Effective packaging is now a vital weapon in the fierce battle to
attract attention, writes Andy Knowles
Over the past two decades the dynamics of consumer marketing have
shifted, probably forever. In our over-communicated, hyperactive,
commercially obsessed world ideas travel faster, innovation is imitated
quicker and much marketing is rapidly decoded and disregarded.
Today’s consumer is astute, discerning and fickle. The result is that
the hard sell has largely had its day.
Yet people still react intuitively, naively even, to packaging - the
hidden persuader that quietly goes about the business of communication
and seduction at the final, critical stage in the marketing process: the
moment of purchase.
As they get busier, many people, especially women, shop impulsively.
This is particularly true in long established product sectors like tea,
household cleaners and home baking, which tend to be low interest,
habitual purchase categories. As a result, packaging which does not
catch the eye nor communicate recognisable values in a split second will
not be effective among the affluent consumers that brands most want to
Despite possessing generic looking packs and operating in stable, mature
markets, brands such as Mr Kipling, Surf and Nescafe all perform
relatively well, but at considerable cost in terms of advertising spend.
Turn off the media tap and watch their sales slide. If interest, and
better still loyalty, can be built through packaging design, how much
more efficient for the brand owners?
Both graphics and, increasingly, structural shapes and materials have a
part to play. Impactful designs, which capture the essence of a brand
and can become recognisable icons for all the values imbued within it,
are the goal. The Boddingtons Draught can, the Gillette shaving range
and Phileas Fogg beer-style cans spring to mind. All score highly, and
at a time when many retailers are taking the shallow course of copying
leading brands closely with their own-label lines, they also do well on
the criterion of ‘difficult to copy’.
This trend to ride on the back of established brand identities -
signalling ‘try me, I’m just as good as your regular brand’, and
attempting to imply that the manufacturers actually make the own-label
products for them - is leading many companies to see structural
packaging in a new light.
For years accountants and production managers have resisted changes in
physical pack shapes for obvious reasons, but now the advantages may be
outweighing the costs. In only the last year or so we have seen success
for McVitie’s Mini Jaffa Cakes, Oasis fruit drink, KP Nuts and
Whitworth’s dried fruits, primarily because of distinctive structural
packaging. Would Jif still be lemon and Marmite be Marmite were it not
for their brilliant packaging?
Combined with appropriate graphic design as part of a consistent brand
identity, packaging shape and materials can play a central role. One
cannot be didactic or overly simplistic about the use of this medium. It
is important to be realistic and recognise that physical pack shape may
not be the right answer for every situation.
Personally, I adore the Heinz glass ketchup bottle for its distinctive,
classic shape and robust feel in the hand, but you can’t deny that the
squeezable plastic alternative is more practical.
As more and more brands in a category adopt differentiated pack shapes,
creating designs that stand out and are practical becomes harder.
Standards have risen and a combination of art and science is needed to
enable brands to rise out of the clutter at a price they can afford.
Certainly, there seems to be evidence that the value created by a
distinctive pack is relatively small unless it fits into the total brand
None of this should sway us from the calculated use of distinctive
packaging design as a key weapon in the marketing mix. At its best,
packaging can win you new customers, help you hang on to those you’ve
already got, and, if you build volumes sufficiently far ahead of the
competition to achieve greater economies of scale, to deter effective
Just think of the charm and pleasure the foil and paper wrap brings to
Kit Kat. Or the heated debates that go on regarding the short-term
profit gains that switching into flowrap film would bring. Applaud those
who stick to their guns, like Nestle, which has seen off virtually all
other brands in similar formats, leaving Kit Kat with packaging that
stands out and sits so consistently with the character and positioning
of the brand even own-label copycats seem powerless to react.
Recent years have seen an explosion of new techniques, materials and
application machinery to help companies develop winning packaging. The
industry is dynamic and forward looking, yet many marketing managers
still see this area as the responsibility of the ‘techies’. It’s time
they realised the potential of packaging design.
Andy Knowles is a partner at packaging design consultancy Jones Knowles
Ritchie. He will be speaking at Retail Pack’ 96 at London’s Olympia,