The Importance of Setting Appropriate Action Standards

The Packaging Design Gold Standard Series

When testing new products or a new packaging design, setting appropriate Action Standards is one of the first and most important challenges. Not only is this critical to your design agency, it’s critical to your research agency, as well.   

If Action Standards are set loosely, they fail to guide the analysis of research findings. As a result, it can become easy to get “lost in the numbers,” as opposed to what is actually important to a brand’s success. Hence, findings can become very open to interpretation - and possibly to internal agendas and politics. 

If, on the other hand, Action Standards are set too tightly (or inappropriately), they end up dooming new designs to failure, by setting unrealistic goals.  As a result, promising concepts may be “thrown away” – and packaging may fail to evolve and remain contemporary, because new design systems might never “meet the standard.”  

How to set ‘meaningful’ Action Standards 

There is no single “formula” for setting Action Standards across the wide range of brand situations and design objectives.  However, based on experience, we can offer four guidelines as a starting point for approaching this process. 

1. Create a Better Design Brief  

Action Standards must be tied directly to the brand’s underlying marketing and design objectives. When specific objectives (e.g., increasing shelf visibility, conveying a new feature/benefit, etc.) are clear, it is relatively easy to identify the key metrics/measures relevant to success.  These metrics then become the foundation for the success criteria (i.e., what really matters), while all other measures become secondary or “red flag” measures.  

But how do you determine what the primary design objectives should be? 

It all starts with an analysis of the brand’s competitive context and the reason why you believe a pack re-design is critical to growth. If you can articulate this clearly, with little to no ambiguity, you’re 90% there. 

First, consider a brand’s current strengths – recognize the areas where there may not be opportunities for significant improvement. For example, if a brand has dominant shelf positioning (i.e., many shelf facings), it most likely has near-universal shelf visibility in its current packaging.  In this case, an Action Standard of improving shelf visibility is probably not realistic – and a more appropriate goal would be to retain the brand’s strong overall shelf visibility (or perhaps to enhance the visibility of a specific SKU).  Conversely, for smaller brands with fewer facings, a new packaging system should be expected to enhance their ability to “break through shelf clutter.”   

Another example of setting unrealistic goals is: to include a significant increase in the purchase rate from shelf as an Action Standard in re-design studies, even if the design change is simply evolutionary (as opposed to major/revolutionary changes). Typically, this objective is far too aggressive, and unachievable and, as a consequence, ‘good’ designs may fail, unfairly.   

In fact, the occasions when the purchase pick-up rate from a single exposure to a package increases dramatically are rather rare. The most frequent times when this occurs are: 

  • An existing design has a fundamental issue with visibility, shopability or system 1 communication (e.g., product understanding) which is hindering purchase at shelf; or 
  • When an existing design has considerable negatives attached to it (i.e., cheap looking, outdated, bland, etc.) 

Instead, in cases in which both visibility and system 1 communication (e.g. immediate product understanding) are working in favor of the brand, elevation of brand perceptions and expectations might be the metrics to guide the pack redesign decision.   

If the goal is to increase penetration of the brand, the first step in achieving this objective is to create reassessment of the brand offer. The design objectives that best fit this goal will vary by pack re-design, but achieving an improvement on these can serve as the basis for reassessment and long-term future consideration. 

Second, after you’ve identified the brand’s pack and shelf strengths – ensuring your design team knows what not to mess with – identify the problems, potential risks or opportunities the brand faces and why you believe pack design and messaging changes are the key to success. Be crystal clear as to what those changes are and its hierarchy. If that’s a challenging task, reach out to your research partners – they should know what success in the category looks like – and can help you design a better brief with clearer objectives.  

2. Think in Terms of “Risk” and “Opportunity” 

When testing new packaging design routes for established products, the most relevant and accurate “benchmark” is always the brand’s current packaging.  This “Test/Control” approach is truly an “apples-to-apples” comparison, assuming that other factors (number of shelf facings, etc.) are held constant across the research cells.  

When developing Action Standards for a new design (relative to current packaging), it is important to set different expectations for a brand’s loyal users, as opposed to its non-users:  

  • Among loyal brand users, there are typically strong levels of satisfaction with current packaging.  Thus, it may not be realistic – or necessary – to expect significant gains from a new design system.  Instead, the primary focus should be to minimize the risk of confusing or alienating these brand users, by performing at parity and avoiding “red flags.”  
  • Among non-users or occasional users, the Current packaging is obviously not driving purchase. Thus, it is reasonable to expect/demand that a proposed design will create opportunity, by leading non-users to reassess the brand.   

3. Use Absolute Performance & Norms as “Red Flag” Measures

When changing packaging, absolute performance measures (and “norms”) is another important level of analysis - particularly as a “double-check” to indicate a potential problem:  

  • Take our findability exercise as an example, where we ask respondents to find a specific SKU within your brand’s line-up on the shelf. This is a typical “red flag” exercise:  It is not necessarily important for a new design system to “win” relative to current packaging, especially as your current packaging likely has an advantage due to familiarity. Instead, the goal should be to avoid creating high levels of confusion or frustration at the shelf.  For example, if 10% or more shoppers “find” the wrong variety on shelf – or if 15-20% claim difficulty - there is most likely a problem.    
  • Similarly, if negative packaging descriptors (dull, generic, outdated, etc.) and/or “bottom 2 box” levels of appeal, imagery or persuasion are relatively high (20% or higher), this should set off alarm bells.    

4. Utilize your Action Standards in a sensible manner

While setting realistic and relevant Action Standards is important, it is even more critical to apply and utilize these standards appropriately.  The Action Standards should guide the analysis of a packaging study, by reminding us of the underlying brand objectives – and by highlighting what measures are important, and not interesting or statistically significant.  However, Action Standards should not be used solely as a “scorecard” to determine “winners” and “losers.”  In other words, if a new design does not meet a particular Action Standard (but shows strengths in other areas), the goal should be to understand why – and to guide potential design refinements – rather than to simply reject the design concept.    

It is also important to keep in mind that there are often trade-offs associated with new designs. For example, packaging that increases shelf visibility may involve a sacrifice on another dimension, such as appeal or communication.  However, a comprehensive research program will pinpoint specific shortcomings and identify the design elements that are likely to be driving these limitations. From there, design professionals can often develop effective solutions.   

Summing Up 

Action Standards are critical to guide study analysis and interpretation, and should be used diagnostically to guide design refinements to address any shortcomings.  This will help ensure that Action Standards are not used to “kill” potentially viable ideas, but instead are used to help promote and ensure packaging excellence.  

If you want to learn how to create better Action Standards or improve your design briefs, feel free to reach out to us.


Max Zalewski avatar

Max Zalewski, Chief Transformation Officer