Putting the Packaging Cart Before the Branding Horse
An entrepreneur contacts a designer. He has a new product and he’s eager to sell it. He’s convinced it’s going to change the world. It’s really, really, incredible and no one’s done it just like this before…ever! It’s truly that original. So original it’s scary. But, he’s been so busy perfecting his product that he’s devoted almost no time to developing the brand. But that’s not important right now because this product is so revolutionary people will flock to it even if it was wrapped in a brown paper bag and tucked under a rock. However, he’s not suicidal, so he knows he needs a killer label, and if not killer, it needs to look at least as good as his competitors. Oh, and he needs to get it done now!
Much more than a pretty picture. Every design element in a package is there to support the brand story. That’s it. It’s their purpose in life. There is no fluff or filler.
So the entrepreneur starts off by describing what he wants on his product package. It’s a wish list of stuff that he’s absolutely sure he needs and he articulates each one with utmost confidence. He wants a big photo of the product here, the name in an oval here, and the background needs to be green. Well maybe blue, but definitely not red or yellow. Plus a star burst with the word “new”, and on the back, three big bullets points that say “all in one solution”, “no other product works better” and “patent pending!”. He also picked out the perfect fonts for the name – either Papyrus or Impact. He logically sees this as the first step. How else can you make a label if you don’t know what you want on it?
Now, the label design is last thing holding him up, so he’s super pumped and ready to move. He’s spent three years developing this product and he needs the label in two weeks. But that’s ok, because he knows exactly what stuff needs to be on the label and even picked out the fonts already. He just needs a designer to put it all together.
The designer, young and eager for work, jumps on it. He doesn’t bother asking any questions because the design is basically “done” and just needs an artist’s eye to put it all together.
The designer and the entrepreneur have a great first meeting. They brainstorm ideas on how big the photo should be, if the oval should have a gradient and a drop shadow, and which of the two fonts would work best. Everyone gets excited as they throw one cool idea after another on top on the design pile until it’s nearly falling over. Then the designer, flying high on enthusiasm and confidence, makes the package.
A few days later the client receives the comps and he’s thrilled because it has all the things he wanted. Just a few tweaks and we’re done. Yeah! Then everyone pats themselves on the back for a job well done.
This is all too common and completely ass-backwards. Yep this is the wrong way to design a package and will greatly reduce your chances of success in the marketplace.
A package design is not a pretty picture you glue to a bottle, it’s not attractive box that you put something in, and it’s not an empty vessel waiting to be filled with your latest design ideas. It’s not another entry for a design competition, it’s not an object of beauty to impress your peers, and it’s not another showcase piece for your portfolio. It’s not a laundry list of things you think you want or a billboard for your personal preferences. So what is it then?
A package is a self-contained, self-sufficient marketing machine – an advertising department, company spokesperson, floor salesman, radio jingle, full-page ad, and a 30 second commercial all wrapped up into one. It must survive on its own. It must single-handedly convey its value and then close the sale – and it must do this without the advantages of mobility, voice, and thought. A package is a foot soldier sent out to destroy your enemies and capture the attention of the fickle consumer where victory is measured in sales. No sales, no victory. And to get those sales you’re going to need some serious weaponry.
So I’m not going to give you a tutorial on how to use Illustrator. And I’m not going to discuss filters and effects. You can learn that from a book or a YouTube video. It also compounds the problem because they have nothing to do with creating a great package design. I know it’s common to think of software, fonts and effects first – and many clients will try to push you into that model – but it’s backwards.
So instead, I’m going to tell you what every designer and every entrepreneur needs to ask themselves, and what three requirements your package design must satisfy, if they are serious about their product thriving and not just surviving in the marketplace. Then, and only then, can you justify spend hours tweaking pixels, points and percentages to really make the package sing and leap off the shelf and into the consumer’s basket.
1. Your Product Package Must Convey a Compelling Brand Story
Unless you’ve invented and entirely new product that defies categorization (not likely) you will face a wall of established competitors. Having a unique, easy to read package, while necessary to get the consumer to pick it up, is not enough to get them to put it in the cart and seal the deal. The consumer wants to know why they should buy it.
