Consumers care about packaging almost as much as the brand

Your hair feels luxurious just looking at it.
Your hair feels luxurious just looking at it.
Image: PRNewsFoto/Kerastase Paris
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In the United States, there is a growing divide in the median household income and the thickness of the American paper towel. As middle class consumers tighten their wallets, consumer brands have introduced value-priced versions of industry standards with names like “simple” and “basic.” But companies are still betting on premium products, “everyday luxury” in new household cleaners, shampoos and nutrition that cost 30-50% more.

Dubbed the “democratization of luxury,” by research firm Mintel, a new group of consumers is treating themselves in small ways by going premium on extra thick paper towels, moisturizer with anti-aging serum, and pomegranate juice instead of orange juice.

Product companies are investing in both the aesthetic and functional aspects of their packaging as a way to convey the premium luxury experience. In fact, when it comes to what’s important for overall satisfaction with a product, consumers rank packaging almost equal to the brand, according to MWV’s Packaging Matters study.

Often overlooked by brand managers, packaging can play a major role in “nonconscious priming,” the sensory and environmental factors that give consumers emotional cues on the context and “premiumness” of their experience. Lighting and scent in a hotel lobby, for example, can cue a visitor as to whether they’re about to find 600-thread-count sheets on their bed or a continental breakfast in the lobby when they wake up. The same is true for everyday products. How is it that we know artisan potato crisps are more premium than regular potato chips or that Kerastase shampoo is more high-end than Pantene? Other than cost and shelf placement, how do consumers rank a product’s premiumness and align it with their values to decide on a purchase?

  • Shelf appeal: One way brands cue consumers on the premiumness of their purchase is through the shelf appeal of packaging. More than likely, those artisan crisps are in a matte finish package (instead of a bright glossy one) and the high-end shampoo is in a brushed plastic basin (instead of a shiny squirt top bottle). Visual cues like muted colors, matte finishes, and artisanal materials (like raffia) can communicate premium options. But we are still enchanted by shiny objects: Mintel calls gloss black the “workhorse of luxury packaging,” (see Chanel and Prada—skincare  and fragrance lines especially) citing its use alongside photorealistic imagery as a common method of premium positioning. This is also happening in the gourmet packaged foods category.
  • Function over form: Another way brands communicate everyday luxury is through the structural elements of packaging. According to MWV’s consumer satisfaction study, consumers are most focused on these functional aspects of packaging, such as maintaining freshness, portability, and ease of opening. Beyond meeting consumer expectations for function, these aspects can complete a brand promise of luxury. A sturdy handle, an easy-to-open bottle or the pressure of the dispenser can all contribute to an image of quality craftsmanship and luxury.
  • Sounds good:” Sensory aspects of packaging are important, too. In an article about using sound to convey luxury, Wall Street Journal reporter Ellen Byron suggested, “the small sounds consumer products make—whether a snap, click, rustle or pop—can be memorable and deeply satisfying, often suggesting luxury, freshness, effectiveness or security.” In the beverage category, Snapple has perfected the auditory seal of quality with its signature click top cap.
  • The magic touch: The sense of touch has long represented luxury—the softness of cashmere, the smoothness of Italian leather, the sturdiness of fine furniture. In the fragrance industry, MWV is focused on enhancing the consumer experience through the spray. Consumers have told us that the spray experience—the atomization, how the fragrance touches their skin, the sound—can elevate their perception of luxury and strengthen their emotional connection to a brand.