December 5, 2011

Packaging can sell products but also cause consumers to use less

It’s a truism of business: Packaging sells the product. But a new study from a team led by a Johns Hopkins University business professor has found that the same persuasive packaging that can lead consumers to buy a particular product can also cause them to use less of it once they take it home, thus reducing its long-term sales.

In the paper for the Journal of Marketing Research, Johns Hopkins Carey Business School assistant professor Meng Zhu and her co-authors note that previous academic studies have established a link between strong marketing cues and consumer choice; however, the influence of such cues on post-purchase use has gone uninvestigated, until now.

“It’s a topic worth examining, given the fact that personal consumption makes up about 70 percent of U.S. gross domestic product,” lead author Zhu said in an interview.

“The results made us wonder whether manufacturers are even aware that their success in promoting a product’s effectiveness might be self-defeating. That is, consumers become so convinced of the power of a boldly packaged product that they judge they can use less of it. Conversely, they tend to use more of a product when the packaging lacks strong cues of effectiveness,” said Zhu, whose colleagues in the research were Darron M. Billeter, of Brigham Young University, and J. Jeffrey Inman, of the University of Pittsburgh.

The paper, “The ‘Double-Edged Sword’ of Signaling Effectiveness: When Salient Cues Curb Post-Purchase Consumption,” was published online in October and is scheduled for the February 2012 print edition of the JMR.

For the study, six experiments were conducted with students from three U.S. universities as the participants. The aim was to determine how various packaging cues influenced perceptions of effectiveness and the likely use of three fictitious products: a teeth-whitening rinse, an insect repellant and a toilet-bowl cleaner.

In an experiment with the teeth whitener, participants were shown two packages—one that depicted a smiling face with a glittering smile, and the other with no picture. While a significantly high number of the respondents said they perceived the product with the smiling face as more effective, they indicated that they would use it at a rate 42 percent below that of the product with no picture. Similarly, a bug repellant packaged with a picture of a dead bug was judged more effective than one with a live bug on the box, yet the participants predicted that they would use less of the dead-bug product, compared with the live-bug product they had deemed less powerful.

The same process emerges when brand names are involved, the paper asserts. Participants were asked to consider two toilet-bowl cleaners, BalanceClean and BalanceGreen. The product with “clean” in its name was viewed as more effective, but its predicted use was 20 percent below that of the cleaner carrying the “green” brand.

Altogether, the paper concludes, these results show “the ironic effects” of packaging cues that can quickly move products off store shelves but cause them to sit longer on household shelves. Zhu and her team offer possible solutions, such as employing packaging cues that stimulate purchase without strongly implying effectiveness, or using effectiveness cues in advertisements and outer packaging but removing them from the bottle or tube that contains the product.

Just how susceptible consumers are to marketing cues depends on their level of “cognition,” Zhu said. Shoppers with low cognition generally don’t seek out detailed information about a product and are more easily swayed by cues of effectiveness. In contrast, high-cognition consumers are naturally more inquisitive and less likely to be influenced by such signals.

“People tend to be lazy,” Zhu said. “When we’re shopping, we don’t generally study the ingredients on the package. We look for the salient cues, such as brand names and strong images. Those things are easy to process, and whether they’re presented in a bold fashion or not makes a huge difference in how we judge products.”

Click for a PDF of the JHM article.