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Public Health Nutrition: 13(2), 297–299 doi:10.1017/S1368980009993168
Invited commentary
Food packaging: the medium is the message
In considering the marketing of food products to children,
the role of packaging warrants closer attention. The use of
packaging as a marketing vehicle is evidently increasing.
Marketing analysts suggest two reasons for this. First,
many food choices are made at the point of sale, so ‘the
package becomes a critical factor in [the] consumer
decision-making process, because it communicates to
consumers at the time they are actually deciding in the
store’
(1)
. Second, the nature of the food advertising market
is changing. Estimates from the USA suggest that expen-
diture on food advertising is declining
(2)
, and that other
methods of marketing such as packaging now have
greater weight in the marketing mix
(3,4)
.
Food packaging has two basic functions. The first is
practical. Packaging extends the shelf-life of the product,
and makes it easier to transport and display. Second is its
marketing function. Packaging is now an essential com-
ponent of the integrated marketing strategies of the food
industry. It combines all the ‘Ps’ of marketing: the package
contains the product,packages convey messages about
product attributes to consumers as part of public relations,
and often its price, while also carrying promotions.By
combining all these different aspects, packaging has
become an integral part of the product
(5)
.
How food packaging is used to attract children
The most obvious marketing technique used on packa-
ging to attract children is promotions, like competitions,
collector promotions and premiums (Box 1). Many of
these take the form of cross-promotions, in which man-
ufacturers use the products of other companies such as
animated characters and toys from television, movies and
Internet games to promote their own products. Other tie-
ins are with ‘branded’ athletes, sports teams and events,
theme parks, and charities. The US Federal Trade Com-
mission recently reported that cross-promotions on
packaging are now a significant strategy used to market
foods to children and adolescents
(6)
. Another recent study
found that the use of cross-promotions on food packages
targeted at children in the USA increased by 78% between
2006 and 2008 in the supermarket surveyed, and only
18 % of the cross-promoted products met accepted
nutrition standards
(3)
. More than half of the cross-
promotions appealed primarily to children between 6 and
12 years of age, and over one-fifth targeted pre-school
children
(3)
.
These on-pack promotions typically form part of
broader campaigns promoting the product that include
other techniques like advertising and retailer displays.
Promotions may also play a public relations role if they
are for charitable, educational or health-related activities.
Public relations is also one of the functions of on-pack
nutrition information and nutrient and/or health claims.
As well as providing information, these are designed to
boost the image of the company and are increasingly
used as a form of promotion. ‘Health’ sells, and nutrient
and health information and claims are used to imply to
parents that the product is suitable and ‘good’ for their
children.
Often (perhaps less so for child-targeted products), the
package also displays the price of the product. The size of
the package is also a crucial part of the pricing strategy:
large packages, for example, often have lower unit prices
than smaller ones, intending to give the impression to
parents of good value. But package size may also be small
in order to directly attract children. Convenient or fun
package shapes can also be used to attract children, as
well as the so-called ‘packaging technology’, such as the
application of straws to small juice packages. Parents may
also be encouraged to buy products for their children
with technologies that make the product easier to handle,
such as ease of opening and closing for snacks when on
the move.
Box 1
Attributes of child-friendly food packaging
>The application of promotions, notably competi-
tions, collector promotions and premiums, which
often use cross-promotions.
>The application of nutrition and health-related
information and/or claims.
>Size and shape.
>The packaging ‘technology’, such as additions like
straws, how it opens and closes, how freshness is
maintained, durability.
>Typescript used for the different written pieces of
information.
>The colours used on the package.
>Other visual imagery, such as shapes, symbols,
and the depiction of the food product.
>The depiction of the brand and brand characters.
rThe Author 2010
The importance of typescript, colour and other visuals
to attract children has been highlighted by a recent
Canadian study
(7)
. The study found that the food packa-
ges examined were dominated by four colours: blue,
yellow, red and green. About 85 % of the food products
surveyed used graphics and typescripts that were like
those used in cartoons, or as if drawn by children. Three-
quarters of the packages included a cartoon visual, a
tenth used a competition to attract children, and over
three-fifths included a nutrition claim on the front of the
package.
Then there is branding, which is an intrinsic part of
packaging. Unlike the loose sacks and wrapping once
used, individual packs provide a place to stamp a brand.
Branding distinguishes the product from the same or
similar products made for other companies, and aims to
create ‘brand loyalty’. In other words, children learn to
like and trust the brand and so stay with it for life, and
may also buy other products made by the same company.
Along with the other attributes of the package, the brand
characters used on the packaging of products aimed at
children are an important part of building this brand
identity
(4)
. As put by the food company Kellogg’s: ‘The
packaging has to provide a representation of the brand
identity and appeal to the target market’
(8)
.
Effects of food packaging
Several studies have examined the effect of food packa-
ging. A US study on the perception of breakfast cereal
packaging by children showed that packaging helps to
create brand awareness, because it ‘has the power to
evoke images of its products, brand names and salient
attributes from the memories of young, inexperienced
consumers’
(4)
. A focus group study on breakfast cereals in
the UK also found that children can recognise the char-
acters used on the front of breakfast cereal packs
(8)
.
