Special Report: Marketers’ Guide to Packaging: Brand battle shifting back to retail floor

In Robert Redford's recent film Quiz Show, we are reminded of the unassailable power the combined forces of big business and big networks once wielded over the minds of North America.The power of the medium was in its formidable reach: to...

In Robert Redford’s recent film Quiz Show, we are reminded of the unassailable power the combined forces of big business and big networks once wielded over the minds of North America.

The power of the medium was in its formidable reach: to be seen by millions of viewers was to become a star, even if only for a moment.

But, what remained, after the curtain went down, were the real stars: the sponsors.

Shows came and went, but the sponsors always came back, because the audience was always there waiting for them.

Not so anymore.

Popular cable revolt

Witness the recent popular revolt against the cable magnates, in which the masses, for the first time, have risen up from their couches in anger at the audacity of their tv landlords.

We are in the midst of an interactive backlash.

Despite the recent living room riots, the proliferation of cable channels is inevitable, and the power of the medium will be diluted even further.

For packaging designers, these developments bode well, because it means that the battle of the brands is shifting back to the retail floor.

Suddenly, getting a facing in the supermarket has become a mass media buy, because the shelf is the only territory where your product can be guaranteed an audience with the consumer.

Since television can no longer make such guarantees, there is now a lot more pressure on the package to communicate the brand’s position.

It must tell its story on-shelf instead of on-screen; what was once conveyed by a 30-second spot with sound and light must now be delivered in five to 10 seconds by ink and paper.

A curious form of visual compression, to say the least. Like trying to paint The Last Supper on a pack of matches.

It is good news for some packaging designers, but not all.

For those whose design solutions are driven solely by formal concerns, the discipline of packaging serves up little provender.

No longer is it enough to simply apply type and stripes to a tired label. Now, we must do our strategic homework, because there is a story to tell. Design is simply not enough.

More than ever, package designers must be brand builders. The sheer proliferation of brands and the emergence of own label have made the shopper aware of food as a mere commodity.

Own-label products have taken the mainstream brands downstream, and the result is the erosion of the trust consumers once had in high profile labels.

It is, therefore, critical for these brands to recover lost ground, and, in order to do so, they must recover their core values.

Key visual properties must be identified and reassessed for their ability to communicate these core values to the consumer.

Consumers must be studied carefully because people are not just buying products, they are buying lifestyle.

Designers and marketers must learn what lifestyles match their brands, and what cues will trigger consumers to make the right emotional associations.

Trends must be monitored in all media to discover what kinds of images people have of themselves, and to see what kinds of stimuli they react to.

What works in a music video or in fashion may prove to be just as useful on a label.

The competition must be studied for its strengths and weaknesses.

Shelf audits must be undertaken to compare the impact of competitive facings.

Visual properties must be measured up against the competition to ensure differentiation.

What it all comes down to is that designers must be prepared to help the consumer clearly understand what a product’s position is in the marketplace, and what benefits that product will provide.

They must be able to define the brand first, and to identify what clients own in their brands.

Then they must execute design against those properties.

Great potential

For designers that can offer this kind of consultative expertise, the potential is great.

Bringing this kind of discipline and knowledge to the table builds trust, because it produces results.

It means that clients will expect designers to play a much broader and more critical role in brand development than they ever did before.

But, it also means that for those who merely design, the show is over, and the sponsor will not be coming back.