This “why” is the brand story. Depending on your category, a brand story can be a simple articulation of being organically certified or as complex as a character driven back story. A highly contested category with few differentiators among products will place greater demands on your brand story than an uncontested field with high variety.
Say you have a category where being organic, fair trade certified, and raw are the top three value positions demanded by consumers. There are three brands in this category, but all three products already meet these demands. So being organic, fair trade certified, and raw is no longer a differentiator but a base level requirement to enter this category. So while having these attributes is essential to enter the game, it will not be enough to get someone to switch from a competitor’s product to yours.
This is where your brand story comes in. Perhaps all your competitors are foreign-owned imports but yours is a domestic company. Maybe your company is the only one that donates 10% of its profits to environmental causes. Perhaps your business is minority owned, women owned, or employee owned. Maybe it’s union made or uses recyclable materials. Whatever you have that your competitors don’t can be the basis of a brand story. And when given a choice of options emphasize the ones that are difficult or expensive to acquire or copy. It’s not that difficult for your competitor to source the same recyclable materials as you, but it is very expensive for them to become a union shop or employee owned. And if you don’t have any attributes that are difficult or expensive for your competitor to copy, then pick something they can’t have no matter what their budget. This can be a family recipe handed down from generation to generation, a product that was invented by Uncle Joe in his garage, or one developed for Oscar, your finicky cat that hated all the other commercial pet foods. These brand stories are not that impressive in of themselves, but they are impossible for your competitor to copy. However, in a crowded market with nearly identical options, they are enough to give consumers a reason to switch their brand loyalty.
So how valuable is a brand story? Well Coke and Pepsi have been waging a billion dollar war for decades over which is more important – being the “Real Thing” or being the “Choice of a New Generation”. Why? Because they have nothing else to offer as a differentiator. They’re both sweet, carbonated sodas that rot your teeth, make you fat and give you type II diabetes. The only thing left is to create some psychologically driven fantasy about what type of person you are if you drink their beverage. That’s it. That’s all they got. But it works because it creates a clear distinction between their brands in the consumers mind – even if it is just smoke and mirrors and entirely without substance.
Your brand story’s job is to create that distinction, even if it’s mostly bullshit.
2. Your Product Package Must Match Consumer Expectations for Its Category Yet Also Differentiate Itself from Its Competitors.
This is the paradox is great packaging. It may seem like a killer idea to make your soda pop look like a bottle of detergent, but when the stockers accidentally shelve it next to Tide or when it’s sitting next to the Coke and Pepsi and is completely ignored by the consumer because they think it’s for washing their clothes, it won’t seem like such a hot idea. So don’t try to change the way people have been conditioned. If you think you can retrain the entire population and wipe away generations of habit, you’re dreaming. However, to have any chance of success, your packaging must be different enough so it stands out from its competitors. So a frozen burrito wrapper must look like a frozen burrito, yet be different from all the other frozen burritos.
So how do you accomplish this feat?
Even if you couldn’t read or were seeing it from across the store you’d know this is a wall of spaghetti sauce. This is because there is a distinct DNA for this category. This DNA includes clear, wide mouth jars, paper labels and lots of reds, yellows and greens. The brand in the middle of the second shelf is breaking the DNA – or is it? No other labels are white, or put the ingredient graphic at the top above the name, so it sticks out in a major way. It’s shocking how something so simple can create such drama. How would you react? Are they breaking the DNA and taking an unnecessary risk, or is the white label with reverse order hierarchy a bold stylistic choice that will pay off?
First, take a look at all the products in a specific category. It’s best to do this in a real environment, like a supermarket. Look at them and note the category’s DNA. These are the shared visual cues that let the consumer know that yes, these are jars of spaghetti sauce and not bottles of soy sauce. This DNA cannot be changed without very careful consideration to the consequences. Mess around with the DNA and you may make a mutant. In humans, our DNA places our eyebrows above our eyes and your nose in the middle of our face. This is where we expect them. If you suddenly showed up with eyebrows on your cheeks and your nose on your chin you would stand out in a very bad way. You would not get dates easily and people would rightly think something is seriously wrong with you. Your product will be treated the same way.
