When consumers take under five seconds to make up their minds,you are what you look like

It was the easiest $50,000 John Paino ever lost. Paino, president of Nasoya Foods Inc., which sells tofu products, had bought $50,000 worth of radio time in two key markets, convinced his first major advertising campaign would push Nasoya into the big time.

"When the ads ran in New York and Boston, I saw a small sales spike, but nothing like I expected, and certainly not enough to pay for the ads," says Paino. "It was then I knew getting serious about our packaging was the right thing to do."

Your . . . packaging?

Think about it for a second, counters Paino, whose $6-million company is head-quartered in Leominster, Mass. Highlighting your package makes sense for smaller companies, which don't have millions of dollars to spend on advertising. "Your package sells for you 24 hours a day, as it sits on the shelf," says Paino. He adds that if your packaging looks good, it can make your company appear far bigger than it is, lend credibility to your sales pitch, and help justify a higher price.

Those, however, are just the obvious advantages, says Paino. The real benefit of rethinking your packaging is that it makes you determine what is unique about your company. Since the perfect package stresses only two or three things (see "The Right Design," page 2), you're forced to decide what's really important about what you do.

Paino hired Selame Design of Boston -- which has created the packaging for companies such as Kodak, Veryfine juices, and Amoco -- to help him figure out what to emphasize. The principals at Selame, Joseph and Elinor Selame and Greg Kolligian, began by looking at the packaging for Paino's tofu-based salad dressings and mayonnaise -- and they all but winced. Not only were there conflicting typefaces, but the packaging was cluttered, hard to read, and quite frankly not very appealing.

That's not surprising, says Joe Selame. Figuring their package is their only chance to communicate directly with end-users, small companies usually try to cram as much as possible onto it.

"The problem is people don't read -- or at least don't read a lot," says Joe Selame. "If there are more than a couple of ideas on the package, they lose interest. You must keep things simple."

Fine, in theory. But Paino thought all the elements on the package were important. That's why they were there. What could change?

He knew something would have to. When Paino hired Selame in 1988 -- at a cost eventually topping an estimated $100,000 -- he was trying to gain supermarket shelf space. While health-food store customers are willing to spend time looking at every part of the package, supermarket shoppers aren't. In a little more than an instant, "the package has to position the product, convey a singular brand identity, and sell the consumer," says Arthur Caponi, executive vice-president of Lister Butler Inc., a New York City based brand-identity consulting firm.

But there were too many things on Nasoya's package to make it an easy sale. So Paino sat down with the Selames and started to reinvent Nasoya's packaging. Instead of debating the benefits of each element already in place, they started with a blank piece of cardboard.

"Our underlying idea was to create a label that would appeal to people likely to be our customers, folks interested in 'all natural' but not necessarily health-food fanatics," says Paino. "Intuitively we knew they were probably well educated, with a bit of money. So we wanted a label that was colorful, friendly, and upscale."

With that in mind, Selame Design set to work. To suggest fun and friendly, they put a checkered tablecloth -- the kind of thing found in family restaurants -- on the package. That was the easy part.

But what would fill the rest of the label? Paino had been stressing tofu.

Wrong, said the Selames.

"The word tofu turns people off," says Joe Selame. He suggested removing it from the label. It did not go over well.

Paino had built Nasoya into the second-largest tofu-based food company in the country. He was proud that his tofu was a product of organically grown soybeans and well water. It was important, Paino argued, for his customers to know that.

"But the Selames got me to ask, What are we selling: products made of tofu or the benefits of tofu? They helped me understand that I had to stress the benefits of our product.

"When you sell through the mass market, you have to be market driven. And the market -- our customers as well as the store buyers, who after all are also consumers -- told me repeatedly that the appeal of our product was that it has no cholesterol and few calories. That's what I had to stress."

But if he were to play up those things, other benefits would have to be played down. That fact that Nasoya's version of mayonnaise and salad dressings contains tofu was pushed to the back of the label. The information about how its tofu is grown in well water was shoved into the ingredients list, which appears in tiny print on the back.

There were other changes. The name of his mayonnaise -- Nasoyanaise -- became Nayonaise. And eventually, even the name Nasoya disappeared from the front of the package.

"Nasoyanaise told people what the product was and who we were, but it was too long and too hard to say," says Paino. "The product hadn't been out there all that long, so we didn't worry about confusing people."

But what about removing the company name from the label? Forget for a moment about whatever name recognition Nasoya had, what about the question of ego? The Nasoya name, after all, is something Paino had worked 12 years to develop.

"Ego comes second," says Paino. "Cash flow comes first. We needed the room on the label to stress the products' benefits."

As a result of the changes, mayonnaise sales rose 50%, and salad dressing revenues climbed about 25% to 30%, says Paino. He knows the packaging is responsible for the increases, since he kept everything else constant when he introduced the changes.

No surprise, then, that Selame is now working to design Nasoya's other products' packaging. It is, Paino is now convinced, a wise investment. "We spent $2 million on a plant and equipment, but the consumer didn't know any of that. Our package now tells people we are worth a premium. If I'm going to have a label, it should be as good as the product I make."

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Here's what to do to give your package zing

In designing a package, Joe Selame says: know your audience's needs, ensure the package looks appealing, and avoid trying to look trendy. Fads fade.

Among his other suggestions:

* State the benefit -- simply. "If you can't say it in one or two sentences, chances are, you don't know what you're talking about," says Selame. Stress your two or three major selling points up-front; save the rest for the fine print or the back of the package.

* Keep it clean. "Filling white space around a message is like creating static around music. You can't hear the song," Selame says. "Give the message breathing room; avoid visual clutter. Clutter reflects indecision. Simplicity reflects confidence."

* Be consistent. Once you have a design you like, use it everywhere: in your advertising, on your letterhead, business cards, trucks -- everywhere.