Store environments are overwhelmingly stimulating for the human brain. In order to manage the thousands of products available for purchase, the brain employs what we call the Navigational Hierarchy—a filtering sequence to narrow the search for the sought-after product. Our brain unconsciously cycles through the elements that distinguish products from each other, beginning broadly with package shape and then homing in on color, followed by key visuals, and finally, words.  

Our next four blog posts will walk through the importance of these design elements and share insights and considerations to make your packaging a success. 

Shape

Shape (or form) refers to the package structure itself or the structure projected by the package. It is typically used to distinguish categories and/or help specific brands stand out as it is the easiest element for our brains to identify. Brands must consider the category context of their form choice when innovating or renovating because fitting in while standing out is one of the main challenges. Another factor is a package’s usability and whether making a change presents a benefit. As shape is the only part of the navigational hierarchy that directly plays a part in product experience, if it is not useful or creates a poor product experience, it risks being deselected next time.  

Category Norms

Many categories have a signature shape for which shoppers intrinsically know to look. Even as more brands have joined the deodorant aisle, the classic stick shape remains dominant. Honey is sold in many types of vessels but when prompted to conjure an image in one’s mind, the default is often the iconic plastic bear-shaped bottle.  

Sometimes going against norms can be an effective way to break through. The milk category traditionally has two forms—the gallon jug and the half gallon carton. When Fairlife entered the milk category, they offered a brand-new, unique bottle shape that allowed it to stand out and be perceived as different than the other milk options. While their product is similar to other dairy milks, it offers unique benefits; using structure to establish different expectations for the offering when it launched was key.  

But there is risk in deviating too far from category norms. By going against the expected form, shoppers may automatically deselect a product with an incongruent form while navigating that section. As the movement toward more plastic-free package alternatives gains steam, those products risk being alienated from the consideration set when the resulting package shape deviates from traditional expectations.  

Brand Identification

Shape can also aid in navigating within a category. The candy category comes with many different shape expectations that are meant to fit and standout within the boxes they are typically displayed in. If you are looking for a filled chocolate bar, a flat chocolate bar, or a bag of candies, you have set shape expectations. Toblerone, a chocolate bar nearly the same product as a typical flat candy bar, created a product and packaging that is completely different. Using a prism package shape, Toblerone stands out differently in the category; it’s instantly recognizable cultural touchstone, and the unique form suggests a more premium product.  

Other times, shape provides a specific benefit that also builds the brand. Launched in the late 60s, Pringles were created in response to consumer complaints about broken and stale chips in traditional foil bags. Made with a novel formula, this uniquely shaped product required packaging that met consumer concerns and stood out on shelf. The resulting cylinder succeeded in its purpose and made Pringles a familiar, one-of-a-kind brand. As a result, a new crisp chip subcategory has emerged over the years that utilizes a similar product and packaging type, but none have achieved the recognition that Pringles has earned.  

Shape is Just the Beginning

Shape is a powerful design attribute when attempting to capture shopper attention at the first moment of truth. It sets category norms, aids in brand identification, and can set expectations for the product experience. But the battle to win-at-shelf is not achieved by package shape alone. In our next post, we’ll talk about the role color plays in making sure your product is seen, understood, and wanted. 

In the mean time, check out our white paper, How to Win At-shelf! We touch on each element of the Navigational Hierarchy and dive into the other factors that determine success on store shelves.

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