Dr. Charles Spence: The Psychologist of Packaging

Special Packages for Special People

Making a can of soup blue—or red, or square, or heavy—to cater to a particular consumer’s specific needs is something Charles Spence refers to as “meaningful personalization.” That’s in contrast to “meaningless personalization,” best encapsulated in the modern trend of customized packaging via things like putting your name or photo on a soda bottle (“It doesn’t change what’s inside,” he argues). But to modify a package—or even the food inside—with an understanding of, say, a consumer’s genetic makeup or health needs, would create an even more enjoyable, and beneficial, experience.

To evaluate whether the head of a deodorant stick feels different depending on the texture of where the stick is gripped, Charles used a number of testers made from polypropylene. “I won’t tell you how long it took us to get these made,” he jokingly adds.

That becomes an easier proposition as brands learn more about their customers, enabled by things like social media and Big Data. Charles relays another finding: If a package features imagery with a hand holding a spoon, and if the spoon comes in from the bottom-right area, it is easier for right-handed consumers to imagine the picture is their own hand. If a consumer is shopping online, and the technology powering the website knows which hand is dominant, it can display product photos which have the spoon-clenched hand in the proper place.

But as brands learn more and more, from Charles’ research and from information consumers willingly share, will there come a time when we’ve all been “figured out”? When every preference or subconscious thought has been well-documented, and a brand can go into a marketing meeting, say, “we want to sell this doohickey to these demographics,” and have its product development group design a package which just checks all those boxes?

In a word, no.

“Things will forever change,” Charles believes. “Once everyone does a thing the ‘right’ way, someone comes along and does something differently and breaks the mold.” He adds that trying to do things differently is “a dangerous game to play,” but the opportunity to stand out often leads brand owners to take that risk.

One such risk has been to borrow an image mold from another product category—putting olive oil in a perfume bottle or soup in a Tetra Pak-style carton. Consumers will perceive a product differently if it is in a container typically reserved for something else. Perceptions can vary by region—a color can imply one thing in one country and a totally different thing somewhere else.

[Packaging is] just ‘the stuff that stuff comes in!’ But you walk down a grocery aisle, it’s one of the most visually dense areas you’ll ever come across.

Dr. Charles Spence

And our preferences don’t sit still, either. Research into consumer purchasing habits has shown that, in times of national and global unrest, we prefer cars with curved designs. But when the economy is booming and everything is peaceful, we become more adventurous and choose cars with angular designs. These sorts of macro factors will always exist to ruffle our opinions and perceptions.

It all means as long as consumers remain consumers, Charles Spence will continue to examine things like whether a wine label with a downward-pointing triangle is more visually arresting than one with a triangle that points upward (an actual study he undertook last year), not as a puppeteer scheming to manipulate, but as a psychologist aiming to elevate an experience.