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March 2, 2011

Package Efficiency and Consumer Input: Contradiction?

Why bother gathering consumer input on package changes?  I recently came across a survey of packaging managers that queried them on the biggest issues they face.  The top responses were “Production and efficiency improvements” and “Cost cutting”.  Responses such as “Meeting changing consumer needs” or “Delighting the customer” weren’t even on the list.

That’s ok.  These are tough times for consumer products companies.  Rising commodity costs.  Private labels eating their lunch.  The consumer strapped for cash.  Who can blame these managers for looking for spare change in every seat cushion?

Does this mean that consumers have nothing to add to this conversation about cutting costs?  Absolutely not.  In fact, consumer input may be even more critical in this environment than it was in the bygone, free-wheeling, give-em-what-they-want era.  That’s because downgrading materials and reducing functionality is a risky business.  It can easily denigrate a brand, alter an experience and alienate loyal consumers.  For companies going down the efficiency path (all of them), I’d propose the following:

  • Explore ways to engage with consumers that can help rationalize changes.  What attributes are most important to them?  What elements of the experience are most critical to loyalty?  What features best deliver on the performance promise the brand and the product make?  There are lots of ways to do this, but the best ones rely on an attribute-oriented investigation.
  • Don’t expose consumers to models and renderings depicting changes and asking them which they prefer.  That kind of inquiry is fraught with bias and confusion.  They will always pick the one you don’t want to produce.  But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t do just fine with less.  See the point above.
  • If nothing else, do a “disaster check” on the new design.  Put prototypes in consumers’ hands.  Let them view it “on shelf” in a competitive context.  Let them use it for a few days.  Ask them how the new package stacks up both functionally and perceptually.  Listen for any erosion to the brand and the user experience.

So, don’t get discouraged when your packaging manager tells you that it’s all about cost cutting and not about the consumer.  Because it is.  And it is.  Think of this as an opportunity to hone your offering down to it’s cleanest, clearest promise.  To provide the consumer with exactly what they want–nothing more to distract them, and nothing less to disenfranchise them.  These are fascinating times that force us to get better at what we do.  It’s good for us, good for our firms and good for the consumer…though they won’t say so.

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