Packaging also shapes consumer perception of the
product. Research on adults indicates that shoppers use
packaging to aid their decisions at point of purchase
(9)
.
Package attributes such as colour and technological
features have been found to affect product choice,
depending on the type of consumer
(1,10)
. Packaging also
influences what children think about food products. In
another Canadian study, focus groups were used to
identify how children respond to food packaging
(11)
. The
study indicates that children are affected by the look of
food packages and the on-pack promotions. The results
varied with age: younger children were more likely to
choose a product because of cross-promotions, while
older children were more influenced by the visuals of the
package. Several of the children said that it was the colour
of the packaging that attracted them to the product.
Another study from the USA has examined how
packaging – especially the brand on the package – affects
perceptions of taste
(12)
. A total of sixty-three children
aged 3–5 years were provided with five pairs of identical
foods and drinks from McDonalds, with one of the pairs
being in branded McDonald’s packaging and the other in
plain packaging. The children consistently preferred the
taste of the food in the branded packaging, even though it
was exactly the same as the food in the plain packaging.
An older study from the UK also has found that attractive
packages targeting children are likely to encourage them
to pester their parents to buy the product
(13)
. In the focus
group study, mothers said they yield to this pressure if
they perceive the product as being ‘healthy’. Mothers also
preferred colourful packaging of ‘healthy’ yoghurt relative
to plain packaging and said that that colourful, captivat-
ing packaging is more likely to encourage children to try
‘healthy’ foods.
However, packaging can mislead children and parents
into thinking that the product is ‘healthy’ when it is not.
The Canadian studies
(7,11)
found that most of the products
with nutrition claims targeted at children were actually
not very nutritious when judged against the cited nutrition
criteria, but children perceived products as ‘healthy’ simply
because the package included claims. They also said that
the presence of an ingredient list, a ‘health’ front-of-pack
symbol, or a symbol denoting that the food contained no
allergenic products, made them think the product was
healthy. Colours (especially green) and pictures on the front
of the package also affected their beliefs about whether the
product was healthy or not. A study on the perception of
breakfast cereal packaging – which predated the extensive
use of front-of-pack symbols – found that children were not
aware of the nutrition label, suggesting that visuals have a
much more powerful impact in conveying the perception of
healthiness to children
(4)
. In a real sense, the packaging has
become the product.
So what should be done?
The whole point of taking action to reduce the amount of
food marketing to children is to lessen preference for,
and sales and consumption of, fatty, sugary and/or salty
processed foods. If packaging attracts children to eat
these products, then there is a case for intervention. But
packaging is not subject to any of the regulatory
approaches to food marketing to children
(14)
. And while a
number of leading transnational food and drink manu-
facturing companies have pledged, more or less, that they
will not advertise any products directly to children under
the age of 12, or else will only advertise products that
meet their own nutrient criteria, child-friendly packaging
is not included in the pledges
(15–18)
. In fact, one of the
core principles of industry-led efforts to address market-
ing to children is that it should only concern promotions
that target children directly, and, as shown here, packa-
ging is used to target children both directly and indirectly
298 C Hawkes
(via their parents) putting it outside the scope of the
pledges. As put by Unilever, packaging is excluded
from their pledge on marketing to children because it is
‘primarily influential to the consumer at the point of pur-
chase, when adults accompany very young children and
make final purchasing decisions’
(18)
. In other words, it is
perfectly legitimate to use marketing techniques, however
powerful, when these target adults as well as children even
though the aim of boosting sales is the same.
There is a whole other, probably even more important,
reason why regulating packaging would not be a popu-
lar move with transnational and other food and drink
manufacturers: the package is now an inherent part of
the product. The medium of the package contains the
message of the product. This means that changing the
package is essentially reformulating the product, so
de-kiddifying the packaging would not just change the
more superficial ways in which products are marketed
(as implied by current voluntary marketing pledges), or
their content (such as changing the levels of salt, sugar,
etc. as implied by current industry reformulation strate-
gies), but the entire essence of the product. That makes
intervening in packaging a politically more dangerous
game than regulating advertising – and, potentially, even
more effective.
Acknowledgements
Much of the material in this commentary was originally
researched as part of correspondence with the Depart-
ment of Health, England. The information about food
industry pledges was obtained as part of a project with
Yale University funded by the Robert Wood Johnson
Foundation.
Corinna Hawkes
Department of Nutrition, School of Public Health
University of Sa
˜o Paulo
Sa
˜o Paulo 01246-907, Brazil
Email: corinnah@usp.br
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Invited commentary 299
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... Marketing research has shown that companies tend to invest more funds on supermarket promotions than all other modes, because it has been shown that the influence is more when any item is promoted at the time of purchase 6,7 . The best methods to advertise or promote child targeted food items at the time of purchase are attractive packages, attractive "health" claim or attractive promotional item attached to the specific product 6,8,9 . Out of the above child targeted marketing strategies, product package plays a major role 6,8,9 . ...
