Although the surface of the packaging bears no relation to the actual product, they found that it can affect a food’s perceived naturalness. They also identified that consumers also expect a product in matte packaging to be tastier and are more likely to buy it.
Three experiments showed that matte, as opposed to glossy, packaging surfaces can induce perceptions of naturalness at the point of sale. This was across a diverse range of products, ketchup, soda, and protein bars. Interestingly, they also found that the surface only successfully signals naturalness for food that is not perceived as natural to begin with. Finally, they demonstrated that the perception of a product as natural, in turn, improves taste expectations and purchase intentions.
Results imply that marketers can use matte packaging to subtly increase perceived naturalness of food that consumers expect to be rather artificial.
Packaging has many dimensions that can influence the perception of its content. For instance, packaging shape has been shown to influence perceived product quantity and calorie content, and packaging size has been shown to serve as a quality cue. To date, the academic literature has focused mostly on visual elements such as pictures and colours.
Packaging surface, in contrast, has received comparably scant attention in the packaging literature. Yet, like other packaging elements, packaging surface could also signal something about the content. but we still know little about what signals the surface may send.
Referring to research outside the field of packaging, suggests that the packaging surface may influence perceptions of product naturalness. However, based on earlier research, the direction of this influence is unclear. On the one hand, Meert et al. (2014) drew on evolutionary psychology to suggest that glossy surfaces are associated with wetness (Coss 1990) and thus link glossiness with the biological need for fresh water. Given that water is a natural resource, it is possible that glossy surfaces elicit thoughts about nature, which then spill over to whatever hides beneath that surface.
On the other hand, insights from physics suggest that matte surfaces might align with naturalness because they are typical for organic materials (Nayar and Oren 1995). Whether or not a surface is perceived as natural depends on how it reflects light.
To establish the effect of surface on perceived food naturalness, researchers conducted three studies. In study 1, they tested for the main effect of packaging surface in the context of ketchup, a product low in perceived naturalness.
In the subsequent studies, they tested for moderation and manipulated the presence of other signals of naturalness. For example, they manipulated the naturalness of the product category, soda versus tea. And in another comparison, they manipulated whether or not the product claim positioned a protein bar as natural. Across the studies, they used different modes of product presentation. Some were conducted in a laboratory setting and resembled point of sale situations, where glossy and matte packages are displayed side by side and subtle cues can become more salient. In contrast, another of the studies mirrored common online shopping situations where consumers can zoom in on products one at a time. Across all studies, the researchers explored potential downstream consequences in the form of expected product tastiness and purchase intention.
In study 1, participants had to either compare a matte-packaged ketchup to its glossy equivalent or vice versa. In the store, consumers can both look at and touch products. To ensure that the results aligned with different modes of product inspection, the researchers also varied the way in which consumers inspected the products.
In-store observations showed that ketchup is commonly available in both matte and glossy packaging and consumers would thus be acquainted with both surfaces.
The results suggested that matte packaging acts as a naturalness cue. The ketchup in matte packaging was perceived as more natural when compared to the same product in glossy packaging. Moreover, the increase in perceived product naturalness resulted in an increase in expected tastiness. Notably, the researchers found this in the context of a rather artificial category of food: Ketchup.
The next study investigated whether the effect of matte packaging on perceived food naturalness extends to food that is not perceived as artificial. Researchers used drinks that differ in terms of perceived inherent product naturalness but are otherwise similar. Raspberry soda and raspberry iced tea fulfilled these criteria.
To manipulate the packaging surface, researchers coated bottles featuring the logos with white matte and glossy varnish. Depending on the randomly assigned condition, participants were instructed to evaluate either the matte or the glossy bottle.
The iced tea was perceived to be more natural than the soda. Importantly, this main effect was qualified by an interaction with packaging surface. The artificial soda was perceived as more natural in the matte than the glossy packaging. In contrast, packaging surface made no difference to the perception of naturalness for tea.
Matte packaging enhanced perceptions of naturalness and, in turn, affected expected tastiness and purchase intentions. Importantly, matte packaging only increased perceived product naturalness when the product was not perceived as natural already. The researchers did not observe an effect of packaging surface for a product that is already deemed to be somewhat natural (iced tea).
The final study aimed to provide a conceptual replication of the moderating effect of strong naturalness cues. The researchers kept the product constant and varied the claim on the product. To generalise results, they chose a product category that can benefit from both increased naturalness (healthier nutrition) and increased artificiality (more effective energy provision): Protein bars. In addition, we extended the inquiry to online shopping where consumers can zoom in on one product at a time, participants either saw a picture of the matte or glossy product on a screen.
The protein bar featuring the naturalness claim was perceived to contain more natural ingredients. Moreover, the protein bar in the matte packaging was perceived to be more natural. Notably, this effect of packaging surface only emerged in the control group. In the absence of a naturalness claim, the matte packaging surface boosted the perceived extent of natural ingredients to above 50%. In contrast, when a naturalness claim was present, surface had no effect on perceived naturalness.
As with the physically present ketchup and soda, researchers found that matte packaging can enhance perceptions of naturalness for a protein bar depicted online. In the absence of a naturalness claim, the matte packaged bar was believed to contain more natural ingredients than the glossy packaged bar, which translated into better expected taste and higher intentions to purchase. However, once a naturalness claim was added, these effects disappeared, and packaging surface made no difference to consumer perceptions.
All food packaging has a surface that can easily be altered without changing anything else about the product. The researchers simply coated packages with glossy and matte varnishes. This coating sufficed to affect perceived naturalness of certain food products such that food in matte packaging was expected to be more natural than in glossy packaging. These results are in line with insights from the natural sciences that suggest that matte surfaces are characteristic of organic and thus natural substances.
Importantly, consumers only appear to infer food naturalness from packaging surface when no stronger cues of naturalness are present.
Consistent with earlier research, this effect of matte packaging emerged regardless of whether customers merely visually examined or actually touched the package. This means that our results can generalise to the relevant and growing field of online grocery shopping.
Packaging-induced perceived naturalness improves the expected tastiness of the product and increases purchase likelihood. This fits with prior research that finds that organic food is perceived to taste better than “regular” food.
This research focused on food products. But it can be assumed that the effect would generalise to other fast moving consumer goods that are perceived as rather artificial, such as many personal-care products.