Product Packaging Design: How We Process Metaphors Nonconsciously

Metaphors are the way we understand the world; love is a battlefield, life is bittersweet... breaking news, a brilliant idea. As early as middle school, we are taught linguistically how to identify and compose a metaphor. In recent years, breakthroughs in psychological research have shown that metaphors significantly affect the way we process information nonconsciously, starting with our first experiences after birth. Touch is the first of the five sensespeople experience and metaphors are the way our brain processes our first interactions with the world; a soft baby blanket means warmth, comfort and safety. As we grow older, touch impacts the way we perceive the products and packaging we interact with on a daily basis because of the way we process information metaphorically. For a brand, understanding the nonconscious differentiating factors of a product design may feel impossible to test, but by utilizing embodied cognition psychology it’s now possible to see how to design products and packaging in a way that truly entices the brain.

How Touch Impacts Understanding 
When a friend pulls out the new iPhone or iPad, with an arm stretched out and a hand open, you eagerly ask, “wow can I see that?” While you are asking to see the object, what you actually mean is “may I feel and touch the object?” Research in embodied cognition provides an understanding of the motivating factors driving you to want to touch and feel things in order to fully understand them. The value of this tendency in consumer behavior is tremendous.

Active touch, used for the purpose of exploration and information gathering, can significantly enhance your understanding of an object because the brain processes information using metaphors. This allows for perceptions and cognitive choice to be more informed. Consumers forming impressions about products through physical interaction is known as haptic perceptions, which offers an explanation of how physical experiences with objects prime concepts and goals outside of conscious awareness. An area of study known as embodied cognitive science places emphasis on how our experience with the physical world can impact how and what we think in ways we are often unaware of. 

I worked on a study a few years ago and discovered that the three dimensions of haptic experience - weight, texture and hardness - can nonconsciously influence judgments and decisions. “Heavy objects made job candidates appear more important, rough objects made social interactions appear more difficult, and hard objects increased rigidity in negotiations” (Ackerman, Nocera, Bargh, 2010). Here are the specific ways in which haptic touch influences our decision making:   

We metaphorically associate hardness with strictness, rigidity, and stability. Hardness makes others appear more strict and stable, and less emotional and flexible in negotiations. This is shown in idioms like a rock and rock solid or in the difference between hard-headed and softie. Hardness primes influence evaluations of social interactions such as impressions and negotiation strategies or actions. For example, potential car buyers were more inflexible in their price negotiations when sitting in hard vs. soft chairs (Ackerman, Nocera, Bargh, 2010)

Several years ago, a water bottle company developed a new type of a plastic water bottle that was designed using significantly less plastic than its predecessor. This innovation was thought to be huge in that it would significantly cut costs. The product had been evaluated in blind taste tests yielding no changes in perceived quality of taste, so the company went with the new bottle. You must consider not just a “blind” taste test, but also a taste test while touching the product. Not surprisingly, people perceive better tasting water from a firm plastic bottle than from a flimsy bottle (A. Krishna, et. al., 2008). We associate weight with seriousness and importance, like thinking about weighty matters and gravity of the situation. Heaviness produces impressions of importance and seriousness as well as a preference for finding solutions to important problems. 

We associate coarseness with difficulty or something unpleasant, as in a rough day vs smooth sailing, which is why you often won’t find many products with rough texture for the product or package design. Not only are rounded corners and smooth services more ergonomically pleasing, but they also cause people to believe that they are more prosocial and cooperative.

Why Should Brands Care?
The key is that our physical experiences with products affect the way we perceive them. Physical metaphors are byproducts of our brains processing something abstract - love - and grounding it in an understanding of our physical and tangible world - a very close/warm relationship. 

When designing packaging and products, it’s very important to control the metaphorical associations that result from hardness, weight and texture. With an understanding of the motivations of a consumer, the packaging and product can be designed to align based on the metaphors our brain associates with positive emotions and interests. Such alignments will increase positive purchasing decisions, enrich product experience, and enhance perception of the product’s usability. Brands now have the opportunity to develop and test the nonconscious tactile effects of their product’s packaging and design before the costly effort of going to market.


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Posted by Christopher Nocera on Jan 31, 2013

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