It's A Wrap

Exporting tips for entrepreneurs
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the March 1997 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Forget the old saying "You can't judge a book by its cover"--at least when it comes to packaging a product. For whether it's spaghetti sauce, toothpaste or detergent, consumers judge products by their packaging all the time.

But the packaging that works in one country won't necessarily work in another. For small-business exporters, this means one thing: Forget the old axioms, and remember, it's what's on the outside that counts.

"Color is the most important issue in packaging," says Howard Alport, principal of Lipson-Alport-Glass & Associates, a design and identity firm in Northbrook, Illinois. Although it's hard to generalize, "red is a pretty positive color worldwide; gold usually signifies quality," says Alport. And while green has a healthy, low-fat connotation in the United States, it may not convey the same message in other cultures.

After color, the packaging elements consumers remember most are shape, numbers and words, in that order. Preferences in package shape and format (should you sell your toothpaste in tubes or pumps?) vary by region. Even shapes on a package, such as the graphics you use, affect the impact of your package. "People recognize and remember packages that have unique shapes or structures," says Alport.

Generally speaking, numbers and words should be kept to a minimum, as demand is increasing in many areas of the world to print two or more languages on packages. If space is severely limited, says Alport, consider employing symbols instead of words--a droplet symbol to convey moisture, for example. And, of course, you need to investigate foreign translations of product and brand names to make sure there's a fairly direct translation. (When Alport took a gift of Frango mints to a Brazilian client, he was dismayed to find out that in Portuguese, Frango translated to "chicken.")

According to Alport, food product packaging tends to be more culturally sensitive than that of cosmetics or personal-care items. So if you're exporting food, you need to be extra-sensitive to foreign consumers' biases.

Package size is another issue you must address. Keep in mind that many overseas customers--buyers in Japan, Europe and Latin America, particularly--don't have as much storage or freezer space as we're used to in the United States and so prefer smaller packages. In these countries and others, home freezer space is typically limited to high-income families. Grocery stores, too, usually have limited display space.

When making packaging decisions, Alport advises exporters to "think globally but act locally." This means creating a system of culturally diverse images that can be adapted to target different world markets. "Often when we design a food package, we leave space for the photography and allow each local market to decide what should go there," says Alport. "If you're selling sweet corn in Japan, for example, you might show it being served on ice cream," a common practice in Japan.

Finally, cautions Alport, it's unwise to generalize about any country. What works depends on the individual culture, the product, the category and what the competition is doing. That means research--and more research--is key to designing packaging that wows your overseas customers. To assist you with this, contact a packaging expert by calling the trade office of the country or countries you're targeting. A well-
informed expert will be able to help you with multiple countries or regions.

Do's And Don'ts

What packaging details win foreign customers' hearts--and what's sure to turn them off? Here are a few tips:

  • Asia: Packages with a Western look and feel or an "imported" look, those with shrink-wrap, and packages with handles are winners. Don't use dove imagery--in Japan, doves symbolize death.

  • Europe: Think upscale. With highly sophisticated local brands and fewer chains, imports must stand out as

  • Latin America: Warm, bright colors sell; culturally, Latin American consumers are more emotional than literal. Don't use black in Brazil--it symbolizes death.

  • Canada: In general, what works in the United States usually works in Canada.

Contact Sources

Lipson-Alport-Glass & Associates, (847) 291-0500,


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