Back in 2003, James Averdieck was in the late stages of developing his pudding brand Gü. Having worked hard on embodying the brand through its packaging, Averdieck deployed his own piece of unorthodox research. “I took a few boxes into Waitrose, put them on the shelf and watched to see if people picked them up – because that’s what matters. They did.”
Indeed, Averdieck’s research method, although gloriously simple (and a proven barometer of future success), still seems novel to marketers over a decade on. In assessing the market and its propensity to receive a new product, brands still turn to the tick box to predict how brands will succeed. This forms the basis of most modern advertising and marketing practices worldwide: convince people to like a product and hopefully they’ll buy it. It is also why focus groups and consumer surveys reign supreme in the business of market research. Behavioural change – the crucial purchase – is often assumed to be influenced by attitudinal change.
More often than not, the opposite is true. There are many other biases which impact a change in behaviour, much besides attitude. People could copy their previous behaviour, or the choices of their peers. They could buy simply what is easy rather than what they want, or make a decision based on memories of their childhood.
Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, puts forth two fundamentally different decision making processes which the brain uses. System 1 is fast and guided by these biases or heuristics. It cannot be switched off and it involves no intentional control. System 2, on the other hand, is slow and guided by focus, deliberation and effort.
While an understanding of these biases isn’t immediately apparent in Gü’s strategy; it does crucially address the prevalence of system 1 when making purchasing decisions, particularly in the context of FMCG. It refocuses attention on the business of changing behaviour when building brands and flips the entire model of marketing and advertising on its head.
Packaging, traditionally seen as the last step in the purchase journey, suddenly becomes relevant against the backdrop of consumers blindly using system 1 in making decisions. The majority of the time, people will not be looking to make the very best brand choice based on all of the options available, but instead their eyes will be drawn to a brand on the shelf which stands out, either because it is different or because it is recognised.
Marketers are realising the value of packaging as a driver of – and barrier to – purchase. Tropicana’s drastic redesign in 2009 is a cautionary tale. Abandoning its branding on supermarket shelves resulted in an enormous 20 per cent drop in North American unit sales in just over one month. Attitudes to the brand were still positive and the product hadn’t changed but the packaging didn’t allow shoppers’ system 1 process to pick out the item on the shelf.
When the customer picked a Gü pudding off the shelf for the first time back in 2003, the driver for that behaviour could solely be attributed to the packaging. The purest expression of a brand and its idea is the packaging and it can be the difference between that brand staying on the shelf or going into the basket. The challenge is therefore to increase desirability to the highest level possible so the hand reaches for that product and takes it home.
There is a well-versed phrase in our agency. “The most important moment in a product’s life is when somebody picks it off the shelf and puts it into their basket.” It’s one which on first hearing you’d be forgiven for letting wash over you in a wave of marketing speak, but later reappears in the magazine article you’re reading, the client meeting you’re running and a thought process you’re navigating in the chocolate aisle at Tesco. Soon, it has become a mantra, a great lightbulb-moment revelation, relevant to absolutely everything you do. It’s time to start building big brand ideas from the shelf out.