Package Design: Branded by Color

Color is integral to branding. It is central to brand personalities and it becomes a brand identifier over time if it is used in a consistent manner. Having an ownable brand color, especially within categories filled with similar products in expected color palettes can help one brand stand out among many on the shelf.

Color might be woven into a distinctive brand identity. Think: The Home Depot, Lego, Sesame Street. It might be featured in a brand icon like Twitter’s blue bird, Target’s bulls-eye or Monster’s neon green claw marks. And it might go to the heart of package design strategy. Cadbury chocolate in royal purple, Coca-Cola classic in red, Philadelphia Cream Cheese in silver, Mattel’s Barbie in hot pink are all good examples. But can color stand for a brand and all of its values and assets?

Consider the examples cited. Would removing the brand names while presenting the packaging for these brands in their distinctive colors still be identifiable to a global audience? They would and that is the mark of color that works in branding.

Package design branded by a signature color

It is known as Pantone No. 1837, an attractive robin’s egg blue, and it is trademarked by Tiffany & Co., the vaunted jewelry store based in New York. The color doesn’t show up on Pantone color charts because it is available for use only by Tiffany’s. Interesting tidbit: PMS 1837 pays homage to the year of Tiffany’s founding.

Almost everyone around the world recognizes the signature Tiffany Blue Box (a descriptor that is likewise trademarked.)  So is the white ribbon wrapped around the package, tied without knots so that it falls open when tugged on, another hallmark of Tiffany packaging. There’s only one slight packaging deviation: during the holidays, the signature package is tied with red ribbon rather than its trademark white.

The Tiffany & Co. embossed brand identity in Baskerville Old Face font is the only other thing found on the packaging. At this point in Tiffany’s history, many would argue that the brand identity isn’t even needed anymore. I disagree; it does serve a purpose, reaffirming the status, quality and desirability of the brand. Over time the entire Tiffany’s experience, the brand and its values, have come to be represented by “the blue box”, arguably the most desired package on the planet.

Yet all of this happens with packaging that comes at the end, after a purchase decision has been made. When a lovely gift is wrapped in this manner, it satisfactorily concludes the experience of selecting the optimal jewelry item and emotionally reinforces buying the best. It also creates an aura of anticipation knowing how strong the reaction of the receiver of the Tiffany Blue Box will be.

But what if packaging has to do the actual selling in the midst of a myriad of choices? What then?

Why it’s important to use color effectively in package design

What turns consumers on to some brands over others? It’s seeing representations of these brands in an exciting visual manner. Nothing can deliver more of a punch than packaging if it’s done correctly. Packaging makes the brand concrete and invites consumer interaction if it is properly developed. To accomplish this, package structure, color, typography and imagery must work together to represent one brand and only one brand; to garner attention and make emotional connections in a matter of seconds.

Studies by psychologist Jerome Bruner of New York University have shown that people recall 10% of what they hear, 20% of what they read but 80% of what they see. Additionally, marketing research found that a whopping 80% of the visual information that people take in is related to color. It is known that color has an immediate visual and emotional impact on us as people and as consumers. Yet, brands often choose colors to represent themselves without a great deal of deliberation and research. Then they package consumer products in an equally non-deliberate manner. This is precisely what leads to brands running together on the shelf, indistinguishable from one another and therefore ignored by consumers. It’s important to analyze the category in which the brand positions products, look at the competition and determine how color can become a major differentiator. That’s how Axe Lynx deodorant products stand out from everything else in their category. Stark black packaging with vertical, silver Lynx brand identity and unique visuals pack a punch. It’s how the brilliant orange packaging in the candy aisle “belongs” to Reese’s and its peanut butter cup candies. How bright yellow is “owned” by General Mills’ Cheerios in aisles crowded with cereal choices.

Signature brand color is important, but color alone doesn’t ensure success, does it? For consumers to identify a brand and its values as desirable after initial purchase, the user experience must be satisfactory at the least and exemplary at best. Time and time again. That’s how brand leaders are born, become classics and appeal to generations of new consumers.

Simplifying packaging to the point of making brands appear generic

Caveat: sometimes there’s a temptation to use color in a manner in which it segments rather than brands, rendering a product line unsaleable. Modern brands have been moving toward simplified packaging without much brand communication. While it’s smart to pare package design elements down to what’s truly necessary and important, it’s also important to recognize that packaging can be stripped down to the point of appearing generic. Since the primary role of packaging is to faithfully represent the brand and its values to consumers, this is not a good idea.

To illustrate: there was a much-discussed artistic vision for beer packaging posted on The Dieline recently. The packaging concept was designed by Spanish designer, Txaber. It’s elegant, sophisticated and truly attractive. In fact, it’s awesome. But, if brought to market (unlikely, since it’s an artistic exercise), it would never sell.

Txaber’s design matches Pantone colors to nine different types of beer. The design itself mimics the configuration of Pantone color chips. The upper portion of each can is flooded with the color of the brew and the bottom of the can features the Pantone color number and the kind of beer on a horizontal, wrap-around white band.

Is this concept wonderfully artistic design? Yes. Is it great package design? No; not even close. It simply doesn’t have any of the necessary attributes to do what package design is meant to do: sell branded product, brand values and its promise. This package concept has no brand name, no brand identity, no key visual to elicit an emotional response; no distinctive package design architecture or structure to differentiate it from every beer in the marketplace.

Consumers of beer know that it’s about the brewery first, then the beer variety. Would any beer aficionados purchase a PMS 123 (Pantone Matching System number) C Lager, without knowing anything about the brewery it came from and its back story? Very unlikely. And what would PMS mean to most consumers anyway? You can guess what the answer would be!

Distinguishing brand color from segmentation color in package design

Package designers have been aligning Pantone colors with product colors for decades. It helps to segment product offerings within branded product lines, meaning that it helps consumers to find their favorite varieties of juice and jam, for example. Almost every brand that offers varieties uses color to help make the product line more shoppable for consumers in many categories: food, beverage, personal care and even toys. At best, the Pantone beer packaging concept represents a segmentation system and nothing more.

That’s why an overarching brand color is so necessary; then additional color can be used to segment a number of product offerings. In color-coded segmentation architecture, a specific area of the package’s primary display panel is color-coded to distinguish among product segments. Sometimes a lid or cap is color-coded. The brand signature color is seen first and then consumers can hone in on their favorite product variety within a line by the use of secondary color.

How to select a distinctive color for a brand’s packaging

When deliberating about color, look at the personality of the brand; choose color to express it in a visual manner. Then consider the competition; look at the usual palettes within the category on shelf. Choose to stand apart with a unique signature color that has more impact than its neighbors. Make it part of a package design strategy that also features unique package design architecture, structure, imagery. Do not deviate from signature color. Implement a style guide to ensure consistency in present and future packaging iterations. Find the appropriate manner in which to segment the branded product line as it grows and to accommodate future line extensions that may occur in totally different categories. Deliver on the brand promise and over time consumers will seek out the brand where the first and most compelling identifier is its signature color.

Did you enjoy this month’s issue? Get on the mailing list!