According to the Software Publishers Association, 48 per cent of software sales are made not by lavish TV advertising campaigns, but by the image conveyed to the customer in the store. And more detailed psychological research shows that a product has just five seconds to make a favourable impression or be left gathering dust on the shelf.
Gillian Kent, consumer marketing manager at Microsoft, says: ?Customers have a choice of 8,000 to 9,000 products, depending on where they shop, so you are fighting for attention. You have to make it easy for people to choose your product. The packaging has to sell it.?
Until computer-related products and software started to appear in consumer goods shops like Dixons and Comet, packaging was almost a joke. Hardware came in a brown box, software in a white one. Games could be recognised by the lurid scenes of destruction depicted on the box (no change there, then). Now smart software vendors are learning from grocery, DIY, music and other consumer sectors about the importance of packaging at retail.
?Packaging is your shop window,? says Don Lewis, communications director at games publisher Europress. ?We set great importance by the brand awareness it creates.?
Software packaging is designed to perform seven basic functions: protect the product and keep separate elements together; attract attention; identify the product; indicate the price of the product; persuade the customer to buy; tell the customer whether the product is appropriate for their needs and machine specification; and prevent the product from being stolen from the shop.
?All CD-Roms look the same ? they are small, circular and shiny,? explains Sally Ann Batstone, group marketing manager of Tinsley Robor, which designs and manufactures packaging for music and multimedia publishers. ?So content recognition is very important and publishers are keen to make sure their customers can easily locate new titles through the use of strongly branded packaging.?
It wasn?t too long ago that products on retailers? shelves were a mishmash of design conflicts. Matthew Bright, marketing director at design group Metropolis 88, reviewed software packaging in August 1995 for PC Dealer?s then sister publication Computer Retail News. He wrote: ?Brand distinction is non-existent in the vast majority of cases, most packaging consists of the same cliched imagery, confused type, poor branding and cluttered packs.?
But many publishers have learned their lesson in the past two years.
?Imagine Heinz baked beans in an orange can, Cadbury?s Dairy Milk in a brown wrapper, or Oxo Cubes in a sachet,? says Bright. ?It is no coincidence that top-selling products have the most considered and recognised pack- aging. Reiteration of the brand properties have been built over the years. Software, as a relatively new sector, should learn from these heavyweights and invest in brand building.?
The most successful retail software publishers have done just that: Microsoft, Europress and Broderbund have all embarked on major overhauls of their packaging, spending between them millions of pounds and thousands of man hours designing and testing. It?s no coincidence they are among the top sellers in software.
?When your products are seen together in the store, they need to be seen as a brand,? says Lewis. ?Of course, all our products are never together in a store, because they get split up into the categories, such as education, entertainment, productivity, and so on. But we have enough in each range to make it look as though we have our shelf-talker when there are several of them together. Retailers like that. It makes the shop look attractive.?
A strong brand can give new products that important head start in grabbing attention. Customers who own one product they like will transfer their loyalty to other products in that publisher?s range ? provided they know who the publisher is. Consistency is vital for brand recognition.
An excellent example of this is Dorling Kindersley, which built a reputation in the book market based on visual impact and distinctive design style. Dorling Kindersley?s packaging was a hit when its first multimedia titles appeared in October 1994, because they shared the same style as their printed counterparts and left customers in no doubt about the identity of the publisher.
?The educational product packaging was redesigned last summer and launched last autumn because we wanted to achieve maximum branding on the shelf,? says Pilar Cloud, Broderbund Europe general manager. ?Previously we found that at retail our products weren?t being grouped together. For example, Where in the World, the UK version of Carmen San Diego (a geography educational package), was being put with the games. In the US, it is a well known sub-brand, but not here.?
Even the mighty Microsoft has had to learn over the past two years about branding on packaging and now concentrates on conveying only three main elements.
?The front of the box has to work hard for us,? explains Kent. ?First, the brand: the Microsoft brand is very strong; it?s safe ? you know the software is going to work; and it?s socially acceptable ? no one is going to laugh at you for buying a Microsoft product. But we have to strike a balance between consistency of brand and differentiating one product in the range from another. So the visual image has to be stimulating. Then comes the product name, which has to tell people what it is and what they can expect it to do for them.?
The complexity of modern PC software tempts publishers to compromise the front-of-box design with a clutter of information. But the only information on the front of a Microsoft box is a Windows 95 sticker. Most publishers which have researched the field of packaging design have now relegated machine specs to the spine, and feature lists and other information to the back of the boxes.
?We have reorganised the information on the back of the box to make it more accessible,? says Kent. ?What the customer is looking for now is reassurance that the product is relevant for them. The fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector has put a lot of money into researching what works; the psychological principles are the same for IT. But equally we have to recognise that when you buy software you need to know what?s in there. We haven?t yet got to the same point as cornflakes, where everyone knows what to expect.?
Broderbund?s educational products have to appeal to two audiences ? children and parents. One needs attracting, one needs informing.
?We did some things here which we don?t do in the US,? explains Cloud. ?For example, we put the age range on the front and a statement about supporting the National Curriculum. And on the spine we put which skills are learned or reinforced. Unless you are Disney with a very well recognised character that appeals to the children, you have to appeal to the parent with reassurance that the product will entertain and educate.
?Carmen is known as a geography product in the US, but here we have to put the subject matter on the front of the box. That way you can get the parent to pick up the box and look at the back.?
Publishers that take packaging seriously expend considerable energy on design, perfecting it over long periods, and going right back to the drawing board if necessary.
