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    Expert Column: Packaging in the Beverage Aisle

    Container design plays a key role in consumer perception of product

    By Mike Black, Affinnova

    It’s no secret that America's love affair with soda is ending. Soda sales have declined steadily over the past nine years, and there is no sign of that trend stopping soon. On the other hand, soda alternatives -– such as energy drinks and sparkling water –- are seeing strong growth. Competition over these emerging beverage categories is intense, with giant companies like Kraft and Coca-Cola battling smaller players such as Sparkling ICE and Hint for dominance of the aisle.

    Marketing technology company Affinnova recently studied the competitive dynamics of this emerging “post-soda” beverage aisle. Using its design audit technology, Affinnova measured consumer perception of brands in five of the hottest growth areas: liquid water enhancers, energy drinks, flavored sparkling water, flavored enhanced water and sparkling fruit juice.

    Key findings include:

    Package design's impact is bigger than expected: Package design has long been a critical weapon in the marketing playbook, but for some beverage categories, it’s the most important weapon. Take energy drinks, for example: The category has been dominated by Red Bull and Monster for years. Despite Coca-Cola and Pepsi's heavy spending in advertising and distribution advantages, their brands (Nos and Amp) have been unable to gain share. [Coca-Cola is seeking to remedy this state of affairs through its recent purchase of a $2.15 billion stake in energy drink maker Monster. Affinnova found that Nos and Amp's package designs are primarily to blame; they fail to attract consumers' attention or drive purchase at shelf. In particular, Nos and Amp performed poorly on package design personality, meaning that consumers didn't associate their packaging with any strong brand characteristics. Coca-Cola and Pepsi's challenges are contrasted by the story of Sparkling ICE. With limited distribution and advertising support, Sparkling ICE doubled its market share in sparkling water in just a few years and unseated category leaders like Perrier. How? Affinnova's audit found that strong package design is helping to elevate the brand with consumers at the shelf. The key lesson: Advertising spend and strong distribution aren't enough. To compete against category leaders, new brands need to invest in creating the best package design.

    Design can help brands connect with new consumers in the category: Brands in the energy drink category have long played up their performance-enhancing and extreme characteristics, especially when targeting young men. However, new consumer segments are entering the category, requiring a changed approach. For example, Red Bull and Monster lead the energy drink category in revenue, but Starbucks' Double Shot and Refreshers brands have gained ground by using package design to attract consumers who seek softer, less macho brand qualities. Starbucks' package designs are perceived as the most "healthy," "safe" and "down-to-earth" in the category, and are more appealing to women by a two-to-one ratio. The key lesson: As categories (such as energy drinks) get more crowded, design can help brands successfully differentiate and appeal to different consumer groups.

    Design can help neutralize first mover advantage: Kraft's MiO invented the concept of liquid water enhancers and currently leads the market, but other companies' efforts to introduce new brands into the category appear to be working. For example, Coca-Cola's new Minute Maid and Dasani water enhancers are preferred by about a quarter of consumers, representing significant competition to Kraft brands. In particular, the Minute Maid offering is doing an effective job of winning consumers over at the shelf. Its package design scored highest with consumers for brand equity, outperforming MiO in every brand personality trait, including "wholesome," "fresh," "flavorful" and "natural." The key lesson: As the water enhancer category matures, consumers will become more sophisticated and seek brands that offer qualities that are more relevant to them. The package designs that communicate these qualities best will win.

    Private label has to work harder on design: On the whole, Target's Market Pantry and Walmart's Great Value brands were unable to compete against national brands when it came to key package design performance areas. Not only were their designs the least preferred by consumers, they were also the least likely to grab consumer attention and ranked below average for design personality. The one exception was Walmart's less generic-looking Clear America brand, which beat all but two national sparkling water brands on its ability to grab attention at shelf. The package also elevated the brand substantially across all personality traits, most notably "refreshing," "classic" and "familiar." The key lesson: When store brands break out of the box and follow a more upscale design strategy, it's easier to get consumers to change their loyalties.

    The beverage aisle is one of the hottest and most contentious aisles in the grocery store today, and every day, the competition grows more intense. By understanding consumer perceptions of package design, retailers can better assess the strength and weaknesses of brands in the category and create more competitive private label offerings.

    By Mike Black, Affinnova
    • About Mike Black Mike Black is VP of marketing and communications for Affinnova, a Waltham, Mass.-based global marketing technology company. To learn more about Affinnova’s beverage study, go to www.affinnova.com.

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