Now look at all the elements that are different within your product category. These are stylist choices. This is what you should try to change first before messing with the categories DNA. As long as your hair is on your head you’re fine. It can by curly, straight, short, long, colored or even missing and you will still get dates. They’ll be a segment of the population that will really dig your hair no matter how it’s styled. However it must be on your head. It can’t be on your elbow or on your foot.
There are also macro and micro levels of DNA. Take breakfast cereal. On a macro level, cereal comes in a box. Only oatmeal or cooked cereals come in a cylinder. So your cereal should be in a box. On a micro level kids cereals are colorful, cartoony and have characters on them while adult cereals are conservative, earth toned and use folksy imagery of nature. If you made a donut shaped kids cereal with frosting and marshmallows but called it Nature’s Way and put it in a brown box with forest and gold accents, you will sell very little cereal. Both kids and adults will not be able to identify it properly. Any adult that bought it looking for a healthy cereal would be rightly pissed. Likewise, if you made a low sugar, flaky, dry, organic, 100% oat bran cereal that had a colorful bug-eyed parrot on a rainbow colored box and called it Wacky Frosted Doodle Bombs, no one would buy that cereal more than once. Any kid that begged their parent to buy it would be in for a major disappointment. So you need to follow the product category’s DNA or risk major confusion and rejection from your target consumer.
3. Your Product Package Must Be Easy to Read, With Good Flow and a Clear Hierarchy of Design Elements
Visually, all successful package design comes down to hierarchy and flow. Hierarchy allows a customer to digest a large amount of information easily. Flow is the way the customer’s eyes effortlessly move up, down, and around the package. When composed properly, a package design layout takes the customer on a journey of discovery, taking a path with an infinite loop. This infinite loop keeps the customer’s eyes on the move where each design element leads you to the next one, which leads to another, unlit they complete their journey and are prompted to take it again.
Leave nothing to chance. Surf City Garage Pacific Blue Wash and Wax is an easy to read, powerful label by design.
But these journeys are not fixed. Your design may encourage a customer to start at the top, the middle, the bottom, or on the margin. The journey may zigzag or follow sweeping arcs and dips like a roller coaster. The customer may even encounter your product fallen over on its side or facing backwards. But this shouldn’t matter. A good design will pull them along until they’ve seen everything. You should be able to hand your product to someone and say look at the barcode – the most static and ugly part of any package – and the design’s flow and hierarchy would lead them effortlessly from the barcode to the rest of the design. If their eyes just stay there, you have a problem.
So that’s the theory but here’s how it works in practice.
1. Tell a Story
Your product package design’s job is to tell a compelling story. The better the story the better the sales. You need to know this BEFORE you start designing. It is essential to your brand strategy and must be resolved before you start to design. I’ll say it one more time – you need to know your brand story BEFORE you start designing. Really, it’s that important. Otherwise you’re just making a pretty picture and that is NOT what a good package design is.
2. Pick a Focus.
Something on your product is more important than everything else. It could be the company name, the tagline, the product’s name, how it’s used, what’s inside, its key differentiator, or an illustration or photo. Your brand strategy will determine what this element ultimately is. This element needs to be bigger, bolder, and more interesting than the rest. You can use size, color, texture, shape, placement, or psychological and emotional triggers to create this interest.
3. Create a Journey
Now it’s time to turn your focus point into the first step of a journey. So where do you want the customer to go next? Where you take them next depends on your brand strategy and the story you want to tell. Every element on a package has two jobs. Job one is to tell its part of the brand story. Job two is to get you to the next step in the journey. That’s it.
You achieve this through hierarchy and flow. Every element along the journey should have an emphasis that is appropriate for its job.
The composition of the package and the stylistic elements of each part should point you somewhere. You can create a linear top to bottom flow by stacking elements. You can create an “s” or zigzag pattern by staggering elements. You can mix and match visual patterns. Any pattern is acceptable but it should be clear and create an infinite loop.
Simple tricks to create flow and direction often include directional cues like arrows, italics, stepping, arches, and images with a distinct point of view. Below are examples that demonstrate these concepts in action and the consequences when they are ignored or violated.
these principles may seem obvious when illustrated so simply but they are routinely violated by entrepreneurs and designers.