Implicit Association Tests for Studying Packaging Design
Marketers and packaging designers often want to know how consumers implicitly react to different packaging designs, as these automatic associations can powerfully influence preferences and purchases. When we are shopping for groceries, for example, our choices are often made rapidly and hence our automatic ‘gut’ reactions are critically influential to the success of packaging.
However, traditional self-report measures are limited in their ability to capture non-conscious attitudes that people may not even be aware of themselves. This is where Implicit methods like the Implicit Association Test (IAT) and its variant the Single Category IAT (SC-IAT) come in. These online tasks measure the strength of automatic mental associations in an indirect way, revealing attitudes that exist outside conscious awareness and control.
The IAT and SC-IAT have become widely used in psychology research to assess implicit biases and associations. More recently, consumer researchers have recognized the usefulness of these tools for measuring how packaging aesthetics, shapes, materials, branding and other elements can elicit automatic affective reactions that standard direct questioning can’t uncover.
About the IAT and SC-IAT
In the IAT exercises, participants rapidly categorize stimuli representing package designs and words like ‘Natural’ and ‘Artificial’ to opposite sides of the screen. In one exercise, they sort a package design and ‘Natural’ to one side and the other package design and ‘Artificial’ to the other side. Then they do the reverse pairing. By comparing the speed within and between exercises relative to variations in each participant's overall response time, we can measure the strength of association between each package design and the words. If a package design is more associated with "natural", sorting will be faster when they are paired on the same side. So response time differences between the pairing types quantify how closely the package designs are unconsciously associated with the evaluative words.
IAT Example: In the IAT, participants sort words or images that appear in the center of the screen to one of two axes at the top. The words or images appear in random order repeatedly over the course of several minutes.
The SC-IAT uses just one package design at a time – for example, exercises that require sorting ‘Natural’ and ‘Artificial’ with a single packaging design on one or the other side of the screen. The SC-IAT directly measures how fast people can associate the package with ‘Natural’ versus ‘Artificial’. This evaluates the implicit attitude toward just that one package in isolation.
Unlike direct questioning, the IAT/SC-IAT exercises tap into gut reactions and bypass conscious deliberation. Each sort has only one correct response and it is obvious, so the results are based purely on the sorting reaction times rather than on any conscious choices. This makes these exercises ideal for assessing how relatively quick glances at package designs will shape automatic shopper responses.
SC-IAT Example: In the SC-IAT, the exercises are the same as in the IAT, except now there is only one ‘category’ of creative stimulus, in this example we are measuring only Coke and not Pepsi
While much of the research conducted on packaging design is proprietary, funded by brand owners who might not wish to publicly reveal the details of their research, there are numerous examples of IAT and SC-IAT research on packaging in the published literature. Below are five studies that have harnessed these tools specifically to investigate attitudes toward packaging in various forms.
Study 1: Simplicity of packaging design conveys authenticity
In a recent study in China , IAT was employed as a key methodology to explore consumer perceptions, revealing a significant subconscious bias: consumers inherently associate simple packaging designs with greater brand authenticity. This finding suggests that when brands opt for less complex, more straightforward packaging designs, they are more likely to be perceived as authentic by consumers, highlighting the psychological link between visual simplicity in packaging and the perception of a brand's genuineness and trustworthiness.
One of the key learnings about packaging design from Neuromarketing is the benefits of simplicity of design. The simpler a package design is, the easier it is for consumers to look at and decode. Of course, this also assumes that it still has enough information on it to communicate the product’s details and that the design is appealing enough to generate desire for the product. This study further emphasizes this benefit of design.
Study 2: Implicit reactions to plastic packaging
A group of researchers in Germany  used the SC-IAT to examine how people perceive and evaluate different forms of plastic that are often associated with packaging, namely the concepts: plastic packaging, plastic waste, and microplastic. The researchers used both explicit (direct questioning) and Implicit (SC-IAT) methods to assess the participants' attitudes towards these plastics. They found that all forms of plastic were generally viewed negatively, but plastic packaging was seen as less negative compared to waste and microplastic. The study highlights the complexities in public attitudes toward different forms of plastic, suggesting that interventions aimed at reducing plastic use should focus on helping consumers align their behaviors with their attitudes, rather than solely raising awareness.
