Strategies & Insights

The Zone of Acceptability

Posted: September 22, 2009 by
Christina M. Manning

Packaging appeals to people when it evokes something in their identities. Colors, shape, size, texture, and materials can clearly represent femininity, athleticism, modernity, novelty, elegance, edginess, health-orientation, and green consciousness. Because people tend to select items that match some aspect of their identities, packages must fall within a zone of acceptability for the intended consumers. Packaging that catches people outside of that zone will likely be perceived as irrelevant at best and offensive at worst.

Trying to make people feel like they fit in is the hallmark of many marketing campaigns. This is a very reasonable approach since one of the most profoundly motivating needs is for social connections, a significant part of how people define themselves. The zone of acceptability is the range of characteristics and behaviors people believe are generally acceptable. These beliefs are supported by cultural, organizational, and even friendship or neighborhood norms, the typical behaviors that we see all around us. We are also tuned into what is accepted through the feedback we get from others when we act. Everyone has experienced the nod of acceptance or the look of disdain when behaving in public.

Research (Schultz et al, 2007; see footnote) supports the idea that people's behavior can be influenced by adding social information into the mix. It is important to display contextual reminders (words, images, emoticons, or other symbols) that indicate many people believe a particular behavior is the right thing to do. Also, when trying to increase compliance with norms, the behavior being advocated is more compelling to people when the messenger is high status (symbolically representing quality), similar to themselves, close to home, and likable.

Designing packages to fall within the zone of acceptability

From politicians to movie stars to our neighbors and coworkers, people are increasing their purchases of green products. More so than ever, a green or sustainable lifestyle is likely to fall within the zone for a large majority of people. At worst, it will be viewed as neutral; far more often, it will be viewed as positive.

However, packaging that screams environmental friendliness is not going to be appealing to non-believers and will most likely elicit a negative reaction from at least a small portion of consumers. These are the "clueless"—the group of consumers who either are not aware of environmental issues or prefer to deny their existence. This group is small, but they tend to buy a lot of consumer goods. The two groups for which green packaging definitely falls within the zone of acceptability are the "open-minded" (sympathetic to sustainability, but not aware of all aspects) and the "converted" (deeply green).

Consumers from these two groups are likely to respond positively to green packaging because they themselves and the people around them tend to be green. Even for consumers in these groups it is important to do some background research on where the boundaries of their zone of acceptability lie. It is also important to note that although people almost invariably follow norms, they do not like to admit it and much prefer to think of themselves as independent thinkers and actors. Even green believers might hesitate if they feel like they are following the pack when they do something green.

Designing packages for products that don't fall into the zone

Probably the biggest challenge is to use packaging to bring a product into the zone of acceptability. For instance, non-disposable feminine hygiene products like Gladrags or Party in My Pants are products that still fall outside the zone of acceptability for many women.

Since these items need to be carried around so that they are available when needed, the package can be a huge bonus (it's chic and practical) or a drag (people don't want it to be seen and would rather have something they can throw away). Is it possible to design packaging that is sustainable and also increases the likelihood the product itself will land inside the zone?

When it boils down to it, people aren't likely to do things if they don't see others around them doing it. One thing to consider is designing a package that creates its own sense of normality and acceptability because it is repeatedly displayed by all those who buy the product.

The most obvious manifestation of this would be something like a reusable bag or some other useful and attractive container that people can carry around, use for shopping, or bring to work. Having a logo embedded in these materials shows other people that the product is popular and, thus, within the zone of acceptability.

Dr. Elise L. Amel is an Industrial-Organizational Psychologist who teaches at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN.

Dr. Christie Manning, a Cognitive and Biological Psychologist, is a research fellow at the Center for Global Environmental Education and an adjunct faculty member at the University of St. Thomas, Hamline University, and Augsburg College.

Source: Schultz, P.W., Nolan, J.M., Cialdini, R.B., Goldstein, N.J., and Griskevicius, V. 2007. The Constructive, Destructive, and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms. Psychological Science 18 (5): 429 –434.