Memo to CMO's: It's the packaging, stupid

By Fred "Dyfed" Richards

Originally published in Brandweek

What, exactly, is brand expression? Simply stated, it is the holistic, consistent execution and articulation of a brand’s promise through its personality and delivery across multiple touchpoints. We used to call it “corporate identity,” but today that term seems too narrow and limiting.

Up until the last decade or so, most consumers were unaware of brands and cared even less about brands’ impact on their lives. Now, however, we are literally inundated with brands as marketers exploit and leverage a virtually limitless number of touchpoints in the physical and digital worlds to gain a bigger share of consumers’ wallets.

Consider any brand in the consumer realm and the numerous touchpoints that a shopper encounters every day which aid his or her navigation to that brand at shelf: TV, radio and print advertisements, websites, billboards, flyers, promotional events, sponsorships, direct mail—the list goes on. All of these powerful tools need to work in harmony to ensure a consistent message to validate the critical, final—and often, forgotten—touchpoint at shelf: the brand’s package.

Package design, for whatever reason, is not perceived to be as glamorous (or as well paid) as some of the other brand vocations. In my opinion, however, it is the most vital of all the disciplines. Why? Packaging is the capstone of brand expression. All of the touchpoint messages that are leading, convincing, or driving the consumer to consider a particular product at shelf are forming a perception of that product’s brand promise and delivery even before the consumer has purchased or tried it. The brand’s package seals or kills the deal. Within seconds, the package has to help the consumer find the brand on shelf and communicate a number of key messages. 

Once the consumer locates the desired package, it has to communicate the brand’s promise on multiple sensory levels, including look, touch, smell, sound, and (sometimes) taste. The package also has to reassure the consumer that it is the correct flavor, size, version, etc. When you consider that minimal amount of real estate on some packages, this is an incredibly difficult task to accomplish. The package’s offer has to be so attractive to the consumer that they are happy to part with their hard-earned cash to experience the brand’s promise firsthand.

There are a number of ways that designers can use packaging to enhance brand expression at shelf, at the check-out line, in the home, in use, and on display. When executed with creativity and precision, packaging can help a brand to connect emotionally with consumers and establish deep, loyal relationships. Here are some suggestions: 

  • A brand’s packaging needs to respect the category language it represents and then create white space within that category using its own vernacular to aid identification.
  • Consider the product and its packaging in a consumer’s hand. How does it feel? How do you read it, understand it? Does it make a sound? Can you shake it—should you shake it? 
  • Does the packaging have cachet at the check-out line? Does it make a statement about the consumer and their style? Can it create conversation? Would the consumer be perceived as being a well-informed shopper, a trendsetter if his or her cart held this package?
  • Once the package is home, is there an opportunity for display? Is there something unique about the package that makes opening it for the first time a ceremony, something to look forward to? Is there a unique sound that accompanies the opening—a pop, a fizz, a burp, and a snap? 

Very few brands have managed to leverage all of their consumer touchpoints in a way that maximizes brand expression. More often than not, agencies operating in different disciplines/media for a large brand find themselves at cross purposes in an attempt to carve out more business for themselves. Bringing competing disciplines and agencies together at the beginning of any brand development project is the key to ensuring a consistent brand expression and a positive consumer experience.

Dyfed “Fred” RichardsDyfed “Fred” Richards is Executive Creative Director, North America and based in the Cincinnati office. Fred has over 16 years of experience in the international design industry, specifically in the FMCG category. He has worked for some of the world’s leading brand and design companies. He was born in Zambia but raised in Wales, Britain.