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Are Brands Underplaying the Limited-Edition Opportunity?

by The Dieline on 02/07/2022 | 5 Minute Read

By David Palmer, Owner and Executive Creative Director – LOVE

A great deal of marketing is about creating attention and desire for your brand and product. Crack this, along with price and distribution, and you’re well on your way to a winning campaign. 

However, this simple marketing equation often translates to loads of effort and investment in communications and advertising: big-budget telly ads, massive purpose-communicating outdoor posters bought at expensive sites, "big campaign ideas" stuck in a vortex of research for months, marketing stunts to "disrupt" our lives, and thumb-stopping content (whatever that might be).

We get it—we’ve been there, and we’ll be there next year, too. After all, there are mountains of research to support the effectiveness of grand advertising campaigns.

But is this the only approach to balancing the marketing equation, or is there another way to drive awareness and desire? To cut out the advertising middleman—and the big budgets needed to execute advertising well? Can we short-cut straight to the greatest idea going— your product? 

Cue the limited edition.

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In simple terms, the limited edition is usually a small run of a well-known product, available for a limited time and creating a sense of exclusivity and rarity among fans. It is never really perceived as rock’n’roll as a big-budget ad by wannabe CMOs gunning for Gold at Cannes, but it should be. Limited editions are not new or revolutionary, and they increasingly get sed as a cornerstone of a strategy. But they are often under-used and under-funded, a tactical one-off rather than a big brand driver.

Plus, the best ideas often get shot down, as the marketer isn’t willing to put a rocket up some packaging supplier in Estonia who says the idea can’t be done in line with COGS.

Short and Long-term Effectiveness

Over the years, we’ve worked on a few limited editions and have seen that they can cut straight to the chase when building a brand—and crucially, drive sales. Short and long-term.

When well-executed, the limited edition turns your packaging and product into the greatest media channel. It puts desire right at the heart of your product. Your product becomes the idea—not a twice-removed piece of communication.

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Limited editions carry your most recognizable and distinctive brand assets (hello, Byron Sharp), and they can get used in lots of different ways. High-profile collaborations can create widespread interest, and suddenly those brands can speak to people they haven’t spoken to before. For example, last year Moët & Chandon partnered with Ambush creative director Yoon Ahn to release a limited-edition bottle. The partnership allowed the historic brand to tap into the rebellious spirit of the Korean-American fashion designer and reach her high-glamour and pop-culture sphere. Or take Veuve Clicquot latest collaboration with Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. The joyous limited edition refreshed the cultural relevance of the brand through beauty and the avant-garde for the original "Veuve" (Madame Clicquot).

When cult cereal brand Lucky Charms wanted a limited-edition release of its "marshmallow bits," we saw an opportunity to turn up the hype by tapping into drop culture’s codes of desirability. Our limited-edition pack ramped up the indulgent, premium nature of the limited release and, as a result, drew in hardcore fans and hypebeasts alike. Social media engagement hit over 35 million across Twitter and Facebook. The initial post on Instagram triggered over 200% more attention than usual (with no spend attached), making it Lucky Charms’ most-liked post ever. 

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Permanent and Transient

This all comes down to the adage that design is permanent and advertising is transient, but good limited-edition packaging is both.

It is transient in that it can react to a moment in culture—but also permanent, as a limited edition is often an object that people want to collect and keep. And for the consumer, a creative limited edition can be far more experiential than a traditional advertisement. 

Ads tend to tell and show us things with hopes that we find affinity with the brand, whereas limited editions allow consumers to interact directly.

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The Key to Limited-Edition Success

Limited edition success is not a given. Most of the time, it comes down to bad—or poorly executed—strategies. Don’t even think about using a limited edition for ad-hoc virtue-signaling—that is something to be avoided at all costs. 

In fact, the word "limited" is critical.

The limited edition is about being as scarce as possible—in terms of numbers and time available. Getting it right is about having the confidence and nerve to stick to the limited-bottle run or the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it availability—and reap the earned media that brings. 

But if brands think they can pair up with any celebrity or slap on a thoughtless label, they have missed the point. Limited editions need to be more considered than that. 

They need to build on a deep understanding of what makes a brand tick and where it has a legitimate and authentic reason to show up. For example, in our work on the limited-edition Johnnie Walker’s Bladerunner 2049 bottle, we didn’t just pick an exciting new film release out of a hat. We had uncovered an authentic connection between brand and cultural event—Johnnie Walker had appeared in the original movie. The release felt timely and real, reaching out to an audience beyond the core whisky consumer. 

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When you compare budgets, a TV ad—production and media spend—can cost millions, while the production of limited-edition packaging is a fraction of that. Yet the earned media and connections it can generate are invaluable. 

With a more integrated approach, you could get your advertising feeding off the packaging, making the packaging the star of the advertising itself. For brands that exist at the forefront of culture and strive to be talked about, it's not only a canvas but an opportunity. It’s worth re-evaluating whether some of that spend on a top-notch ad might be worth diverting to the new most exciting spot on the block—the limited-run pack.

David Palmer is a founding member and Executive Creative Director of LOVE, a UK-based creative agency. In his 21 years at LOVE, David has enjoyed partnering with an enviable roll call of global brands including Häagen-Dazs, Johnnie Walker, Guinness, PlayStation, Veuve Clicquot, Moët & Chandon, Brewdog, Umbro, and Nike. First and foremost a design-led thinker, David’s skillset spans brand strategy and design, innovation, packaging, spatial and experiential design, brand activation, and advertising.

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