Regardless of how successfully a brand performs in the marketplace, there always comes a time when its package design system needs to be refreshed. Even if its design and standardization have been well-maintained by its brand owner, it may simply become outdated over time – not only visually, but also in how effectively it caters to today’s consumers’ ever-changing shopping behaviors in a rapidly-evolving retail landscape.
More often than not, however, the downfall of a great package design system is the result of poor decisions made by the brand’s marketers and brand managers themselves. When introducing new products and product line extensions to the marketplace, they often abandon their brand’s package design system and its standardization parameters. Why? Because they want these new products to stand out among other products in the line and among competitive brands within their category. As a result of this mindset, they’re tempted to try something different with their brand’s packaging for these new items, either subtly or dramatically, trading visual and verbal consistency for a “one-off” look that they feel will surely gain the attention of their target consumers.
Unfortunately, this often results in a visually disjointed brand statement at retail, which leads to confusion and waning interest among consumers and a drop-off in sales.
The importance of conducting a package design system evaluation
Once it has been determined that it’s time for a design refresh, it’s important to evaluate the brand’s current package design system before any design work begins. If properly conducted, a diagnostic evaluation will uncover any issues with how the package design system has been maintained and standardized, identify where poorly-conceived exceptions have been made, expose inconsistencies in the use of package design assets, and reveal on-pack communication that may be ineffective or failing to resonate with consumers.
Once completed, a brand’s package design system evaluation will culminate in a prescriptive path for its design refresh, serving as a creative strategy for all concept development, design refinement and creation of standardization guidelines.
Which aspects of a package design system should be evaluated and why?
In a previous article, I delve a bit deeper into why package design systems break down and the benefits of conducting a package design system evaluation. In this article, I’ll identify the 7 key aspects – or vitals – of a brand’s package design system that should be included in its evaluation and explain their importance.
Brand Identity Placement and Treatment
It may seem obvious that the brand’s identity should appear within its package design system. But, merely including in on-pack isn’t enough. The brand identity is the primary visual asset of any brand and is one of the first that consumers identify when scanning product packaging at retail. The deficiency of many package design systems often lies in how the brand identity has been utilized. Therefore, it’s placement on every package panel should be carefully considered, as should its hierarchy among all other packaging communication. Consistency is critical here. The brand identity’s placement, particularly on the primary display panel, shouldn’t shift from one package configuration to another, nor should it appear on different colors or backgrounds, unless color and backgrounds need to change as part of an on-pack product segmentation system.
Being consistent with placement and treatment of the brand identity will ensure that consumers will find it immediately rather than having to hunt for it from package to package. Identifying the brand identity is a split-second event that takes place just before consumers move on to all other on-pack communication. Yet, it can throw off their entire experience with your packaging if the brand identity’s placement and treatment isn’t predictably consistent.
A few critical questions to ask about brand identity placement and treatment when evaluating your brand’s package design system: Does the brand identity work best in the upper left corner, centered at the top, or somewhere along the bottom? If so, why? Is its scale from panel to panel consistent? Is its legibility ideal when viewed from a few feet away? Does its relationship to all other package communication establish the proper hierarchy?
Package Design Architecture
Package design architecture is a distinctively dominant aspect of the design that embodies something emotive and inherent to the brand – something highly identifiable that works in conjunction with other aspects of the package design system to connect immediately with consumers. Most often, it’s a graphic shape. But, it can take other forms as well, such as illustrated or photographic imagery, a consistently-configured piece of character artwork, or an iconic pattern or texture. As is the case with the brand’s identity, it must always be consistently placed within the package design system for it to be effective.
Although it’s possible for a package design system to be successful without distinctive package design architecture, I would argue that it vastly improves consumer recognition when it’s included as part of a package design system. I’d go even further to say that package design architecture is just as important to a brand’s packaging as its brand identity, particularly for licensed brands. It’s what consumers look for, in addition to the brand’s identity, when they’re trying to find their favorite brands in every retail category.
When evaluating your brand’s package design system, ask: Is the package design architecture arbitrarily-conceived or will consumers immediately and undeniably associate it with the brand? Does it extend seamlessly from one package configuration to another? And, does it resonate with consumers on an emotional level?
Here’s an article that digs deeper into the importance and functionality of package design architecture.
A package design system’s use of color is most successful when leveraging the color or color combination most closely associated with the brand. The use of color in package design has an immediate visual and emotional impact with consumers. Think of any successful brand in any consumer product category, and a distinctive color, or color palette, will come to mind immediately. Since most consumers connect with their favorite brands through a particular color, the brand’s color should dominate its package design system. And it should be done in a purposeful manner that creates an impact and establishes recognition. There’s no room for subtlety in taking ownership of a brand color – especially in today’s chaotic toy and entertainment marketplace.
For established brands, determining which color or colors should dominate its package design system is fairly easy. But, for new brands that have yet to build visual equity in the minds of consumers, it can be challenging. Quite often, in an effort to be distinctive, new brands take a look at the packaging of competitors within their product category and select a color for their brand that’s not currently being used. Can this be effective in helping a brand stand out? Sure. But there are risks involved. Categories are transient by nature. The brands that dominate can change over time. And their packaging can change quite often as well. So, it may not be in your brand’s best interest to base its packaging color on what’s not currently being used in the category because that may not be the case by the time your products hit retail. Furthermore, this approach to selecting a color or color palette has nothing to do with the brand. So, it will seem arbitrary to consumers. With this in mind, it’s best to take a brand-centric approach and look inward to determine color based on those that are meaningful to your brand and its personality. Then leverage that color or color palette in a well-conceived, distinctively-designed package design system.
