Ask most brand owners and designers about updating the packaging of
a cherished big brand and it’s a fair bet the phrase ’if it ain’t broke
don’t fix it’ won’t be too far away.
But however successful a brand’s packaging may be, brand-owners who
ignore the need to constantly refresh the design may be risking a
downturn in sales - maybe not tomorrow, but later down the line, when
years of neglect begin to take their toll. Yet refreshing established
brands is a tough packaging design brief.
’It’s always more challenging when you have strong established
equities,’ says Jill Marshall, graphics managing director of Design
Bridge who recently redesigned Oxo (boldly) and Nescafe Gold Blend (more
subtly). ’Brand owners are rightly careful about how they handle things
- and why not? These are their crown jewels.’
The end result is often evolutionary - and so it should be, believes
Kate Killeen, director of designers Springetts, which has recently
completed subtle tweaking of Lea & Perrins Worcester Sauce. ’If you did
a big relaunch of a big brand people would wonder if the taste of the
product had changed.
By and large it’s a question of maintaining relevance as the market
around you changes, and keeping the packaging looking like it’s always
been like that,’ she says.
Eric Salamon, Heinz general manager of corporate marketing, agrees:
’Unless we want to flag that there’s a change, we want customers to
believe that nothing has changed,’ he says.
The key, says Marshall, is building on what’s there already. For the
latest of three updates they have done for Nescafe’s Gold Blend, Design
Bridge was briefed to update a pack that was looking tired. The gold
scoop was retained as a key visual property, but re-photographed in a
more evocative manner, while the ’unique golden aroma’ strapline was
removed. ’It’s not radical, but you wouldn’t expect it to be on a brand
of that size unless there’s something wrong with it,’ says Marshall.
’The goal is not necessarily a huge uplift in sales. It’s about adding
to general perception.’
With Heinz Ketchup and recently Heinz Salad Cream, Jones Knowles Ritchie
had the task of updating one of the most iconic global brands ever, in a
project also driven by the need to harmonise packaging in different
markets. ’We agreed it was beginning to suffer because the visual
language used wasn’t contemporary,’ says JKR joint managing director,
’If all you do is update it with modern language, you’re dead. You have
to keep the visual values.’
The solution involved changes to the neck label with the introduction of
the ’57 varieties’ emblem, but retaining the familiar keystone label
design. ’The changes we made aren’t dramatic - a little here, a little
there,’ says Heinz’s Salamon, who is nonetheless aware of the danger of
sequential degradation from too much tweaking. ’Designers have to mind
that they don’t just go on tweaking and tweaking and end up with
something inappropriate,’ he says.
Gentle evolutions can certainly bring their own problems. According to
Jonathan Ford, creative partner of Pearl Fisher, dangers arise when
tweaking takes the form of ’unfocused fiddling’ by junior brand
’The threat to a successful brand with a high level of iconography is
when the thinking behind a redesign isn’t sound. In many marketing
departments you have a lot of inexperienced staff whose way of making a
mark in a few years is to make a design change,’ he says, advocating
instead a longer, more fruitful relationship between designer and
client. For example, Pearl Fisher’s work on the new Absolut Mandarin
packaging evolved over two years, retaining the iconic bottle shape, but
introducing a new orange base to give the illusion of fruit at the
Gary Spencer, marketing director of Coleman Planet, agrees that
accumulation of changes can blur the brand message. ’There’s a
temptation to continue to fiddle - because the markets are changing so
quickly, but it’s a knee-jerk reaction that can turn into very
short-term practical solutions. You need to say hold it, let’s stop this
and reassess what’s happening with the brand.’
For Persil, Coleman Planet did just that six months ago with the key
message - ’Line dried freshness’ - combined with a new brand identity
based on a drying sheet behind an updated logo. This bolder redesign
approach is far more appropriate when brands are under-performing, or
when there are market changes that drive a design change, although even
then brand owners may be overprotective.
John Hardie, a former marketing director at Procter & Gamble, now at
ITV, explains: ’Companies can be nervous about making a change to
packaging, even when it’s going through a period of difficulty.’ He
experienced this scepticism at P&G in the 80s, when there were fears
that a gold cap Fairy Liquid would confuse consumers. Eventually, they
went ahead, and the product was a great success. ’Do you risk losing all
the rest in an attempt to save a small downfall of 3%? If you have a
brand that’s still making a lot of money you have to be careful,’ he
When a brand is suffering, action is necessary. The Happy Shopper
grocery brand was outdated and stigmatised before owner Booker brought
in Martin Dawe Brand Design as lead consultant in a packaging revamp of
The aim was to target a more sophisticated urban market, so out went the
overtly orange packaging and cheeky face motif.
