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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Packaging design: the battle to stand out

Brett Goldhawk asks, in the battle for stand out, is it time to be more selfish with design and packaging thinking?

The argument of using design cues and familiarity from one product to that of a rival helping to grow the category as well as the brand is well trodden. Everyone wins and in theory if you are the brand doing the heavy lifting you win most.  Maybe. Sometimes. Unless price is factor. Or promotion. Or just something that looks the same in our copycat/low differentiated packaging era. The reality is you need to start stealing market share and being fully brand focused, not being the door opener for others. Times are tough, retailers want to see differentials, loyalty needs to be earned and a fight mentality needs to be the fore.

This might be working harder on the differentials. Finding the edge, look and feel, or design approach and message that actively challenges others. Being disruptive in the way the category normally communicates. And recognising that the current messaging, vibe, or tone of voice might not be cutting it.

Or it might be finding partnerships, extensions, and innovations beyond a new and well-trodden flavour that others have already done and making those sing off the shelf.

So, if they are still on, it’s time for gloves off.

And here are three killer questions to work through.

  • Where is the brand ambition?

Which in essence means when you are planning for design or innovation, are you being front foot original, or back foot defensive? If you follow too many category cues, finding your own space will be harder, and the only battle you will really be fighting is one of price, as the customer ability to spot the difference will be limited, which in turn limits your own ability to stand your own ground on value. This comes from the core of the packaging and design itself; distinctive assets such as logo, pack architecture, illustration styles, photography, colour cues, flavour lines, claims, tone of voice, formats, finishes….

The pasta aisle for example, from arguably the most vibrant foodie nation with rich colourful dishes, has little differentiation. Show the product through transparent packaging? Tick. Pick one solid brand colour (if any colour at all). Tick. Try and live Italian flavours, food cues and a cornucopia of kitchen energy?? Nope. Why would we rock the boat and stand out?

Or why would any brand launching a new flavour tempt customers with anything beyond salted caramel? Sure, it’s ok to launch salted caramel products but what about a bit of original thinking. In the morning maybe a salted caramel spread with crunchy bits for added texture. At lunch why not dunk your french fries in a chocolate dip, possibly even your nuggets too. And in the evening enjoy some chocolate covered salty peanuts with a pint at your local. Different occasions, distribution channels and audiences. It’s about thinking differently, being bold and having the confidence to try something a little out there.

(These were all ideas that surfaced at a global workshop we facilitated for a major cereal brand looking beyond their category).

I understand why people play it safe. You may be spreading the risk, but you are also limiting real success. If you believe that now’s the time to steal market share, don’t just look to your direct competitors but other categories too.

Which brings us to the next question once ambition is agreed upon:

  • What are the specific questions you are asking at design stage?

Are you looking at the sector to see what others are doing and nicking the best bits? Or are you looking at the sector to see what might be missing? The order here is vital. It’s more than semantics. It’s finding the things that people will notice rather than things that may or may not have a subliminal impact. Such as Heinz turning their bottles upside down for the ‘better way’ to pour ketchup.

The risk of missing the original is that you not only fall into a similar space to your competitors, but own label approaches will blur the water even more. A past ‘Which survey’ revealed one in five consumers have picked up the wrong product, mistaking brands for own label versions because copycatting is too easy to do, or too hard to avoid doing for the less ambitious. When we workshop with clients, it’s the difficult questions – the ones you might want to avoid – that form the foundation of any brand strategy. When we were approached by Canada’s No.1 pastry brand to help them become more ‘relevant’ in mid-week occasions just like their competitors (as they were losing ‘seasonal’ share), we wanted to understand the root cause before accepting the significant change in strategy that would make them the same as everyone else.

And here’s the problem, most businesses look at their data through the wrong lens. Through fresh eyes, it became clear that for every pound less they spent on seasonal activity vs. the previous years it correlated to a reduction in sales vs. the previous years. Simply put when they broadcast their ‘seasonality’ at the right times of the year their sales spiked. So yes, frequency of purchase was the problem but to solve it the brand needed to up their focus on the holiday seasons and not ‘everyday’ mealtimes. Same problem, different solution. And one that kept the brand differentiated in the market and an easier start point for packaging design. And that’s the value. If you start with solving the basics, it’s easier to bring that back to something differentiated and original. Providing a clear focus for the brand to execute seasonal packaging and flavours, a fully integrated social media and advertising strategy and a sales and marketing team that are fully aligned on the strategy to execute together.

  • Decide who you are going to listen to

Outside of the branding and planning room and team that is. Because if your choice of validation on packaging and design is going to be focus group led, think carefully first. If you give a bunch of people, being paid to be a room, an ‘A or a B’ choice on final design options, and they spend a few hours thinking about it, and listening to a debate around brand personality and audience need states, this isn’t the real world of product buying. And they may end up choosing the least bad of the choices you throw at them.

There may be a place for that level of testing of course, at the right time and before that artificial final A and B choice of doom, but real listening happens by observing people. Working with the reality that different aisles in any store tend to have browsing time and dwell times lasting a few seconds. This is not the considered space that the rarefied approach of a focus groups lives in. Grass roots research involves standing in a supermarket, watching people shop. In your related aisle, and around aisles that might have some fresh and original products in look, feel or marketing going on.

It may feel old school to be so analogue in standing and watching, but it has never been more relevant in competitive, pressured times with abundance of choices for consumers to make or avoid. Getting in the mind of consumer is sometimes less about high level audience personas, and more about those few seconds of reality.


And with digital shopping and online brand choices, it’s even more important to look at the sea of bland and see how simple flat cut out imagery of packaging can dominate a retailer website without any real stand out. The same few seconds to grab attention can apply here, so there is even less value of a me-too lookalike when our minds blur what they see.

So as a wrap up, the packaging design phase can lead to natural thoughts around colours, logos, flourishes, and small detail. It’s what design geeks (and I’m one) love. But before you get to that detail, you need to take that big step back first (which i also love) and ask those tricky questions…

As the sage of wisdom Ferris Bueller once said: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Brett Goldhawk
Brett Goldhawk
Brett Goldhawk Managing Director, Ziggurat, Brett is a global brand and innovation specialist. He leads Ziggurat, a brand and packaging design agency which has been based in the heart of London for over 35 years. Specialising in the food and drink sectors, Ziggurat has created and launched countless category leaders. https://ziggurat.london

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