Ask the following questions when evaluating the use of color in your brand’s package design system: Is the color palette inherently associated with the brand at every consumer touch point? Does it dominate the package design system, or is it being diluted by the use of imagery, background textures and other on-pack communication? If other brands in the category are using the same or similar colors, are you using yours in a distinctive, meaningful way?
Imagery Treatment and Usage
The use of imagery in package design has a variety of purposes and can be presented in an infinite number of ways. Most importantly, however, it has the power to establish a deep emotional connection with consumers, whether it’s bringing to life a super hero fantasy for an action figure, showcasing the dramatic action of a game’s play pattern, or simply showing off a product’s sleek, beautiful styling. It’s a critical aspect of every package design system because it’s what creates desire and generates excitement for the brand in a way that resonates with us visually.
When evaluating the use of imagery as part of your brand’s package design system, the key is to look for consistency in how it’s treated and how appropriately it appeals to the brand’s target audience. Always consider the following: Is the product imagery stylistically the same from one product’s package to another? Is it silhouetted or does it establish a specific environment or location in a consistent manner? If the imagery is complementary to the product, does it depict product usage or a particular lifestyle associated with the brand in a way that aligns with the brand’s personality?
One of the most overlooked and poorly-considered aspects of a package design system is how it addresses visual line segmentation. The purpose of having a segmentation strategy in place is to help consumers understand the breadth of the product line while allowing them to identify which product is best for their needs or desires. The key here is to be extremely clear and to avoid overwhelming consumers with information. And it’s also important to know if and when a package design system needs to incorporate a segmentation strategy.
When evaluating your package design system’s segmentation strategy – and determining whether it actually needs one – the packaging should be perceived from the consumer’s point of view. Then ask: Would line segmentation be meaningful to the brand’s target consumers? Would it help them purchase the correct product for their needs or desires? Are there products in the line made for different skill levels, or that have varying functionality or compatibility? Will there be enough product placed at retail for a segmentation strategy to make sense to consumers? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, a segmentation strategy would be critical to the success of the package design system at retail. If the answer is no, then the package design system shouldn’t have a segmentation strategy.
Here’s an article that explains how and when to incorporate a segmentation strategy into a package design system.
Brand and Marketing Communication
More often than not, we find that most package design systems fail to establish consistent placement for brand and marketing communication. This is typically a result of most marketers’ and brand managers’ tendency to place packaging communication wherever there is available space. This approach is detrimental to the shoppability of the product line because it becomes extremely difficult for consumers to find pertinent communication when navigating the brand’s packaging at retail. If they’re visually sifting through call-out violators and bursts in an attempt to find the product’s key benefits and features, it will be impossible to compare products within the line to determine which one best suits their needs.
As is the case with most aspects of a brand’s package design system, the key to effective brand and marketing communication is consistency in placement and treatment. When done properly, benefits and features, as well as any other product-specific communication, will be assembled in a single, common area within the design, which we often refer to as the package design system’s “information center.” Taking this approach makes is easier and more intuitive for consumers to shop the line, and much more likely that they’ll make a purchase.
It’s also important to ensure that brand and marketing communication is clear and concise, focusing only on the product’s most compelling and differentiating benefits and features. Consumers tend to gloss over verbal communication that’s lengthy or too complex. Be as brief as possible, while effectively getting the point across.
When evaluating the brand and marketing communication of your brand’s package design system, ask: Is the placement of brand and marketing communication predictable and easy for consumers to locate as they navigate from one product’s package to another? Is it treated consistently in terms of font, color, size and configuration relative to all other packaging communication? Is it clear, concise and easy to read?
Whenever the opportunity to establish an ownable structural strategy presents itself, we always encourage leveraging it as part of a brand’s package design system. Adopting a consistent and unique structural shape – one that is inherently associated with the brand – and that can easily extend to every package configuration in the product line, allows the brand to further distinguish itself from its competition – especially when the category is visually chaotic. Having a structural strategy in place also provides an opportunity to begin to tell the brand story in a way that makes an immediate visual impact.
We always evaluate structural strategy last because we see it as a value-added feature of a package design system. A luxury, if you will. With the ongoing effort to reduce packaging materials and cost, not every brand has the budget to invest in a break-frame structural strategy. If you do have one, ask the following questions when conducting an evaluation: Does the structural shape add perceived value and enhance the appeal of the overarching package design system? Does the shape extend seamlessly to all packaging configurations across the entire product line? Is the shape immediately and undeniably associated with the brand?
Here’s an article that discusses a unique approach to structure design strategy for an entertainment brand, which helps to further illustrate the benefits of leveraging package structure design to distinguish your brand at retail.
Other things to consider during a package design system evaluation
Once you’ve taken a close look at the 7 key aspects of your brand’s package design system, there are many other factors that should play into the evaluation before it’s concluded. A retail environment analysis should be conducted to gain an understanding of the competitive landscape and how products are merchandized within the brand’s category – or in all of its categories, if it’s a licensed brand. An evaluation of the brand’s current packaging’s standardization should be reviewed to uncover any implementation procedures that are problematic, so that they can be overcome after the design refresh. If it’s a licensed brand, or if the brand will accommodate a variety of licenses, a co-branding methodology should be in place. All of these should be addressed during an evaluation and contribute to overall assessment that will lead to the creative strategy for the brand’s package design system refresh.
If you’re interested in learning more, take a look at our diagnostic engagement, The Package Design System Evaluation. We’ve evolved and perfected this process over the past 3 decades and have employed it as a pre-design research phase on every package design refresh we’ve done for our clients. If you’re ready to discover what’s wrong with your brand’s current package design system and begin a prescriptive approach to improving its impact within the retail environment, contact me directly.