... The best methods to advertise or promote child targeted food items at the time of purchase are attractive packages, attractive "health" claim or attractive promotional item attached to the specific product 6,8,9 . Out of the above child targeted marketing strategies, product package plays a major role 6,8,9 . It significantly influences the act of purchasing, as 85% of the super market buying is made on impulse at the time of purchase 10 . ...
... Traditional mass media campaigns or the persuasive use of product packaging attract children's attention (6). In particular, in continuous evolution and growth, the packaging strategy has become an element that reinforces the commercial appeal of food products aimed at children (4,7). In these cases, its use has been socially questioned when it comes to unhealthy products [according to the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO)], a category exceptionally dynamic in the use of commercial persuasion (8,9). ...
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To elicit the visual memory of packaging that facilitates consumers’ identification and selection of products from store displays, children were asked to draw a cereal box and the results were compared with actual cereal boxes. Over 97 percent spontaneously drew a cereal box with a brand name and other brand related symbols. This may be the first time to have a glimpse of the consumer’s evoked set as it really exists. The results suggest that one’s evoked set is not just a list of brand names in the mind, but an elaborate symbolic environment made up of visual and verbal codes in which the brand name is nested. Major implications for brand and package management are discussed.
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Purpose This paper aims to examine salient issues in the packaged food business with special focus on packaging and its crucial role covering food marketing, best practices in the food and drinks industry, product innovation, food safety and quality, food supply chain management and emerging trends. Design/methodology/approach Phenomenological research has raised awareness and increased insight into critical issues in the packaged food business. The approach is based on observation of the business environment, online research, a close watch on British food industry, analysis of papers in journals, and brainstorming with co‐researchers for four years. Findings The research has found that the key trends fostering growth in developed packaged food markets are convenience, functionality and indulgence. The real value of packaging is that the package is an integral part of the product today. Besides, food products frequently require the general marketing approaches and techniques applied to the marketing of other kinds of products and services. In addition, for the food industry to improve further, it needs to adopt the best practices shown in this research paper. Moreover, while going for product innovation, some critical success factors must be taken into account. Furthermore, the objective of all quality assurance systems exercised by food manufacturers and processors, is to produce safe products that comply with manufacturers' specifications, including the requirements established by governments. On top of that, the companies that are the most progressive in the management of the supply chain are expected to be the most successful and profitable. Last, but not least, companies should look forward to emerging trends for business success. All these critical issues must be observed in a packaged food business for superior performance. Research limitations/implications Company surveys have not been performed due to the limited access of the research to well‐developed Western food markets. Hence, company surveys may be the next step to further identify critical issues in the packaged food business from the perspective of existing corporations. Originality/value This paper offers a holistic view that would guide a reader to identify critical issues in packaged food in existing or new businesses.
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Purpose The importance of packaging design and the role of packaging as a vehicle for consumer communication and branding are necessarily growing. To achieve communication goals effectively, knowledge about consumer psychology is important so that manufacturers understand consumer response to their packages. this paper aims to investigate this issue. Design/methodology/approach The paper examines these issues using a conjoint study among consumers for packaged food products in Thailand, which is a very competitive packaged food products market. Findings The conjoint results indicate that perceptions about packaging technology (portraying convenience) play the most important role overall in consumer likelihood to buy. Research limitations/implications There is strong segmentation in which packaging elements consumers consider most important. Some consumers are mostly oriented toward the visual aesthetics, while a small segment focuses on product detail on the label. Originality/value Segmentation variables based on packaging response can provide very useful information to help marketers maximize the package's impact.
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Based on primary research from both a child consumer and manufacturer perspective, this article explores the breakfast cereal market and the perceptions of packaging from the perspective of a child. Specific consideration is given to determining the overall role of packaging, what role packaging can play within integrated marketing communications and establishing the feasibility and effectiveness of packaging as a sole communications tool. Findings highlight some apparent inconsistencies between manufacturer and children’s views, and illustrate the possibility of adults underestimating how aware children are as consumers in today’s society.
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Explores the relationship between mothers' purchase of perceived healthy foods, packaging characteristics, and the childrens “pester power” in obtaining attractive or appealing packaging. The results suggest mothers will not buy perceived healthy foods if the packaging is not acceptable. Discusses packaging and marketing strategies.
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Fun food is an overlooked, but increasingly significant, category of food targeted to children in the supermarket. These supermarket products emphasize foods’ play factor, interactivity, artificiality, and general distance from “regular” foods: food is positioned as “fun” and eating as “entertainment.” Using a series of focus groups, this study examined how children (segmented by age and gender) interpret these packaged appeals and how the thematic of fun connects with their understanding of health and nutrition. The study revealed that children are highly attuned to fun foods and its packaging, offering savvy, if flawed, interpretations of how to determine the healthfulness of a packaged good. I argue that the symbolic positioning of children’s food as fun and fake creates several roadblocks in the quest to promote wholesome food habits in children, and that the thematic of fun has unintended consequences that require careful consideration.