In the beginning were the words – how consumers read packaging: Four principles


Martin Lee, co-founder and managing director, Acacia Avenue says brands must remember that reading is also a behaviour governed by cognitive biases and mental short cuts (heuristics). Consumers subconsciously judge brand copy according to four principles and this reading influences their purchase decisions.

One early morning about two years ago, I was sitting at the dining room table with my then eight-year old stepson Arthur, both of us surrounded by the usual forest of cereal packets, when he asked me a question about one of them.

“Why is there so much writing on a box of Shreddies?”

I can’t remember what stumbling reply I gave at the time, but it was a great question. Why indeed? The insight it gave me was that people, from being young children, are making sense of brand output, and that by the time they are adults, they are highly experienced interpreters of brand output, including copy, design, colour, claims and miscellaneous chatter (or tone of voice as marketers might prefer to call it). And of course, most of this interpretation starts with reading.

There are four intuitive principles that people bring to this reading, which I’ll headline here and expand on more below.

  1. The composition must look good
  2. Claims must be specific
  3. It must be concise
  4. If it’s entertaining, make sure you know what reward you want readers to get

We’ve got to the point in our collective understanding of behavioural science to know that consumer decision making is governed by all manner of cognitive biases and mental short cuts (heuristics). But it’s way too easy to overlook the reality that reading is also a behaviour. And what’s more, in the overwhelming number of purchase decisions we make, some amount of reading precedes the decision.

Consumers could spend all day reading the words on packaging from brands and get nowhere near the end. So they don’t. They’ve learnt to value efficiency more. In the split second of seeing copy, they instinctively calculate the likely benefit of paying full attention to that copy set against the time and effort involved. We call it the effort equation, and it looks like this.

Time + effort < reward

If the time and effort is low, the reward can be low too, because at least it wasn’t demanding. If the effort is high, the anticipated return would have to be correspondingly high too. It’s why no one reads Ts and Cs; it takes ages and you learn nothing useful.

With the effort equation as the guiding principle, in terms of fulfilling the craving for efficiency, we consistently see in our packaging research the following supporting principles in play. Consumers subconsciously judge pack copy according to these principles:

  1. It must look good. Pleasing visual design enhances the likelihood of a reward. It communicates the idea that the brand cares about itself and has bothered to put its best face forward. In addition, consumers are surprisingly good at intuitively sensing when a brand in a competitive market has updated its packaging – it just somehow looks sharper, crisper, more of the moment in a way that is hard to put into words. All markets are like this – we recently saw a compelling example in the nicotine replacement market, where NiQuitin is the most recent brand to have updated its look, and all customers in our sample correctly identified that fact.
  2. Claims must be specific. If they are, then they are credible. The heuristic at work here is that when a brand can say something definitive, they do. If it’s vague, then it’s not trustworthy. Consumers have decades of experience of smoking out words like ‘can’, ‘could’, ‘up to’ and other qualifiers.
  1. It must be concise. If it is, then I know they aren’t wasting my time with unnecessary waffle. Brevity is respectful, and gives your copy much more chance of passing the effort equation. The headline to this article makes a Biblical allusion, and the shortest verse in the Bible is ‘Jesus wept.’ That’s your action standard.
  1. It can be entertaining, as long as you know what reward you want readers to have. Here’s the tricky one. The other principles mostly cover the area of being informative and /or useful. But communications from brands can succeed the effort equation by being uplifting or fun. We’re entering into those shark infested waters where brands try to demonstrate their distinctiveness by how they come across in language. The question to bear in mind is ‘Am I clear what reward a customer is going to get from this?’ It matters more when you’re not giving them something useful. For years, Malmaison hotels put onto the side of their shampoo – ‘the best shampoo you’ll ever steal.’ Which is funny the first time you read it, amusing the second time, but tired by the fifth or sixth time. And going back to where we started, i.e. the breakfast table, another interesting case study is from Dorset Cereals, who, like many niche brands, use tone of voice to create a distinct personality. Here are two bits of writing from the same pack:

“A simple blend of crunchy roasted hazelnuts, brazils and moreish flakes with juicy raisins and dates.” This is enthusiastic tone, it’s informative but with a degree of persuasion, by deploying good adjectives that customers will always give you permission to do. This isn’t wasting their time to read.

But look at this:

“Life’s not a dress rehearsal. So, go on, write a silly story; invent a new dance; buy a banjo; go skinny dipping. Because when you savour the present, life suddenly becomes far more delicious.”

Hmm. In summary, it’s easy to see why Arthur, and perhaps many thousands of people like him, wonder about the amount of writing that appears on cereal boxes. Making sure that you know what reward you want to give people from reading your packs is central to scoring hits rather than misses.

This article first appeared in

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