The concept of asymmetric warfare was first popularized by Andrew J.R. Mack’s 1975 article “Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars.” In the article, he reviewed how a large nation with huge material advantages could lose militarily to a small nation with insignificant resources.

In the Marketing world, asymmetric marketing can be described as a brand’s technical advantage in one area outweighing the broader numerical marketing advantage of a competitor. And, this asymmetric advantage is even more pronounced when it can be executed for minimal cost and effort. A Marketing “secret weapon” of sorts.

Asymmetric Marketing Examples, Both Good & Bad

Marketers often think of “earned” media and viral videos as asymmetric marketing opportunities―they’re cheap and fast. But, as marketers have learned the hard way, creating successful earned media and viral marketing campaigns is largely hit or miss and hard to scale in any consistent way. Dialing up this kind of effort with any consistency is virtually impossible.

Another example is the use of data and algorithms. “Moneyball” popularized the notion of using analytics to increase a baseball team’s winning percentage at less than market cost. Marketers have embraced the Moneyball concept with greater focus and investment in data and analytics, thru A/B testing, marketing mix modeling, etc. Marketers are having much more success here than with viral videos, but it’s not the only asymmetric marketing opportunity.

A New Asymmetric Marketing Opportunity

Sometimes, though, we find “asymmetric” marketing solutions right in front of our faces ―literally. And that’s exactly the case here. But first, let’s describe what a great, new asymmetric marketing proposition could look like in financial terms:

“Invest just $100 thousand improving one simple marketing element for 5% revenue growth”

Let’s put this in perspective. A $100 thousand investment for 5% revenue growth is a big deal for almost any brand. Many large brands spend millions in Marketing in search of any growth at all. For comparison, a single :30 prime time ad costs $112 thousand and would rarely, if ever, generate 5% sales growth. What marketing “secret weapon” could? Packaging.

Rethinking Packaging as a Marketing Driver

Yes, that’s right. Packaging. Packaging is an under leveraged marketing element for most brands. And it’s a marketing element that every brand must have. So why not make it great?

What other marketing element is present for 100% of category purchase decisions and is the most important marketing element at the single most important point in a purchase journey―the purchase decision itself? It’s so self-evidently obvious that I’ll say it again: packaging is the probably the single most important marketing element beyond the product itself for any brand.

And the great thing about packaging is that it’s “always on.” This means that the ROI can be much, much higher that other episodic marketing activities because it’s always working for you and typically lasts for years. It also links to and reinforces many other Marketing activities―for example, advertising almost always features a brand’s packaging ―which further amplifies its effect.

If you buy this assertion, you have to ask: why don’t Marketers think much about packaging when it comes to growing their brand? It’s probably because research shows that ~90% of new package designs yield no volume impact whatsoever. Most of them know through experience that packaging efforts rarely lead to any measurable market success.

Exploration―The Key to Packaging Success

And why the lack of success? Two things. First is subjective decision making, i.e., senior management making packaging decisions without any consumer data as to packaging effectiveness. The second is limited creative exploration.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The key is to ask for and enable design exploration. Really broad design exploration. Most package design efforts are far too narrow―and this is a huge barrier to winning designs.

In fact, 50% of packaging agency professionals, on average, present only three or fewer designs to clients. Yet, at the same time, 62% of CPG professionals agree that exploring more design directions earlier in the process would help them to identify higher-performing designs.

We know that quantity begets quality. Using key measures of packaging success like preference, share of attention, and visibility, Nielsen found that scores increase dramatically as the number of options presented and tested increase:

Preference Share of Attention Visibility
6 Designs 55% 43% 18%
Difference +27 +11 +5

Don’t be part of the 59% of CPG professionals who too often stick with what’s safe and don’t consider bolder ideas that might have more potential. It’s simple, really. Be bold. More package design exploration equals better packaging.

Better Packaging, Increased Sales

Most importantly, optimized packaging from broad exploratory design efforts generate an average +5.5% forecasted volume lift. Combine this with the average $102 thousand cost of a package redesign effort, and you get a very, very robust and long lasting return on your Marketing investment.

Want to use asymmetric marketing to grow your brand? In search of a Marketing “secret weapon?” It’s right in front of you — your packaging. Only make sure that you explore broad and wide, before you go deep. Because if you do, you’ll know, to paraphrase Andrew J.R. Mack: “why small packaging efforts win very big sales.”