Customer Learned Helplessness in Packaging Design

Brand owners and packaging designers have been slow to address the issue of ease of use in packaging because the general population is accustomed to poor packaging.  If you want the product, getting through the packaging is seen as a necessary burden.  There have been very few innovations that have made substantial improvements in ease of use over the years so consumers really have not had much of a choice.  The design of the beverage can and flap cardboard packaging has been essentially unchanged in the past 20 or more years. 

In the few cases where easy to use packaging choices were introduced into the market the results have been dramatic.  For example, for many years consumers were accustomed to purchasing ground coffee in difficult to open tins or vacuum sealed bags.  Both the tin and the bag typically required a tool such as a can opener or a knife to open.  Consumers accepted the packaging because there were no reasonable alternatives.  A number of years ago, Folgers introduced a new easy to open packaging for coffee that featured a seal with a pull tab and a handle for griping the container.  Customers that found previous packaging solutions difficult or impossible to open without assistance often reported to me that they were delighted by the new packaging and switched to the new brand of coffee featuring the easy to open packaging.  If a customer is willing to switch their brand of coffee because of a competing product’s innovative ease of use features, they may be even more willing to switch brands for other commodity items which are not associated with as high of a degree of brand loyalty when presented with the opportunity.

Customers have simply come to expect poor packaging design and brand managers perceive the lack on customer complaints as evidence that ease of use is not an issue rather than evidence for a learned helplessness on the customer’s part.  Customers have an expectation of product quality but they do not have an expectation that the packaging will be easy to open.  It should not surprise anyone when the majority of customer complaints are associated with product quality issues.  When given a choice, consumers will choose the packaging solution that is more convenient to them if the product, as a whole, meets their requirements.  For many, this means packaging solutions that feature greater ease of use.  If the ease of use problem is severe, consumers may even switch brands in preference to the brand that offers the easy to open packaging.