If you stop and think about it, plastic packaging can be just as problematic for the environment as other forms of plastic, but this study shows how consumers might not automatically have that realization. For those wishing to discourage the use of plastic in packaging it may therefore help to make shoppers explicitly think about the potential benefits of non-plastic packaging and not assume it will be automatically obvious.
Study 3: How ingredient images on pack influence Implicit perceptions of taste and healthiness
This study  investigates how images of ingredients on packaged food products influence consumers' perceptions of the food's taste and healthiness. Specifically, it explores the effect of these images on the implicit association between healthiness and tastiness in food products. The research involved an IAT study with 106 participants, examining how different numbers of ingredient images impact consumers' automatic associations of healthiness with tastiness. It was found that fewer images of ingredients on healthy products strengthened the perception that the product is both healthy and tasty. Conversely, this effect was not significant for unhealthy products. The study provides insights into how packaging design, particularly the depiction of ingredients, can affect consumer product perceptions and choices.
Therefore, when designing packaging for products that have healthiness as part of their appeal, fewer ingredient images may be best.
Study 4: Implicit associations of colors with flavors
Another group of researchers investigated how consumers associate the color of product packaging with specific flavors when they are shown pack images with the flavor names removed. They focused on British and Colombian consumers' reactions to crisp (potato chip) packaging colors. The study used an IAT with flavor attributes and an explicit word association task. They found two types of associations: 1) A learned association through brand-specific color-flavor pairings, and 2) An association based on the color of the primary ingredients. The study reveals no significant cultural differences between the two countries in these associations. These findings are important for research and development, offering insights into consumer perceptions related to packaging colors and flavor expectations.
For example, while the study showed that consumers can have a color association with a flavor that is simply a convention adopted by a brand or category, the more powerful associations are those that are of the color of the ingredient itself.
Study 5: Lighter product packaging = more healthy
In our final example, a group of researchers used an IAT to measure the perceived attractiveness and healthiness of different colored packaging designs of food products. They found that there was a tradeoff between the two types of associations. Consumers automatically associated more ‘watered down’ lighter colored packaging with healthy products, but more regular colors were better at evoking automatic appeal.
This is another example of how we use colors as a quick route to making assumptions about a product, and not just the colors of the ingredients themselves.
In sum, these studies demonstrate the power of the IAT and SC-IAT to capture subtle influences of packaging design on consumers’ implicit attitudes and emotional associations. These instruments uncover automatic biases that standard self-report measures miss. With creativity and careful stimulus control, these flexible tasks can provide rich insights into how package shapes, materials, typography, imagery and more shape unarticulated feelings and gut reactions. As environmentally and socially conscious shopping grows, tools probing unconscious attitudes around sustainability and ethics will become increasingly important as well.
At CloudArmy we have many years of experience in designing Implicit tests to address all kinds of packaging design questions. Our versatile online platform, Reactor, also enables us to combine these tests with other types of tests to measure consumers attitudes and responses to your brand or packaging. These include online eye-tracking to measure exactly how they look at your designs, Findability tests to measure how rapidly and accurately consumers are able to find your packaging when displayed among competitors, and regular survey questions to capture things like past purchase information and future purchase intentions. Please contact us for more information.
 Wang, Y., Jiang, J., Gong, X. and Wang, J., 2023. Simple= Authentic: The effect of visually simple package design on perceived brand authenticity and brand choice. Journal of Business Research, 166, p.114078.
 Menzel, C., Brom, J. and Heidbreder, L.M., 2021. Explicitly and implicitly measured valence and risk attitudes towards plastic packaging, plastic waste, and microplastic in a German sample. Sustainable Production and Consumption, 28, pp.1422-1432.
 Capelli, S. and Thomas, F., 2021. To look tasty, let's show the ingredients! Effects of ingredient images on implicit tasty–healthy associations for packaged products. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 61, p.102061.
 Piqueras-Fiszman, B., Velasco, C. and Spence, C., 2012. Exploring implicit and explicit crossmodal colour–flavour correspondences in product packaging. Food Quality and Preference, 25(2), pp.148-155.
 Tijssen I, Zandstra EH, de Graaf C, Jager G. Why a ‘light’product package should not be light blue: Effects of package colour on perceived healthiness and attractiveness of sugar-and fat-reduced products. Food Quality and Preference. 2017 Jul 1;59:46-58.