Food Imagery or Actual Food Visibility on Packaging?

Food Imagery or Actual Food Visibility on Packaging?

Packaging design must convince the shopper, often within a second or less, that a product is the best value for money, the tastiest AND the most effective...

Given that a typical supermarket customer purchases an average of 240 different products over the course of the year, from a whopping range of 20,000+ items, they have to be able to find what they want, quickly and easily. Here's the power of packaging...

Product packaging is a ubiquitous part of Western lifestyles. And, if you go grocery shopping (which, according to Nielsen, the average household does around twice a week), exposure to packaging is unavoidable.

For example, larger supermarkets in the UK offer somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 different products, with this number increasing up to as many as 60,000 if you visit the market leader, Tesco.

Given that a typical supermarket customer purchases an average of 240 different products over the course of the year (Catalina, 2014), the hardest task for the shopper is to find the products that they want to purchase from amongst a much larger set of alternatives. In other words, shoppers have to be able to find what they want, which can be as little as 0.4% of the range of items presented to them.

As a result, the task for marketers and brand managers is to get their products noticed quickly by shoppers and tempt them enough to get their products actively considered. Both objectives are becoming ever more challenging. Packaging is often the final ‘touchpoint’ a brand has with a prospective consumer before they decide whether to purchase or not.

Packaging design therefore must convince the shopper, often within a second or less, that a product is the best value for money, the tastiest, the most effective, the best quality, and so on, using primarily visual information and cues.

The Sight of Food

Given that our survival depends upon the regular consumption of food, it should perhaps come as little surprise to find that our cognitive systems are biased towards food-related visual cues. Images of food tend to elicit robust involuntary attention.

Therefore, you might reasonably expect the effects of seeing (attractive or tasty) foods to be a godsend for the packaging designer. Surely, letting the shopper see enticing product images on (or the product itself through) the packaging should have a net positive effect on product perception and sales performance? And, assuming that this is the case, why would any designer or brand manager choose not to do so, given such a potential advantage?

The Impact of Food Imagery on Product Packaging

Food Imagery is defined as a printed visual representation of the product contained in the packaging (likely shown cooked or prepared as intended for consumption).

Estimates suggest that the vast majority (as many as 80–90%) of consumers look at product imagery on-pack while browsing the supermarket shelves to help them find what they want. Imagery can capture attention, provide information about the product and brand, and increase overall product liking.

In addition to increased attention paid to the product, the simple use of product imagery has also been found to encourage purchase intentions.

This seems to match the conventional wisdom of designers, where effective packaging design is that which is both innovative and appealing, such as a photograph of ice cream that emphasises its texture and is so vivid shoppers almost want to lick the carton.

Furthermore, the use of product imagery has also been found to be an effective tool with which to manipulate sensory expectations and evaluations. By using one of only two different images (in this case, either a photograph or a drawn illustration of passion fruit, for a passion fruit juice drink; see Deliza et al.,2003), it is possible to elicit significantly different expected sensory profiles for exactly the same product, based on sensory expectations including how sweet, pure, refreshing, fresh, and natural the product is expected to be.

Similar effects have been identified when using imagery of the product itself, as opposed to its core ingredient.

Another example involved crisp packaging with either an image of a crisp (‘product imagery’) or raw potato on (‘food imagery’).

The packaging with the image of the actual product resulted in expectations that the crisps were saltier and crispier (as compared to the package with the image of a potato) and were rated as more likely to be purchased. Similar influences have been identified with respect to factors such as colour and shape.

The Impact of Transparent Packaging

As we have established, seeing product imagery can have a net positive effect on shopper evaluations and purchase intentions. However, printing an image is not the only way in which to display the product on-pack: what about the growing trend of wanting to see products through transparent packaging?

Researchers identified that participants who watched a film ate up to 88% more of a snack item in transparent packaging than in opaque packaging. This was found to be mediated by product attractiveness.

Roughly 60% more of attractive foods were eaten if packaged in a transparent package as opposed to opaque packaging. Yet roughly 30% less for unattractive foods in the same circumstances.

Thus, the evidence suggests that transparent packaging seems capable of influencing consumer behaviour both in-store and at home.

The very act of seeing food leads to a number of physiological and psychological responses, without any conscious control. These responses include food cravings, the triggering of feelings of hunger, and visualising consuming the product.

Several factors moderate the magnitude of these responses: If the food is seen to be desirable (i.e., attractive), or available (i.e., could readily be eaten), then these responses will be greater. However, if the consumer is currently sated (i.e., not hungry due to having eaten recently), then these responses will likely be minimised.

In summary, transparent packaging elements have the upper hand over imagery in two cases: Firstly, the product is more available (since the food itself is seen by the consumer), positively moderating the effect of seeing food if it is ‘attractive’; and secondly, the product can be more accurately and honestly appraised, increasing the positivity of people’s product evaluations.

Implications & Opportunities for Product Packaging

When considering the future opportunities for using imagery and transparency to design new product experiences, one must focus on innovation in both design and research. As a final and closing thought, consider that packaging design can be most influential at two important stages: First, in-store, and second, at home or on the go (the point of consumption). The capacity for packaging designs to influence both purchase and consumption seems evident.

No matter how good your product is, do your research,  to ensure that you don't let poor packaging keep it from selling.

Adcock Solutions have been improving the marketing communications of leading brands and retailers for more than 25 years. We explain how your customers think and make decisions so that you can engage with them more effectively.

Come to us for Behavioural Science insights and expertise that improve your brand's visibility, appeal, engagement, and sales.

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About Phillip Adcock

My name is Phillip Adcock: I have more than 30 years of human behavioural research and analysis, and have developed a unique ability to identify what it is that makes people psychologically and physiologically 'tick'.

Would you like to know more about how shoppers and consumers think? Download my FREE guide now. Alternatively, check out, where there are more FREE downloads available there. Or why not simply email me with what's on your mind?

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Phillip Adcock

Phillip Adcock CMRS
Psychology & Behaviour
Change Consultant

Phillips Signature

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