Special Session Summary Building Brand Equity Through Packaging: a Multi-Methodological Perspective

Robert Underwood, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and
[ to cite ]:
Robert Underwood (1996) ,"Special Session Summary Building Brand Equity Through Packaging: a Multi-Methodological Perspective", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 209.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Page 209



Robert Underwood, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and

State University


A review of the consumer behavior literature reveals little theoretical development in the area of packaging and its communicative effects. This gap is problematic because macro-market trends have increased the importance of packaging in consumer decision making and in the development of brands. The objectives of this session were: 1) to explore the role of packaging in the building of brand equity, 2) to expand theoretical development in the area of packaging's influence on consumer behavior, and 3) to report substantive findings about the relationship of package design to individual choice and brand equity.

In keeping with the conference theme, these papers used diverse methodologies: qualitative research, analysis of an innovative market database, and a field experiment using a virtual reality simulation. The three papers also illustrated a range of research objectives with respect to packaging and brand equity: theory generation, theory testing, and establishing substantive relationships between packaging and brand equity.


Ozanne and Underwood sought to expand the conceptual development in the area through a qualitative examination of packaging's influence on customer-based brand knowledge. Utilizing McCracken's (1988) long interview technique, interviews (over 300 subject-product interactions) were conducted with a heterogeneous sample in a grocery store walkthrough format, affording the researchers the opportunity to identify emerging themes which tap the entire range of packaging's influence. In addition to the expected themes of package/product utilities (e.g., functional, aesthetic, symbolic, etc.), one unexpected theme which was evident across all informants was the theme of the duplicity of packaging communication. This theme highlights the need for manufacturers to give greater attention to this point of communication and avoid the perceived deception which often adversely affects consumers' brand equity. Ozanne offered Habermas's theory of communicative competence as a set of useful norms (i.e., norm of comprehensibility, norm of sincerity, norm of legitimacy, norm of truthfulness) that must occur for "authentic" communication (i.e., communication that is free from distortion) to take place. She suggested that this offers a useful benchmark against which manufacturers can judge their communication (i.e., packaging) and seek to improve their level of distortion-free communication. It was also argued that it is in both the interest of the manufacturer (in increasing brand equity) and the consumer to do so.

Susan Nelson, director of research for Landor Associates, Inc. presented the second paper in the session, an analysis of the Young & Rubicam/Landor Associates BrandAssetx Valuator (BAV) database that explored how three generalized packaging design approaches correlate with four key measures of brand building: differentiation, relevance, esteem, and knowledge. The three generalized package design approaches were:

1. Image/positioning graphics dominant (no product vignette/illustration)

2. Image/positioning graphics dominant (with product vignette/illustration)

3. Copy/typography dominant

The analyses did not support the hypothesis that packaging graphics approach, in and of itself, is associated with brand strength and vitality. She suggested that brands which have attained national distribution stature are so thoroughly a composite of multiple marketing variables that no one variable (in this case, packaging graphics approach) can have a significant impact on brand strength. Nelson suggested that more insight may be gained via a sub-analysis by product category (e.g., sauces vs. snack foods vs. beverages).

The final paper (Underwood, Klein, and Burke) tested theoretical propositions about how a specific package design element, incorporating a picture of the product on the package, affects consumer attention, brand evaluations, and product choice. Propositions derived from theories about visual/verbal information and cue utilization suggest that design effects will differ for (1) national versus private label brands, and (2) brands that differ significantly in terms of the degree of experiential benefits provided. The research was conducted in two experiments, one of which utilized a virtual reality simulated shopping system called Visionary Shopper. Preliminary results indicated a significant picture effect for highly experiential private label products in terms of attention and choice. This finding supports the hypotheses that picture effects should be stronger for private label brands and more experiential products.