Disrupting the shelf – from the bottom up - Part 1 of 2 

Give your consumers a reason to use bottom-up processing—or go off autopilot—when viewing your products on-shelf by creating disruptive packaging design.

By Dr. R. Andrew Hurley
Contributing Editor, Packaging World

I was recently in Jamaica with my small family, and we’d moved beyond the familiar tourist areas and into the more rural countryside of the tropical paradise. As is typical when traveling with small children, their base needs have an oversized (and often disruptive) influence on any perfectly planned agenda.

Par for the course, I suddenly found myself in very unfamiliar territory attempting to locate and buy milk for my three-year-old son. We got lucky with a small market on a beautiful hillside vista, but as soon as I walked inside, I was in a world wholly unfamiliar to my U.S.-based consumer navigation skills. I was hyper-aware of everything, using nearly all of my senses to identify where I was and what was around me. I was paying attention to the details of the packs and the signage, absorbing everything at once. My attention was correlated with my final purchase. And then it hit me: I was suddenly the subject of my own curriculum—I was experiencing bottom-up processing. This is the state of mind you want your customers in when engaging with your packaging.

A week later, I’m back in the States doing the same thing. Except, I know where milk is in my local store. And to backtrack a bit further, my commute to the store was equally uneventful. I left my house and found myself in a parking lot—your typical top-down processing event. This is how our brain likes to work: minimal effort, autopilot, conservation of energy. It’s psychology 101. In a common “visual sensory processing” lecture, students learn about the two sensory processing states: top down and bottom up.

Top-down processing is based on expectations, desires, and knowledge. Think about buying milk at your local store. You know where it should be, what it should look like, etc., and your brain “fills in the gaps” on things you don’t actually look at. Consider that you dnot need all the ltetres of wrdos to be in the croerct odrer to raed a snetncee. Top-down processing helps here, but if English was a second language to you, this would be difficult. Your knowledge of English and your expectations of sentence structure fill in the gaps.

Bottom-up processing is when your brain is actively engaging your senses to process the world around you. It is triggered when something disrupts the top-down automation of your typical life. Something stands out or presents an argument that has multiple positive answers; it overrides your brain’s natural autopilot. Bottom-up processing is when we stop and take a look—either in a foreign store or if an accident occurs during your daily commute—you become hyper-aware of your surroundings. This is where we want our customers to be. In a sea of products (the average grocery store has 39,500 products, and the average supercenter has 120,000), we actually see less than 3% of what’s offered.

So, unseen is unsold, but to be seen requires disruption. As distribution and fulfillment are commoditized through outlets like Amazon, Jet, etsy, and whatever tomorrow’s thing is, presenting a design that encourages bottom-up processing is not just advantageous, it’s a necessity. That’s why “disruption” has been a topic of the past 15 packaging conferences I’ve attended.

About now you might be asking yourself, “Self, what can I do to create a disruptive design?” Essentially, you must be willing to intelligently break the rules. This can be done in subtle ways, or with outrageous abandon, but it can’t be noncommittal. So, let me tease you with a few items that you can use to rethink how you can punch top-down processing in the face and leverage bottom-up processing within your designs.

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