how the psychology behind packaging design can influence emotions and purchase behavior, and I can’t wait to read the book you reference. I will be sure to consider this information the next time my company is designing packaging. I wish I would have known the information about a year ago when we launched a major redesign of our labels… probably would have approached some things differently!

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