Dollar for dollar, your packaging is arguably the most important and cost effective marketing money you’ll ever spend. Consider that it’s your only branding vehicle seen by 100% of your consumers. What’s more, those consumers are influenced by it at the exact moment of decision. (Significantly, 90% of shoppers make impulse purchases. And statistics vary, but they all indicate that between 50% and 67% of ALL grocery store purchases are purely impulsive. Even with shoppers who use lists, the opportunity is always there to sway them to your brand at the last moment.)

Your packaging sits right next to your competition (no other advertising vehicle undergoes that level of scrutiny). It’s mute. It’s static. And it’s doing all of the heavy lifting. It’s the distillation of everything your brand represents. So it’s absolutely critical that your packaging be as hard working as it possibly can. If anything about it isn’t optimal and perfect, you’re simply wasting money and a huge marketing opportunity. Furthermore, if you can’t validate that your packaging is communicating exactly the right message to consumers, you’re just guessing.

That said, in the real world, we understand that you’ve got issues of budgets, inventory, and timetables to juggle. Changing your packaging always involves effort, time, money and a certain level of risk. So the big, hairy question becomes, how do you know if the time is right to engage in the exercise of a packaging refresh? Here are the 8 key signs that should make that answer obvious and defendable.

Sign 1 — Is your food packaging more than 3 years old?

Back in the day, package design used to stay fresh for years and years. But the confluence of trends, attitudes and technologies are conspiring to age your packaging like never before. It means your 6 year old package is really 46, in dog years.

At its core, eating is a very emotionally driven experience. And buying food is all about imagining and anticipating that experience. Even the largest legacy brands in the world, with decades of awareness and millions of dollars worth of brand equity, routinely refresh their look (albeit very carefully).

Paleo, flexitarian, non-GMO, gluten-free. Who can keep up with it all? Your competitors, that’s who. And with the rise of Amazon, anybody who has a good idea and a better product is now your competition. Innovation is the norm, and disruption is close behind. If you’re not actively keeping tabs on what your competition is doing, what they look like, and how they’re communicating it, you don’t stand a chance in today’s marketplace.

Food packaging is part fashion. Colors come in and out of style. Graphic techniques change. (Remember when all of the app icons in the world went flat, because Apple’s did? That style quickly made its way onto food packaging icons.) Likewise, a beautiful photo from 5 years ago just doesn’t look the same as a new one. Ever flip through the TV channels and see footage from a football game, and instantly recognize that it was from a previous season? That’s what we’re talking about here.

Additionally, with dramatic advancements in printing technology, including: extended gamut, 7 color process, incredible digital flexo advances, new substrate offerings, and ultra-precise in-line finishes becoming available almost weekly, the options are cheaper and better than ever before. As soon as your competitors take advantage of these options, you’ve already fallen behind.

Whether it’s the messaging, design, or production of your package, don’t let it become dated. Your packaging is a marketing vehicle that’s just too valuable to waste. Despite the temptation of a “good deal,” ordering massive quantities that will last more than a few years can be a very dangerous bet. It’s likely to stick you squarely between the “rock” of throwing out inventory and the “hard place” of losing market share to more nimble competitors.

Sign 2 — Was any research done to optimize your packaging in the first place?

Research is like having headlights on your car at night. You might make it home without them. But you’ll never regret seeing that unexpected curve up ahead. In the food arena, where you don’t get second chances, it’s often very cheap insurance. The good news is that in the 21st Century, even primary research is more affordable than ever. Quantitative, qualitative, A&Us, even eye tracking studies are now within the reach of smaller companies. And you better believe the bigger brands aren’t making a move without it.

Sign 3 — Are you following the latest regulations?

Are you incorporating the newest Facts Up Front iconography on your packaging? If not, you’re missing an entire generation of shoppers. Are you up to date on the latest allergen and GMO disclaimers? And while the FDA doesn’t have the manpower to go around and check your compliance, your competition certainly does. And the FDA takes phone calls. Consider that while you’re making those changes (and you need to make new plates anyway), it’s an excellent time to reassess the rest of your package.

Sign 4 — Have you introduced new line additions since your packaging was designed?

Packaging on-shelf is a delicate balance between carving out a visual “billboard” and allowing consumers to quickly differentiate between your varieties. If you’ve added more than a SKU or two since your last refresh, you might be hurting yourself more than you’re helping. While you’re at it, now might be a good time to revisit the optimization of your product line. Will that next trendy flavor you plan on launching get you incremental sales, or just cannibalize your existing line? Are you sure of that? Or are you just guessing? (see Sign 2)

Sign 5 — Was your last refresh helpful, harmful or just different?

Do you understand what’s truly distinctive and can be leveraged about your brand equity? Or did your last refresh just try to make it look nicer? Worse than that, did your last refresh completely throw out your existing design in an effort to make something dramatic, at the expense of your hard- fought equity? Careful evaluation of equity assets is particularly important for legacy brands.

Overall, it’s a tricky tightrope of keeping your brand fresh and relevant and enticing new consumers, without confusing, alienating or losing current customers. Keep in mind that when a package design changes, the obvious question in consumers’ minds is, did the product change as well? It’s an important consideration, and one that requires experience and skill to be handled properly.

Sign 6 — Is your messaging hierarchy in balance?

Here’s the math. 30,000+ new grocery products introduced each year. Average time spent looking at each product, less than 3 seconds. Depending on the source, estimates are that 70%–90% of these fail. Now, with all this in mind, can you definitively say that your messaging hierarchy is what it should be? Are you quickly and clearly communicating your brand promise, personality, distinctive assets, product attributes, appetite appeal and flavor variety in the right order, all at a glance? Again, are you sure of that? Or are you just guessing? (see Sign 2 again)

Sign 7 — Does your photography stop them in the aisles?

People eat with their eyes first. That means that the photography on your package has the power to make or break your sales. For most of the history of the world, eating something that wasn’t quite right could literally kill you. So subtle indicators of what’s good or bad to eat are hardwired into the decision making process, expressed as powerful emotions. A shift of color or lighting on a box of diapers means nothing. The slightest tinge of green on your photo of meat makes it literally repulsive. Likewise, when the perfect balance of styling, lighting, propping, and composition align, there is almost nothing as enticing and compelling as a mouthwatering photo.

Even if your photography was great a few years ago, it should be reevaluated by today’s standards. Camera and lighting technologies have advanced radically in the past few years alone. And selective focus isn’t just a good way to control consumer eye flow; without it, your product looks flat, old and boring. Simply put, your packaging is critical, and your photography is the cornerstone of it all.

Sign 8 — Who developed your packaging?

If your answer was anything except a company who specializes in food and beverage branding, you should get a second opinion. With food packaging, it’s the nuances that make all the difference. Brand hierarchy, personality, eye flow, texture, color, propping, and even descriptors are all absolutely critical. And your package is only as strong as the weakest element.

There used to be a store on the boardwalk at the Jersey shore called “Henry’s Fine Jewelry & T-Shirts.” Usually, when I tell that to somebody, they laugh. It’s obvious (to everyone except Henry) that the “T-Shirts” part of the name negates the “Fine Jewelry” message. But if you’ve got any part of your package that doesn’t resonate properly with consumers, that’s exactly what you’re doing. If your branding, or your message, or your claims, or your photography, or your graphics, or your nutrition facts don’t all align, you’ve got fine jewelry and T-shirts for sale.