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All Other Things Being Equal, It's the Package That Makes the Sale

Design: A great package is one that reels in a buyer from 15 feet away. Even great images have a short life span as impact lessens.


NORTHBROOK, Ill. — Call him shallow if you will, but Howard Alport has always been a man concerned about appearances.

In a world of MTV, CNN and relentless paparazzi, a picture's worth a thousand words--and Alport's firm is one of a couple of hundred package design firms across the country proud to be supplying those images.

What a consumer might glance at on a shelf for 10 seconds often takes months of intensive research and design--all to get that shopper to choose one product over another.

"Marketers are increasingly worried about how they get their messages to consumers among the clutter of networks, cable, the Internet and supermarket shelves," said Alport, a principal at Lipson, Alport, Glass & Associates. "The one place where you can truly talk to consumers is when they are interested in buying, so packaging becomes all that more important."

The "design and identity consultants" run one of the largest package-design firms in the country, with offices in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook, New York and Cincinnati.

For 15 years, they have been producing artwork for such firms as Perrier, General Mills, Kraft Foods, Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola.

The key to success, Alport says, is to design packaging that catches the consumer's eye from 15 feet away and, once you've reeled them in, remains eye-pleasing at 6 feet. At 2 feet, it might have to look good while also having nutritional information to ensure a purchase.

To accomplish that requires the work of graphic designers, engineers, consultants--and regular people.

Jim Hansen, chairman of rival design firm Source Inc. in Chicago, says it's all about evoking an instinctive response from a consumer's core. Focus groups often determine if a package accomplishes its goal well before it goes into mass production.

"Eight out of 10 purchases are made at the store shelf," Hansen said. "The package, then, must appeal in a visceral or emotional way to a consumer. It has to look like it's going to work better or taste better than another product even though the two may be basically the same."

Alport says the use of color helps. Products designed for men often carry a darker, more intense color, while products targeting women are lighter and fresher, he said.

But with innumerable outlets for selling just one product across the world, the trick is to design a package that fits the target audience wherever it is sold, said Terry Schwartz, director of packaging and creative services at Kraft Foods in Northfield, Ill.

"That makes it important to understand what the consumer will be motivated by when they see the package," Schwartz said. "We can make judgments in our offices about the effectiveness of [a new package], but we would just be giving it our best guess."

About 90% of Kraft's packaging is done by outside firms, which have the level of expertise needed to get the job done, he said.

"It's important to separate your products from others and establish a consistent message--the cup and drop symbol from Maxwell House [coffee], for instance, has to be used consistently."

The life span of a design also is much shorter--typically two years instead of seven previously--as manufacturers try to catch a busy consumer's attention from among thousands of new products. Kraft, for instance, has hundreds of millions of individual packages on supermarket shelves across the United States alone.

"We can help our clients sell a product one time, the first time," Alport said. "After that, the product has to prove itself, has to meet those consumers' needs. But the combination of a good package and a good product is dynamite."

A lot of the changes that come with packaging a product often are subtle, such as retaining signature colors like Coca-Cola's red cans, but using Lipson designs to add a picture of its widely recognized, signature Coke bottle. The graphic also is being used on Coke's new curvy cans being tested in several markets.

The changes register in a purchaser's subconscious and attract that person to the new packaging.

"We really believe that a subtle change can be an influence in a consumer's decision to buy," Kraft's Schwartz said. "If they can't see the product on the shelf because there are lots of options . . . they aren't going to buy it."

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