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New research provides insights into which elements of packaging have the biggest impact on the consumer’s perception of product healthiness, and how the demographics of the consumer will impact these perceptions.
Packaging plays a key role in impulse purchases and a key issue for companies developing functional foods is to be able to use the short purchasing decision situation to show the customer the benefits of the product, including its health benefits. Assessing the impact on health is a particularly difficult task for the consumer.
Previous research tells us consumers tend to use extrinsic characteristics as an indicator of product quality as well as perceived healthiness and they have to rely on these factors in a shopping environment.
The aim of the current research, from the Hungarian University of Agriculture and Life Sciences, therefore was to examine which extrinsic features – shape, colour, health claims, ingredient claims, and domestic origin – result in a product that most plausibly shows the consumer that it has a beneficial impact on health.
The team also aimed to assess the differences between consumer groups in terms of their perception of health impacts.
The data collection methodology was an online consumer survey, which yielded 633 respondents via the university’s social media interface, between November and December 2020.
Using images of a ready-to-drink smoothie product, respondents were shown two variations of the packaging, from which they could choose one that they felt looked most healthy. A total of 16 combinations were shown.
The team found that the claim “26 g protein per portion” increased the degree of credibility by 1.3 times, and the claim “rich in vitamin C” by 1.6 times, and the claim “with natural ingredients” doubled it compared to not displaying such a claim.Not all examined claims showed a significant effect – the use of ingredient claims makes the health effect more credible than health claims. Whereas the applied nutritional claim (“Contains no added sugar”) contributed to a more authentic demonstrations of the health benefits of the product, the effect of the examined health claim was not significant. When displaying this nutritional claim on the packaging, consumers were 1.7 times more likely to consider it beneficial to health.
Examining shape, the team concluded that using a column shape is the most advantageous, while there is no significant difference between the assessment of the health effect of the round and humanoid shape.
Their results indicate that if the manufacturer uses the column shape instead of the humanoid shape (hourglass type figure), consumers are 1.4 times more likely to assess the product as beneficial to their health.
Their results also suggests that if the manufacturer uses the colour white-blue instead of white-red as the emphasised colour of the packaging, it is four times as likely that the consumer will consider the product to be beneficial to their health.
They also found the consumer is nearly twice as likely to assess a white-green-packaged functional smoothie to be beneficial to health compared to a white-red one.
Results indicated a statement of domestic origin makes the health benefits of a product more credible. A functional smoothie with an indication of domestic origin on the packaging was nearly twice as likely to be perceived by the consumer as beneficial to health than a product without such an indication.
Based on the results, the product combination considered to be the healthiest was the one that was organic, white-blue in colour, included the statement “with natural ingredients”, an indication of domestic origin, a nutritional claim, and was square shaped.
The gender of the respondent influenced the assessment for two of the six attributes. Women assessed the health impact even more credible than men if column packaging was used instead of humanoid, and women also ascribed greater importance to the statements “Rich in vitamin C” and “With natural ingredients”.
Respondents under the age of 36 were more likely to believe the health benefits of a smoothie containing either a nutritional claim or a health claim, than were the older age group.
Education played an important role in the case of two ingredient claims and packaging shape. Respondents with a higher education judged the claims “With natural ingredients” and “26 g protein per portion” more useful when assessing the impact on health, compared to those with a lower education.
On the other hand, respondents with a higher education were less likely to believe that a product with a round shape packaging was beneficial to health compared to humanoid shaped packaging.
Consumers with a higher general health interest were less likely to believe that an organic product was beneficial to health. Furthermore, those with a higher food involvement level were more likely to consider an organic functional smoothie beneficial to their health, compared to the less involved.
Those with a higher general health interest also assessed the shape differently: they considered a humanoid shape less credible than a product with a round shape.
The authors conclude: “Consumers are most likely to believe that product is beneficial to their health if it is primarily white and blue, organic and contains an ingredient claim. These are followed to a lesser extent by the indication of domestic origin and the nutritional claim, and least influenced by the form of the packaging.
“However, we found that in the perception of health effect even the shape that resembled the humanoid shape differed significantly from the columnar shape. In addition, we consider it an important part of our results to point out that while health claims do not significantly affect the credibility of the health effect, nutritional claims do. The smoothie with the simplest packaging was the least likely to be perceived by respondents as having health benefits. This means that consumers were least likely to believe that the packaging was beneficial to health if it was red-white, not organic, did not contain any ingredient claims or health claims, did not have a domestic origin label and was angular in shape.
“In the functional food market, a significant proportion of products are withdrawn by companies shortly after launch. The results of our research may help manufacturers to create and present packaging in a combination that consumers are more likely to believe has positive health benefits.
“Although our research results have shown which features contribute the most to making the consumer believe that a product has a beneficial effect on health, the question arises whether the combined use of so much information would be good corporate practice. It is possible that packaging with much less information more effectively presents the healthiness of the product to the consumer. Further research may aim to gauge how much information a manufacturer should use on the packaging to convey a sufficiently credible effect on health to the consumer.”
The authors note that a big advantage of online sampling is time- and cost-effectiveness but it also involves drawbacks, such as lower response rate or non-representative samples. They also note that the distribution of the respondents in this research was biased in several respects, such as the respondents’ education and gender.