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Packaging Matters

The holiday season. Spending time with loved ones. Singing carols, having family dinners and exchanging gifts whilst sitting underneath the Christmas tree. Bliss.

But before it was all festivities and fun, it was a lot of stress. Purchasing gifts, making sure they are nice, but most importantly: they have to look nice. Both in their own packaging, and then later on as wrapped by you. Packaging matters. But how much does it? And how much should it matter?

There is a strong halo-effect to products, almost as much as there is to people. The halo-effect is pretty much judging books by their covers: it’s why we like pretty people better, at least initially. We rate higher and attribute more positive characteristics to them, just because their looks are already that good.

The reverse works as well. Instead of good-looking (I’m sticking with the superficial here), let’s make someone objectively less desirable. Society seems to hate fat people. So let’s focus on that. Fat people are often assumed to be lazy and undisciplined. Because of this they are judged as less capable at their jobs. Now you tell me how being a good accountant and having a high BMI is related…. You might struggle with that one. And you should.

If we do this with people, is it that strange that we do this to products too? Nope. The extension of one positive trait (packaging) to increase the perceived value on other non-related traits (quality, functionality, luxury, desirability, expensiveness etc.), is called the halo-effect. So when something is wrapped badly, or just has really plain packaging, we are just not that bothered about the product. We judge it as being of lesser quality, value, desirability etc. And that is not good for two reasons.

The first reason is that the halo-effect is a complete bias. With the current overload of choices there are, it is important for sellers to make sure their product stands out. However, when it comes to selling someone toilet cleaning supplies, your options might be limited as to what you can do to the product itself. Its packaging however, is anyone’s game. But what happens is that the halo-effect kicks in. Boring looking products lose out. They get no attention, and are judged as lesser. And that might be to our own disadvantage. Because guess what: (fancier) packaging costs money.

Assuming that most products (especially in a grocery store), are competitive on price, and have very similar production costs, if more money is invested into the packaging, yet the price remains unchanged, less is invested in the actual product itself. So it is even possible that due to the halo-effect we choose equally expensive but less effective products, simply because the packaging looks better. That seems a bit dumb right? It gets worse: imagine buying a product that is more expensive, but still not more effective? It is possible if you get too distracted by the packaging….

Luxury brands make use of this quite a lot. Their packaging is streamlined, clean, expensive-looking. Because people of course don’t just buy the product (that is sometimes better quality-wise, but honestly, it’s a gamble these days….), you buy a lifestyle, an image. As such, a lot of people keep the (shopping-)bags and boxes the expensive product has come in, just for the sake of it. The packaging means that much to them.

So yeah, packaging matters. It attracts us, it changes how we feel about a product, before actually experiencing the product. Is this the worst thing ever? Not necessarily. There are worse biases leading to worse results. This brings me to the second reason of why the halo-effect when it comes to packaging is bad: it’s really not great for the environment.

When you buy a product do you stand still by the packaging it comes in? If you buy scissors, they come in both cardboard (back) and plastic (front) packaging. Ever ordered something online? I have received boxes that were over ten times as big as the product they were shipping. Looking at luxury products it gets worse. Those brands pride themselves on their packaging too, so it’s even more overkill. These products tend to come in massive boxes that are padded, as to not “disturb” the product. Then there is a small bag for that (often made of fabric), and then an even bigger bag to carry it all in (often made of strong paper-based materials). When you come home the bags go into the trash immediately, unless you have direct use for some of these bags. When the product has run out, the padded box follows its sisters into the land of never-to-seen-again. It’s waste. It’s wasteful. Stop. Or at least stop to consider this.

Now my intention was not to make you feel bad about how you made your Christmas purchases and how you wrapped them all nice. I also did not want to make you feel bad about liking things that look pretty. I’m the same. If there is glitter involved, I’ll buy seven of whatever you are trying to sell me. I too, am part of Packaging-Addict Anonymous (PAA).

What is important to keep in mind here, is that the halo-effect is applicable throughout the year. It’s not just happening at Christmas. It happens each time we go shopping for anything. Even when we do groceries. Even when we buy toilet paper (Andrex has a puppy on their packaging, come on!), or toilet cleaner (bright pink packaging baby!). Just keep in mind: any household liquid in boring packaging will clean your house just as well as the one in fancy packaging (it might even do a better job at it…). And that’s really all that matters after all. So judge the book for what it is, not for its cover.

Most importantly, after you’ve used a product to its full extent, the packaging goes into the bin. And we throw out a lot. Let’s do our best this year to reduce our levels of waste, starting with the amount of packaging we consume. I think we are long overdue for giving our planet a break when it comes to absolute overconsumption of useless packaging. Now that’s a wrap.


Behavioural Science

Personal Finance



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