’There is a case for being bold. Design is often the only thing
separating two products,’ says Booker’s marketing director Steven Sharp.
’The quality was good, but the packaging was completely letting it down.
The bottom line is the new design will not deter existing customers and
we’re attracting more.’
But many brand-owners are too scared of customer reaction to radically
change their look and so fall into crisis situations, according to
Richard Murray of designers Williams Murray Hamm. ’’We don’t want to
throw the baby out with the bath water’ is the usual cry, but often
there isn’t a baby in the bath anyway. When your brand looks like
everything else in its sector, you’re only really hanging on to the
name, not real equity,’ he says. ’If your big brand is facing big
problems, often you need to make the consumer look at you in a different
way, and if you don’t change the packaging, they won’t do that,’ adds
For Schweppes soft drinks, designers Interbrand Newell and Sorrell
needed to address a falling market share and confusion between the core
and sub-brands, and give a more sophisticated approach to the out-dated
It decided to build on the use of yellow - well known on the tonic - as
an umbrella branding, despite negative consumer research, with a
different yellow for the tonic product itself.
’The more sophisticated clients will listen to the message behind what
the consumers are saying,’ says Interbrand Newell and Sorrell business
group director, Jeremy Scholfield. ’It gets dangerous when you find out
from a consumer what design elements they like or don’t like, because
that’s not how they shop.’
The new design, which halted the decline in sales, features bubbles in
the background, removed the stripes from the top of the label and gave
the royal warrant less prominence.
McVitie’s Penguin, suffering from lookalike rivals, likewise needed more
than a tweak when JKR was brought in to redesign it. With the increased
shelf presence, it achieved a 24.6% rise in sales.
’We couldn’t massage it - there wasn’t enough there. We ended up with a
drawing of a penguin rather than words,’ says Wegrzyn.
For the Linda McCartney food range, market changes following the BSE
crisis meant the designers, Springetts, had to change the evolutionary
design approach to the brand that had served it well until the mid-90s
to a bolder approach that reflected a more mainstream market of
’meat-reducers’ as well as vegetarians. The result reduced the cream and
black graphic panel and placed the emphasis on richer, more indulgent
food product pictures, yielding rising sales.
The key, it seems, is to regularly refresh packaging design of big
brands before it gets to a stage where it needs a radical revamp that
could discourage loyal customers. It’s up to designers and brand owners
to ensure that packaging is kept current, or else products that were
once brand icons risk of falling off their pedestals.
Oxo owner Van den Bergh was brave enough to go ahead with a packaging
redesign that involved changing the production line when it introduced
new packs last year. Combined with new advertising, the revamped packs
have yielded Oxo’s first year-on-year sales increase for 15 years.
Design Bridge has worked on Oxo for nearly ten years, redesigning the
packaging in the early 90s to create a ’brand wall’ effect by including
only half of each ’O’ on the pack - the whole letter being formed with
the adjacent pack - thus maximising shelf space for a small pack in a
very low-interest sector of the supermarket.
By 1999, with sales flagging, Van den Bergh plumped for a redesign. For
this, Design Bridge took a bold approach, effectively taking the brand
name off the pack.
’Our new advertising was so much more emotionally modern that it was an
ideal time to complement it,’ says Oxo’s senior brand manager Sophie
Johnston. ’As soon as I saw the design I loved it. I love the
quirkiness. Oxo is such a unique brand that I didn’t have any qualms
about it,’ she adds.
Design Bridge realised that the Oxo logotype was so well-recognised by
consumers that it was enough to see one single letter to trigger brand
recognition. So each pack displayed either ’O’ or ’X’, tripling the size
of the brand on the shelves. However, this relied on alternate ’O’s and
’X’s to spell out the brand name.
’The biggest thing we had to push on was adapting production of the pack
so you wouldn’t just be left with a wall of ’0’s or ’X’s. To our
amazement, and to the client’s eternal credit, everyone agreed that the
production change would be worth the effort.’ says Design Bridge’s Jill
The new packaging was phased in from October 1999 contributing to a 3%
rise in sales so far in 2000.