Consumer response to packaging design: the role of packaging materials and visuals in sustainability perceptions and product judgments

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


Introduction This research investigates whether and how different packaging materials and visual designs influence consumers’ perceptions of the packaged product, and how these relate to overall product attitudes. Specific attention is paid to consumer sustainability perceptions, a topic that has garnered increasing managerial and policy-level attention, but that has been left relatively under-represented in marketing research. Previous research on consumer response to packaging has focused chiefly on packaging visuals and verbal elements (labelling) on the packaging (e.g., Celhay & Trinquecoste, 2015; Magnier & Schoormans, 2015), branding effects (e.g., Underwood, 2003; Underwood & Klein, 2002) and holistic design factors (e.g., Orth & Malkewitz, 2008). We aim to contribute to this literature by examining consumer response to packaging materials, which are crucial for the sustainability of a package. Building on theories of cue acquisition and integration (Olson, 1978; Rao & Monroe, 1989; Steenkamp, 1990), we examine the role of packaging design in (i) consumer cue acquisition and perception, (ii) consumer inferences of (expected) packaged product benefits and (iii) overall attitudes towards the packaged product. In this view, we consider the packaging as providing a series of cues which consumers can perceive and interpret to make inferences about the product’s expected benefits, as a basis to inform their overall attitudes towards these products. Empirical study We conducted an empirical study among 249 Dutch students. Stimuli consisted of 14 soup packages constructed from 7 material types (glass jar, bioplastic pot, liquid carton, dry carton and bag, plastic pouch, mixed material pouch consisting of plastic with carton wrapping, can) and two visual schemes (designed to be conventional-looking vs. sustainable-looking). We used an idiosyncratic method of attribute elicitation (based on triadic sorting) that does not impose predefined criteria, but that allows respondents to freely use their own criteria. Specifically, respondents were presented with seven triads of differently packaged soup products and gave short descriptions of their perceptions of these packaged products using their own words. Respondents then profiled each packaged product by indicating the extent to which each of their own descriptions applied to the product, following a “check all that apply” format. Lastly, respondents rated each product on a set of product benefits (i.e., sustainability, convenience, healthiness, naturalness, taste, inexpensive price and quality), obtained from literature, and overall attitude. Based on a content analysis we categorized 3224 elicited descriptions (cue perceptions) into 28 cue perception categories. Notably, we find a high convergence between respondents own descriptions and the benefit dimensions; each benefit was represented by a corresponding category obtained from elicitation. To provide support for this, multilevel regressions were out carried using the 28 elicitation categories as predictors for the benefits. These regressions indeed show high convergence (all p’s <0.0001) between the elicitation categories and benefits that were deemed similar. This supports the contention that consumers use packaging cues to infer about relevant benefits – including both sustainability of product and package. Other relevant spontaneous perceptions that were related to benefit dimensions included in particular transparency, packaging flexibility, modernity (vs. traditional), luxuriousness, product preservability and contents per package. These results are also displayed on a perceptual map based on clustering of dominant score patterns. Visual and material packaging designs significantly contributed to perceived benefits. Visuals most strongly affected perceptions of naturalness (F(1, 248) = 42.511 , p <0.0001, η(_p^2) = 0.146) and sustainability (F(1, 248) = 27.297, p <.0001, η(_p^2) = .099) - even though from an objective point of view the product is not affected. Materials affected most strongly (perceived) packaging sustainability (F(5, 1221) = 38.236, p <.0001, η(_p^2) = .134), but we also find medium-sized effects on overall sustainability, healthiness, naturalness, taste, price and quality. Differences in packaging materials have consequences for perceived environmental impacts, but are also associated with different benefit perceptions beyond sustainability, such as price (F(5, 1305) = 19.053 , p <.0001, η(_p^2) = .071) and can “spill over” towards intrinsic product benefits such as taste (F(5, 1163) = 28.386 , p <.001, η(_p^2) = .103) and healthiness (F(5, 1159) = 25.604 , p <.0001, η(_p^2) = .094). A separate regression showed that all benefit dimensions, in turn, were relevant to consumers’ overall attitude towards the packaged products (p’s <0.05). Discussion Sustainability can be signalled to consumers using both visual and structural aspects of packaging design. Although actual environmental impacts of the packaging likely are a consequence of the packaging’s structural elements, they also affect a wide range of other benefits (e.g., price, convenience), including perceptions of intrinsic product elements (taste, healthiness). Whether more sustainable packaging design is desirable from a managerial perspective will depend to a large extent on product positioning. This is especially relevant for those brands and products that may be harmed in light of more sustainable positioning, (Luchs, Brower, & Chitturi, 2012; Luchs, Walker Naylor, Irwin, & Raghunathan, 2010). We showed how consumers rely on their intuitions when they are confronted with products differing in packaging design to form inferences about product benefits used to assess the product, and that altering packaging sustainability can change how the packaged product is perceived as a whole.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2016
EventSABE / IAREP Conference 2016 - Wageningen, Netherlands
Duration: 8 Jul 201610 Jul 2016


ConferenceSABE / IAREP Conference 2016
Internet address


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