It would be an understatement to say that not all licensed consumer products sell through at retail, regardless of how hot a property may be. More often than not, we can pin this on a poorly-conceived, visually disjointed or underachieving licensed product packaging program. Unlike traditional consumer product packaging, which typically leverages a single structural strategy, consists of one packaging format in various sizes, and is merchandised in a single shelf set within one category, licensed product packaging must represent a property in a visually distinctive manner while accommodating a diversity of packaging formats across a broad range of consumer product categories throughout the retail environment. With all of this to consider, many brand owners struggle to build a packaging program that’s visually unique among the proliferation of licensed brands in today’s consumer product marketplace. One that will resonate with consumers on an emotional level as they move from one product category to another.
Leveraging the most equitable brand assets to connect with consumers
When we think of the visual over-saturation that exists within the toy aisles of the mass retail environment, what draws our attention most about a particular licensed brand’s packaging? One might say that it’s the property logo that first catches our eye. Or perhaps the color associated with the brand. I would say that it’s package design architecture – a distinctively dominant aspect of the design that embodies something emotive and unique to the brand – that connects most immediately with consumers. Something highly identifiable that works in conjunction with the property logo and brand color palette to ensure that the brand is instantly recognizable in every consumer product category.
Most traditional consumer product brands can still be successful without distinctive package design architecture because the entire product line is merchandised within the same shelf set, in a single category. But, most licensed products aren’t merchandised by brand outside of the toy aisle. They’re merchandised by category, throughout the retail environment. So, for licensed brands, distinctive package design architecture is an absolute necessity to ensure recognition. Whether they do it consciously or subconsciously, it is what consumers look for when they’re trying to find their favorite licensed brands at retail.
As the key component of a licensed product packaging program, package design architecture should never be arbitrarily conceived. It should always be based on an iconic visual attribute associated with the brand. Only equitable brand assets will have the potential to resonate with consumers on an emotional level. Think: the sparkling pink glitter texture that falls behind the property logo on every Disney Princess package, or the rainbow that sweeps down the left side of packaging for Nickelodeon’s Jo Jo Siwa licensed products.
Is a brand’s package design architecture its most valuable asset?
To establish a distinctive look for Frozen II packaging program, Disney was inspired by the wooded landscape setting of the franchise’s sequel, in which Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Olaf and Sven journey far beyond the gates of Arendelle in search of answers. In contrast to the packaging program for the first film, which featured an icy-blue horizontal bar along the bottom of every panel and a background of ornate snowflakes, the Frozen II packaging program leverages a birch tree as its primary package design architecture. The angular, cut paper-like tree defines the left or right side of the package in bright white with a grey, stylized birch bark texture. The birch tree, which is often treated as a dramatic die-cut on window box packaging for core products, seamlessly merges with the wave-shaped trade dress along the bottom of the front panel to hold the property logo and key art of Elsa and Anna.
The white birch tree is an iconic representation of the new film and symbolic of Elsa’s journey into the unknown to learn the truths about her magical powers. It is a visual story-telling device that’s highly-recognizable in every category at retail. Even the Frozen II in-store experience at Target incorporates the tree as a key component of the display system, simulating the film’s wooded landscape for store guests.
Minecraft, a “sandbox” video game that can be played on multiple platforms, was introduced to gamers in 2009. Thanks primarily to word of mouth and without the support of a massive marketing budget, it has become one of the most popular games in the world with over 112 million monthly active players. The world of Minecraft is a virtual land where players can create their own virtual worlds using pixel-like building blocks. The brand has evolved considerably over the last 10 years and is more popular than ever, with last year being its best to-date.
Minecraft licensed products can now be found in almost every conceivable category. And they’re quite easy to identify thanks to the distinctive package design architecture that its packaging program employs a horizontal header made from various tones of green pixels that are the visual essence of the Minecraft world. Regardless of the packaging format or structural configuration, the green pixel header consistently dominates the top of every Minecraft product’s package. Arguably, fans will hone in on this visual asset even more so than the property logo due to its significance to the brand. In fact, when package design architecture derives from a brand’s most equitable visual asset, consumers would readily identify the brand at retail even if the property logo were to be completely removed from its packaging.
Being subtle with package design architecture can still be powerful
Some entertainment properties are so inherently recognizable at retail that package design architecture can take a back seat to other equitable visual assets. Such is the case with the packaging program for Toy Story 4 licensed products. Disney/Pixar has done a wonderful job of maintaining a consistent treatment for the Toy Story franchise’s primary-colored logo through all 4 installments. For the most recent film, the logo incorporates the number 4, as expected. However, signage lights have been added to the letterforms in ”TOY” and the number ”4” to bring to mind the new film’s carnival scene, and to differentiate the logo from those representing the previous films. But does this slight update to the logo present enough of a visual statement for consumers to identify Toy Story 4 packaging from category to category? Not very likely.
The new film’s packaging program introduces package design architecture in the form of a burst defined by a soft blue-to-white radial gradient. As with the signage lights in the new film’s logo, the burst artwork is also inspired by the film’s carnival scene. With the goal to maintain an overall white aesthetic for all Toy Story franchise packaging, the burst is subtle rather than visually overbearing. And it is leveraged as a background texture rather than a dominant graphic treatment. Although it is employed in a subtle manner, it’s very effective in drawing consumers attention on packaging throughout the mass retail environment.
If properly conceived and implemented, package design architecture will build equity in consumers’ minds and become subliminally associated with the brand at a deep level. When derived from something uniquely inherent to the brand, it has the ability to evoke powerful emotional responses, create category leaders and certainly make lasting impressions.