“Jo dikhta hai woh bikta hai” (What is visible, sells) goes the popular adage. Packaging design’s primary job is to make the product ‘seen” and “noticed”. Consumer brands and their agencies rely on this very commonsensical logic to guide and evaluate good packaging designs.
And rightly so.
Design for Visibility
The pursuit of “visibility” is therefore, the most fundamental intent of packaging design. And there is a real-world purpose in pursuing visibility; sell more! Jo dikhta hai, woh… But is just visibility enough to create “brands”?
Apparently not. Strong brands lay heavy emphasis on the creation of distinctive brand assets – non-brand-name triggers for a brand name, in a category buyer’s memory. These can take verbal, visual, or auditory form. In the context of packaging design, these assets or “visual equities” could be brand name, colour, semiotics, logo/ identity, or imagery. Often, form and shape i.e. structure of the pack can drive and elevate this visibility. Cadbury’s distinctive purple and gold colour palette, Kit-Kat’s red, Lifebuoy’s “plus” sign in the logo, Coca Cola’s bottle or Paper Boat’s differently shaped pouch, all are standout examples of distinctive brand assets. Highly recognizable and unique facets of these brands created and cultivated over time through consistent implementation on packaging and across all marketing communications. Distinctive brand assets are very often, protected by intellectual property rights since they represent “ownable” properties of the brand.
The Category Codes Trap
Not all brands, however, can stake a claim to having distinctive brand assets – other than probably, the logo. And the reason is simple; while brand owners claim to pursue “uniqueness”, they invariably get enslaved into what in marketing & design language is referred to as “category codes” – pack formats, colours, hierarchy of information, semiotics, imagery – as prevails in a category and as defined by the leader brand(s) within a category.
Most milk packaging for instance, is strongly centred around the blue, blue-green, white colour palette. Premium men’s personal care products tend to anchor designs within the black to dark grey colour spectrum. Feminine care products on the other hand, are seemingly trapped within the pastel pink gamut… the story is the same across categories. Established leader brands define these “category codes” and almost everyone after, simply follows.
I am not for a moment suggesting that respecting category codes is not important. They sure have a role in helping consumers navigate through packed store shelves and in enabling product recognition. The easy way to get attention is surely being a clone of something well-recognized…But when “appearing to be the same while being cheaper” is the core strategy behind design, “design for visibility” gets diluted to a sort of “design for availability”.
The Pursuit of “alag”
There is often, no escaping short-term compulsions to “play safe and just simply follow the category codes”, but long-term brand building must be at the heart of all great packaging design efforts. And this can only happen when design’s chase for visibility is coupled with a clear intent to drive and communicate “uniqueness”.
The pursuit of uniqueness, however, must not be a shallow effort at being different for the sake of “looking different”. It must be anchored in product truth and authenticity – something consumers see as credible and will be willing to “buy into”. Clearly, for consumer brands, investments in packaging design cannot just be limited to wrapping products in visible clothing. Overlaying visibility & familiarity with the coat of uniqueness is vital for brand building.
So while “Jo dikhta hai, who bikta hai” (What is visible, sells) may sound true, “Jo sach mein alag hai, woh hamesha dikhega aur hamesha bikega” (What is truly unique, will always be visible – and so, will always sell) would be a wiser philosophy.
Great packaging design that builds great brands starts by answering such questions:
What is uniquely authentic about our brand that consumers will believe? How do we message that on packaging through words, colours, visuals, and form to create visibility & distinction on the shelf-space? More importantly, how do we reinforce the messages of uniqueness and authenticity in the consumer’s “life-space”?
In the next part of this series, we will dwell on how packaging design can aid brand building.
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PART 2: Design for Manufacturability (DFM).