A rising tide lifts all ships; pay close attention to your product-category neighbors, and you can leverage their packaging decisions to your own benefit.

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

As an Associate Professor at Clemson University, I have the privilege of working with some of the world’s largest brands. Over the years, I’ve noticed words like “competition” and “conflict” arise frequently. Competition and conflict are interesting, as they anger and embroil the emotions of the weak, while the wisest brand and packaging senseis know that competition and conflict are essential to success.

Consumers are in touch with the way brands interact with one another, whether that interaction is positive or negative. For example, while media streaming is the cornerstone of Netflix’s business, it is essentially a side gig for e-commerce giant Amazon.com. Though these companies are competitors in the video streaming market, Netflix actually pays Amazon for its IT and cloud services. These two competitors found a way to work it out. However, quick-service restaurant Wendy’s is notorious for its Twitter banter with customers and other brands, including McDonald’s. Public, playful banter actually increases consumer engagement and creates better brand awareness for both companies involved.

I’ve been doing eye-tracking and shopper behavior experiments in my lab for a decade, studying human emotion and decision making. The most common questions I’m asked focus on my client’s competition. I’m tasked with reporting on how the competition of one brand affects another brand, or if a competitor makes a change, how it will impact my client’s sales. It’s the reason why I got into this area to begin with—to help brands make better decisions, hedge their bets in retail, and guide them on a path to disrupt the marketplace.

  An eye-tracking study of the Daisy Sour Cream package showed the pouch performed much higher than the competition.

An eye-tracking study of the Daisy Sour Cream package showed the pouch performed much higher than the competition.

My team recently ran an eye-tracking study and published a report on the Daisy Sour Cream packaging change and its clear impact on shopper behavior and perception. But, when you dig into the data, you’ll see the total time spent within the whole product category doesn’t change; the conflict of products and packages bid for their percentage of your attention. As shoppers, we only have so much time to allocate to each point on our list, so the resonating conflict between the competition on the shelf helps to guide and direct consumer attention.

We also just wrapped up a major study for a household beverage brand. The interesting part of this study was that we were trying to unveil the conflict between the competition. How did one package geometry compete against another? And how did one substrate perform compared to another? What we found was shocking for my client: Their competition has more of an impact on their success than what they’re able to control.

In the world of attention and human behavior, it’s context that controls our actions. Place some gondola shelving on a busy street corner, and you’ll absolutely see behavior that’s different when compared to your local market. But, the same is true when you are considering your next purchase: The competitive array within any category determines the limits of our decision, it frames our reality, and we make a choice from within it. If your competitor has upgraded to a custom bottle or swapped to a new substrate, don’t fret. Take a moment to learn how this impacts relative sales (% change) for the brand. At the same time, consider testing how this new disruption changes the way your consumer now views the competitive category. Put the two data streams together, and you’ll have the start of a regression analysis to understand the relationship between design and sales. Going back to the Daisy study, the disruption to the category increased sales for the brand, thus decreased sales across the rest of the entire category. Understanding the interaction your brand has between your competition is essential when considering a new substrate or package geometry.

Embrace that you are also a data point on your competition’s analysis. They are using you to understand and grow their own business. As packaging decision-makers, I feel we are sometimes siloed from the commercial impacts of our work, but if you want to serve in your best capacity, you need to understand how your packaging, artwork, and market placement impact sales. You, the packaging person, are literally the #1 influencer of the fast-moving products in retail grocery.

So, in conclusion, leverage your competition to improve yourself. If your competition does it better, find a new way to differentiate. When someone in your category makes a change, react like water and surf the wave of change in your favor. When your competitor makes a million-dollar investment in their packaging, the tides of the entire category will rise. When executives get hot and heavy and attack competition, regardless of the reason, history is not on their side. It’s ultimately you, the packaging stakeholder, who can leverage conflict to your benefit, capitalize on your competition’s changes, and use the data to reinvent your packaging and differentiate your brand.

Dr. R. Andrew Hurley is founder of Package InSight and The Packaging School.

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