Can Simple Package Design Be Missing The Mark?

by Diane Lindquist on 11/27/2013 | 6 Minute Read

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These are the questions Ted Mininni,President of Design Force, Inc., asks in his latest opinion series contribution. Explore with Ted Mininni if simple packaging design is missing the mark.

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From purely a design perspective, there is beautiful packaging in one consumer product category after another. Yet, much of it fails at retail. If packaging stands out on the shelf because it’s really clean, terrific. But if it doesn’t convey enough about the uniqueness of the product via effective visual and verbal brand communication, how can it sell? Admittedly, there are a few classic brands that can get away with this, due to their long heritage or the incredible brand recognition that they enjoy. Great examples of each include Post Shredded Wheat cereal or Apple iPhone packaging. Consumers are very familiar with these branded products, so little communication is needed. For everything else, packaging exists to not only sell a product; it has to sell the brand and all that it stands for. If it doesn’t convince in the few seconds consumers are scanning the shelf, packaging has not delivered.

Before the design process can begin, research is necessary to uncover and leverage the drivers that speak to brand differentiation, value and consumer needs. For licensed brands, visual assets associated with the properties must be considered. A hierarchy can then be developed to prioritize and limit visual and verbal brand communication to what’s truly important and necessary. Knowing that consumers focus on few elements of the overall package design—only 3 or 4 according to eye tracking experts--helps marketers to edit out all but the most crucial information. QR codes can be used to support and expand verbal communication since consumers are increasingly relying on their smartphones while shopping.

Equally important package design considerations: brand identity placement, color, typography and structure that synergistically refer to the brand and communicate its unique values. The desired result is to communicate simply and efficiently while conveying authenticity, honesty and transparency: three compelling brand qualities that resonate with consumers. Brands that demonstrate more value cannot be easily commoditized in consumers’ minds. They can’t be compared to other brands and shopped solely on price. They elicit an all-important emotional response which builds long-term relationships and loyalty, taking price and competitors out of the equation.

Getting it right.

Simple can be powerful when it is properly designed. Method Home does simplicity well. Even though the brand continues to set the bar high, Method exceeded customer expectations with its co-branded Mickey and Minnie Foaming Hand Soap packaging. Which child, or parent, could look at this whimsical packaging and not be emotionally drawn to it? The package structure, in the shape of Mickey’s or Minnie’s head, immediately says “Disney”. No need to blare it; the Disney brand identity is embossed in one ear. Little else need be communicated except for the product name and the scent. This is a perfect licensing match: Method stands for wholesome products and Disney for wholesome entertainment. Can any other kids’ soap on the shelf compete with this, even if it’s extremely colorful?

"A prominent trend has been to contemporize packaging by making it simple. Clutter isn’t desirable, but in the haste to keep it clean, is packaging being oversimplified? To the point that it’s starting to look generic? Is this causing more problems than it solves? Are important brand drivers omitted to the detriment of sales and profits because it doesn’t communicate enough to the consumer? Finally, is this hampering otherwise strong brands from becoming category leaders?"

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Keurig presents another example of well-designed, simplified packaging for its K-cup brewing systems and individually branded coffees. All Keurig packaging features a horizontal black line as its design architecture. Below the line, the package is white, with Keurig specific communication. Above the line, individual coffee brands like Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Starbucks, and Dunkin’ Donuts are prominently featured with their brand identities and varieties. This system is in place so consumers can ensure that the cups work with Keurig’s brewing systems. Keurig’s packaging makes it easy for consumers to identify their favorite coffees at a glance. There’s additional brand communication on top and side panels for those consumers who require more information, as well.

Some store brands also do simple packaging well. Walgreen’s Nice! brand features all-white packaging and a brand identity in crisp black lettering that really stands out on retail shelves; especially when surrounded by consumer product brands packaged in every conceivable color. Crisp visuals of the product—often cleverly or playfully depicted to reinforce the brand—instantaneously tell the consumer what’s inside the package. Brand communication is simple, direct and delivers few, carefully-chosen sales points.

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The Nice! package design system is clearly the result of a well-developed style guide. The brand identity appears in the same position on each package, but the package and environment changes to reflect the product and its function. As a result, color changes and imagery changes are very clear. Even the dot on the Nice! exclamation point changes color to reflect the segment color. This makes sense as Walgreen’s expands its private label offerings into numerous consumer product categories from food and snacks to household cleaners. The package design system clearly segments the product lines while giving cohesiveness to the Nice! brand.

The packaging for Hasbro’s new take on the retro Furby is pared down, delivering the right brand communication for a new generation. A unique package structure with carry handle suggests that Furby is more than a toy; it’s a “pet” that can accompany the purchaser everywhere. Furby straddles the line between toy and collectible. A large image of the contemporized furry pal, with its large, pixeled eyes indicates that Furby has artificial intelligence and a lot of personality. The updated brand identity is boldly superimposed across the visual. Brand communication is limited to a tag line that simply states “a mind of its own”. These five words say it all. Furby will say what’s on its “mind” and dance and move in direct response to its owner. And it’s just as individualistic. Cute, endearing and clearly appealing to the emotions of consumers: not unlike those that are felt when adopting a real pet—Furby packaging is clean and simple but packs a punch.

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Simplifying packaging to give it a clean appearance is easy to do but hardly effective. With the full understanding of the brand and its target audience, package design teams can focus on the verbal and visual communication that truly matters to the brand--and to the consumer--and then eliminate everything else as unnecessary. When that happens, it doesn’t matter how many competitors’ products populate retail shelves.

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About Ted Mininni

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Ted Mininni is President of Design Force, Inc., the leading package and licensing program design consultancy to the consumer product and entertainment industries. 

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