?Eighteen months ago we conducted a survey on our packaging to compare it with other software publishers and other FMCG brands,? says Kent. ?We wanted to see if we could bring the best FMCG principles to the software retail market. The result was that we changed all of our packaging. The survey took eight months. Then we tested the results in store and it took six months for the new packaging to be phased in on all the products.?
The design process often begins long before beta software is released. Design agencies deliberate for days on what would be an accurate and attractive depiction of the contents, then submit their ideas to the publisher and make numerous revisions.
?The design starts 10 months before the product releases with input from the product group about the benefits of the software,? says Kent. ?The images are designed to be used globally, so that we can capitalise on strong sub-brands like Encarta, which has a face with different video clips around it. The basic image stays the same in every country, but the clips change. For example, here in the UK we have clips of Linford Christie and Boris Yeltsin, but not Bill Clinton.?
Like Microsoft?s, Broderbund?s designs originate in the US where the product is developed. ?We usually take artwork from the US and maybe work on it for a month,? says Cloud.
?Some we reject completely. The most extreme example was a cartoon adventure called Koala Lumpa, Journey to the Edge. In the US the box artwork was a photorealistic stuffed Koala bear run over on a desert road ? it had tyre marks on its back. It was a parody of Bill Gates? book The Road Ahead, but strangely enough it didn?t do well in our focus groups. People thought it was an Australian driving sim. So we created artwork in-house using scenes from the game.?
Europress is unusual in that it has an in-house design studio, a relic from the days when the company was a magazine publisher.
?It?s heartache all the way,? says Lewis. ?Ask 10 people what they think and you will get 10 different ideas. We?ve been known to turn one around in less than a week, but usually it takes a couple of months. We looked at 13 or 14 different proofs of International Rally Championship in two weeks.?
Design is only the first stage. Randomly picked customers give their opinions on the packaging beauty pageant. These focus groups are as important to the final appearance of the packaging as the artists. In fact, focus groups can swallow most of the packaging budget.
?Every product goes before a consumer panel that says which packaging styles stand out and convey the message,? says Kent. ?There?s one coming that we hated, but the customers liked it the most.?
Good design attracts customers to products on the shelf and can also persuade them to pay a higher price for the product. ?Sophisticated design can add value, justifying price on an aesthetic level,? says Bright.
This is no idle boast from people who want publishers to spend more on packaging. But it?s well known that if customers pay #40 for a product, they like to get a bigger box. Hence publishers use either the sierra ? a rigid box with separate base and lid ? or the folding carton.
Most publishers shrinkwrap their boxes. Microsoft stopped this for a brief period, but the boxes were damaged in transit or tampered with by light-fingered customers in the shops, so the wrap is back on again now. Cloud says retailers in Europe always insist that Broderbund shrinkwraps its boxes.
You might think that in these environmentally sensitive times, publishers would be competing to cut down on packaging. The average sierra box or folding carton looks like an environmental nightmare: oceans of card, mostly containing air, surrounding a plastic jewel case which will take three centuries to rot when it is dumped. Admittedly, the card can be made from recycled materials, but the issue is not so much the use of materials as disposal.
Digipak, which Tinsley Robor makes under licence in the UK, is a more environmentally sound alternative to the jewelcase ? it was used for the last Oasis single Do You Know What I Mean? It reduces the number of plastic parts, replacing many of them with card. And it can certainly be made to look attractive ? Prodigy?s single Breathe was packaged in a four-page card Digipak with a clear tray to reveal underlying graphics. Some music publishers have been known to issue singles in Digipaks covered in fake fur or with a simulated bloodpack wraparound.
But in software, the big boxes are here to stay, because jewelcase equals shovelware.
?Until the price of software comes down we?re stuck with the big box,? says Cloud. ?Nobody is willing to be the market leader on this, so it is probably something the whole industry will have to agree on.?
Surely a company the size of Microsoft could take the lead and scale down its packaging? Not a bit of it.
?We?re not ready to move to alternative packaging,? says Kent. ?Ultimately, customers see a bigger box and believe they are getting more. There is also the issue of shelf space: you need a certain size of box to achieve the necessary presence at retail.?
So would an even bigger box be even more successful? There are limits to the physical display area. Publishers can come up with all sorts of ideas, but if it won?t fit on a standard shelf, there had better be a very good reason for stocking it. They also have to bear in mind the appearance of the store they are trying to sell in. Will the product enhance the image of the store or will it look ugly?
A while back things got out of hand in the music industry, as packaging styles went wild. But in January, the Chart Information Network stepped in and specified a number of packaging styles, from which any deviation meant exclusion from the all-important chart ratings. Software retailers don?t have this muscle: the Elspa chart isn?t broadcast on national radio, so 99 out of 100 consumers have never heard of it.
But there are cases where a bigger box would help sales. ?We got it wrong with the Home Essentials box,? says Kent. ?We put five products in one box: Word 97, Encarta Atlas, Works, Money, Soccer and 30 days MSN and Internet Explorer ? all for #99. But people picked it up in the store and didn?t believe all that was in one box. We would have done better to take five boxes and put a shrinkwrap round them.?
The only thing that might shrink packaging is a change of media. ?An A5-sized, half-inch thick box is being discussed for DVD,? says Julian Mallin, sales and marketing director of packaging manufacturer James Upton. ?But it?s a long way off and there?s no content for DVD yet, let alone a box to put it in.?
While CD-Rom dominates, there is little chance of waving goodbye to the big box. At least publishers are getting to grips with design and branding.
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