The supermarket is a warzone with thousands of brands fighting for sales.

Marketers like to think of themselves as puppet masters. They pull invisible strings to make consumers leap and dance. The diabolical geniuses of the packaging industry give credence to this. A tweak here, a change of material there and sales can plummet or soar.

Take Andrex. For six years, the Andrex brand of toilet tissue fell. Owners Kimberly-Clark attributed the decline to increased competition. Supermarket own-brands are well made, well marketed and enjoy prime position on the shelves. Maybe Andrex’s reign as the number-one British brand of loo roll was over.

Enter the packaging team. Design consultancy Elmwood was asked to revamp the Andrex packaging. The result? A 13 per cent rise in volume sales, in the midst of a 50 per cent marketing budget cut. The improvement meant sales of other Andrex products rose, such as the premium quilted brand, which was up 15 per cent.

How was this achieved? Fortunately, Simon Preece of Elmwood is keen to share his secrets. He says the Andrex victory is down to the theory known as biomechanical triggers.

“We have learnt that humans respond in a predictable and consistent way to a certain stimulus. The reptilian part of the brain can be triggered at an elemental level. The hormone serotonin can be released by a stimulus; neuropeptides and other hormones too,” he says.

This much is well known. Spiders widely trigger revulsion, mint smells a sense of calm, black and yellow – as wasps remind us – will trigger our sense of fear. There are more subtle levels, however.


“We respond to shapes, such as cusps and curves. Cusps are used to trigger danger signals. They get our attention. Disney uses this brilliantly. The Wicked Witch in Snow White has cusps in her hair, eyes and clothes. A three year old knows she’s evil. The typography for Maleficent is composed of cusps,” says Mr Preece.

“Curves, by contrast, make us feel reassured. We are nurtured by curves – our mother’s curves – from an early age. You can build this logic into packaging.”

The challenge for Andrex was to make it stand out. “We invest no emotion in buying toilet roll,” he says. “There is three seconds of thinking and that is it. So how do we get consumers to gravitate towards our product?”

Elmwood went for a curves and cusps combo. “We used cusp marks on the Andrex brand mark, framing it to grab your attention. The cusps make sure the Andrex name is the first thing you see. Then we emphasise the curves of the pack. We used matte white ink to get rid of the shininess. The old packs were in a reflective waxy polythene pack which was no better than own-brand. We introduced curved window shapes on the pack. This makes the rolls look chunky, but soft to touch.”

The language got a makeover. “We don’t just say ‘white’, we say ‘Classic White’. It sounds like a premium brand. Instead of ‘four pack’ we say ‘Four Famously Soft Rolls’ or ‘Gorgeously Soft Rolls’.”“If you want to understand visibility, you need to use techniques, such as eye-tracking, which get closer to what’s really happening at the point of purchase ”

The layout was decluttered. And finally, the Andrex puppy was given a new look. “We used a technique called ‘above and below’,” says Mr Preece. “When you photograph something from above it puts the viewer in a position of responsibility. We wanted to make the consumer feel responsible for the puppy. We tilted the puppy’s head to a non-threatening angle, so it isn’t a wolf looking at you. It is submissive. And the puppies head sits on the supermarket shelf. It is pleading with you, looking you in the eye, saying ‘Buy me!’”

The new packaging was rolled out to Andrex’s full global range, including wipes and children’s products. The sales rise, which was achieved, it is worth stressing, despite a plunging marketing budget, proves the biomechanical trigger theories really do manipulate consumers.


So what should brand managers take from this tale? The first lesson is that there ought to be logic behind artistic packaging considerations. But there are other issues too. Changing packaging comes with a hazard warning.

Chris Lumsden, managing director of brand consultancy Good, points out: “Because customers are often looking for cues when rushing through a store, often on autopilot, changing a pack too much can lead them to miss a redesigned brand and choose another. This links to the backlash some brands face when they change their packaging. Tropicana redesigned and then reverted back to its previous look. Familiarity is the greatest tool a brand can use to ensure recognition.”

Any changes you make need to overwhelm this downside.

Another rule is that “evidence” isn’t always reliable. Tony Nunan, managing director of Leeds-based design agency Visuality, says: “If your strategy is based on feedback from conventional research, such as focus groups and interviews, it’s probably flawed. Brand recognition in supermarkets takes place in a fraction of a second. It’s a subconscious process and, because of this, it’s almost impossible for respondents to describe.

“If you want to understand visibility, you need to use techniques, such as eye-tracking, which get closer to what’s really happening at the point of purchase.”

He adds another caveat: “There’s a widespread misconception that if you make something look different, it will stand out from the crowd. This is often untrue. Shoppers learn how to recognise brands and categories using a small number of visual cues. If you change these cues, without managing the change properly, there is a real chance you’ll render your pack invisible.”

In conclusion: you can use biomechanical triggers and strong design logic to plan an attack on the consumer’s brain. But there is an internal logic to the supermarket to consider as well. If you want to inveigle consumers into snapping up your products, you’ll need to be master of every factor.