Is packaging giving us
less for our money?

23rd January

‘Please sir, can I have some more?’ There was an interesting piece in The Guardian yesterday on the topic of brands reducing content, but keeping their prices the same. The basic explanation for this wasn’t corporate greed, more that raw food prices are rising and it is generally thought that UK consumers are more price conscious than volume conscious consumers. So rather than passing on raised costs via higher retail prices, brands are reducing volume. That doesn’t sound too evil in principle does it? On a societal level, one might even think it’s a good thing in regards to the issues of obesity and food waste. But here, let’s focus on the design implications…

According to the article, savvy brands follow Weber’s law which suggests that if the change is small enough, we won’t notice it. Research shows this to be around the 10% margin. I find this interesting; it’s the same with general rebranding of famous products where one does not want to loose recognition. One might massage a logo by a small amount so it looks better without actually foxing the shopper. But when it comes to pack volume, I am less convinced that the ‘small change’ passes us by. From personal experience, I certainly notice that the bags of Walkers in multipacks are not quite ‘the full ticket’ compared to their individually packaged siblings. Touch is a fairly subconscious but very persuasive sense: we tend to be pretty good at getting information from holding things. Online shopping  is a different kettle of fish of course – we can’t sense the change so easily.

The real issue here is trust. If a brand is disingenuous about portion reduction (say, returning to its original size and trumpeting ‘10% extra free’) then it will come a cropper. They might save a gram here and there but if it comes at the cost of trust, they have blown something priceless. The issue at the moment is that on the one hand, retailers are bamboozling us with competing price deals and on the other, there is a counter trend towards ‘big value packs’ (as above). There is too much information for us shoppers to keep a handle on who is really offering value and who is being a bit too sharp for their own good. I guess for brands it’s a case of ‘let your conscience be your guide’.

In the meantime, two observations. Firstly, downsizing is a trend beyond price; those ‘half loaves’ which ensure you eat the bread before it goes stale and tighter ‘fridge packs’ etc. which play to smaller ‘metro’ store shelves and smaller living spaces. A savvy brand might combine cost reduction with ergonomic benefit. Secondly, regardless of facts, perception is reality. In The Guardian’s article, consumers were convinced Wagon Wheels were getting smaller. They had not accounted for the fact their hands had got bigger since childhood – the Waggon Wheel has not actually shrunk. Similarly, Rory Sutherland has noted that a Nespresso pod might be cheaper than a Starbucks coffee, but gram for gram, it is ludicrously expensive compared to a jar of granulated.

Either way, I guess all brands need to avoid becoming the equivalent of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard: ‘I AM big – it’s the pictures that got small…’

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