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Package irony: Buy quickly, use slowly

JOHNS HOPKINS (US) — Persuasive packaging drives initial sales but can also entice consumers to use up a product more slowly once they bring it home.

The effect cuts long-term profit potential, a new study published online by the Journal of Marketing Research, shows.

“Consumers become so convinced of the power of a boldly packaged product that they judge they can use less of it,” lead researcher Meng Zhu says. “Conversely, they tend to use more of a product when the packaging lacks strong cues of effectiveness.”

Research had already established a link between strong marketing cues and consumer purchasing choices. The influence of such cues on post-purchase use of a product, however, hasn’t been investigated until now, Zhu says.


“It’s a topic worth examining, given the fact that personal consumption makes up about 70 percent of U.S. gross domestic product,” says Zhu, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University.

“The results made us wonder whether manufacturers are even aware that their success in promoting a product’s effectiveness might be self-defeating,” Zhu says.

Zhu and colleagues from Brigham Young University and the University of Pittsburgh conducted six experiments with university students as the subjects. The aim was to determine how various packaging cues influenced perceptions of effectiveness and the likely use of three made-up products: a teeth-whitening rinse, an insect repellent, 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 repellent packaged with a picture of a dead bug was judged more effective than one with a live bug on the box; the participants predicted 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 researchers say. Participants were asked to consider two fictitious 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.

“The ironic effects” of packaging cues can quickly move products off store shelves but cause them to sit longer on household shelves, the researchers conclude.

In their paper,  Zhu and her collaborators offer marketers some possible solutions, such as employing packaging cues that stimulate purchase without strongly implying effectiveness.

They also suggest 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 explains. 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 says. “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.”

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