DESIGN: Handle best-loved designs with care - Even the best-loved brands need to freshen up, but designers must be cautious, says Pamela Buxton

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.

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.

Visual values

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,

Nir Wegrzyn.

’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.

Iconic identity

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

800 lines.

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.’

Brand identity

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.

Crisis overhaul

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.


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