RETAIL PACKAGING: Packaging says it all

Effective packaging is now a vital weapon in the fierce battle to attract attention, writes Andy Knowles

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,

November 19-21


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