Like the woman who wears red to a party where everyone else is dressed in black, the package that dares to be different gets noticed. Most products begin as commodities. Send them to market without a bold brand identity whether they're in dull or pretty packaging and they remain commodities. But a package with zing -- one that says "I'm unique, I'm best, notice me" -- begins to build equity in the brand.
Despite their paying lip service to the importance of creating a memorable brand identity, too many manufacturers are still taking the "me too" approach to package design. The majority of the products I saw at the recent Food Marketing Institute convention had a visual sameness, creating a "ho-hum" impression rather than a feeling of "That's the brand I want to buy." It's not that many of these packages weren't pretty; some were. But pretty alone will not carry a category to be a market leader. A package has to stand out in the crowd and has to be memorable through strong branding identification.
It is especially critical for new niche product companies to develop strong brand identification. But many manufacturers appear to be betting that their product lines are of such high quality or are so unique that they can sell themselves without it. The problem is not only that their products melt into the crowd, but also for some they risk being targeted by copycats looking to cash in on a success in a new category.
More companies -- especially the new kids on the block -- need to think strategically about the visual identities of their brands. Competition is only going to get more intense. It's not enough to spend a lot of time and money on product development, sales, and distribution without being equally attentive to brand positioning, brand identity, and package design. Trade dress is not an "extra." It is the brand.
So what can companies do to create effective brand equity and packaging that sells and sells and sells? Some tips:
Create a unified image. Package design is the sum of its parts: trademark, trade dress, graphics, shape, usage information. All must work together to create a coherent whole. Putting a conservative trademark together with funky colors and illustrations (or vice versa) will only leave consumers with a muddled impression.
Be creative. Trade dress is your face to the outside world. It presents an opportunity to visually communicate what is unique about your brand. Design should be based on strategic evaluation, not on the fact that "everyone else is doing it, so we should too." On the other hand, avoid being creative for creativity's sake.
Know your customer. Don't design in a vacuum. An accurate consumer profile is key to develop an image or theme that will appeal to your target buyers.
Go for simplicity. More is not better. Keep the design clean. Let the message breathe. Visual clutter only distracts from product benefits and communicates indecision.
Make trade dress better, not different. Continual redesign confuses consumers and runs up costs. If you feel you have to modify your package design, don't ask "What should I change?" ask "What should I keep?" Keeping some familiar elements is important for retaining loyal customers.
Avoid trendiness. The idea of package design is to create an image that is current but that stands the test of time. What's "in" today may well be "out" tomorrow.
Elinor Selame is president of Package Design Council International and president of BrandEquity International, a visual communications and brand identity consulting firm based in Newton, Mass.