Packaging design, the intelligent layperson might think, is there to make your product stand out from the rest. But too often shelves are filled with yard after yard of look-alike cartons and me-too tins which only show up the unwillingness of

SBHD: Packaging design, the intelligent layperson might think, is there to make your product stand out from the rest. But too often shelves are filled with yard after yard of look-alike cartons and me-too tins which only show up the unwillingness of brand managers to take risks. By Andy Gilgrist

Choice, some argue, is a wonderful, empowering thing. Consumers like choice. But are they getting too much of a good thing? A walk down a supermarket aisle, be it biscuit-infested or a wall of soup cans, can be a formidable exercise in choice. If a consumer does not have a must-buy brand, the choices available are legion. All those brands, all those own-labels.

But why do so few of them stand out from the crowd? Is fmcg packaging really as dull as it appears. What benefit is multiple choice when options A to Z are so indistinguishable?

Packaging designers, while stoutly defending their own output, seem just as disillusioned with the general standard of fmcg packaging as the average punter must subconsciously be when faced with endless variations on a narrow theme.

Mark Wickens, director at Wickens Tutt Southgate, identifies the symptom and the factors he believes are the cause: “Most fmcg packaging is dull, sadly.

“In the recession it was more important for design companies to keep their clients happy than to go out on a limb and try and push a bit further for something innovative. Everybody seems to play safe and do what they think they know will work,” Wickens says.

The result? “You get a big picture of the product and a logo. And you end up with lots of products on shelf with lots of pictures and logos.”

Jeremy Holden is senior consultant at design consultancy Lewis Moberly. He says: “On a sector by sector basis there is a lot of saturation or an implied sense of saturation. When you analyse what is out there, a lot of it is caused by the number of brand extensions in recent years.

“There is a sense of fear in the design industry which essentially is a knee-jerk reaction to the fear that seems to exist in manufacturing companies,” Holden says.

“There are senior directors who are responsible to shareholders. They are not into risk taking and are looking for sure-fire bets. That attitude slides down to the brand managers. They want solutions that are going to be effective but primarily won’t ruffle too many feathers. Who can blame them? You can still lose your job these days. It’s safety first.

“Designers are looking to keep new clients on board. It’s difficult enough to win new business. There used to be greater scope for changing clients and taking forward more innovative solutions. But now there’s that fear in the backs of people’s minds.”

Designers who lack inspiration are to blame for many unimaginative packs, argues Ross Hunter, director at Glasgow design consultancy Graven Images. “Graphic designers are in a closed community,” Hunter says. Influences they bring to bear on a piece of work can rely entirely on other designers’ work rather than “a broader perspective” of what is around.

“That’s why everything looks the same. Everyone is using the same research methodologies and so on. If you keep on asking people what they like and what they want, then you will end up with lots of lookalikes.”

So the general uniformity of fmcg packaging is blamed on nervous clients and jaded and nervous designers, all carrying a hangover from the recession.

But there have been success stories to pierce the gloom. There are the odd packs which generate interest even as consumers overlook the lookalikes crowding around.

Elizabeth Buxton is one client who had none of the preconceptions of the tired marketer. She is managing director of the eponymous Buxton Foods, and came into the fmcg arena from an arts background. When she needed packaging design, she knew she wanted something different:

“I couldn’t agree more that so much packaging looks too alike. I went to designers who design wonderful record sleeves to do our packaging.”

Buxton called on Michael Nash Associates to design packaging for Buxton Foods’ launch of the Stamp Collection of snacks, endorsed by Terence Stamp. The result is a distinctive pack which has achieved good listings. Buxton says: “There is a whole culture around the food industry – ways of doing things, that are tied up with how the multiples react to the producers and so on. That filters down to conventions in packaging.

“The reaction has been very positive. It proves it is perfectly possible to have exciting packaging that works.”

Hunter always welcomes a more novice client, not to take advantage of, but to widen the design horizon. He says: “Sometimes the less experienced clients, those who are not necessarily `professional’ marketers and are less outwardly sophisticated, are the most amenable to a designer doing something different or new. That works against preconceptions.”

So is it a choice between “exciting” and “safe'”? Not many designers would argue for completely abandoning all the safety precautions surrounding any feat of brand gymnastics. Even the packaging for Buxton Foods still had a picture of the product on the pack front.

Holden concurs: “In any sector there is a visual language and no-one is suggesting you completely break the code. But you shouldn’t be so rigidly tied to a sector’s language that you come out looking like everyone else.

“There are examples of where people have taken risks and have been successful, like Phileas Fogg. A gap in the market was exploited through a very distinctive pack and proposition. It was so successful that the major snack players like KP with all their credentials and tradition took a real knock.”

The quest for packaging to contain one or more elements – as Holden puts it, “recognition or communication equities” – which cannot be easily stolen is beginning to take on an almost religious air. Speak to any designer converted to the cause of ownable equities and you will be told in no uncertain terms just how crucial a defensible element is, be it a bottle shape or a unique typeface.

Lewis Moberly’s work for Bahlsen biscuits gives a taste of the philosophy. Holden says: “The sector language for biscuits is to [show] as many biscuits as possible – you are trying to say `value for money’. We wanted to do it in a way where the Bahlsen Family could have an ownable equity. That’s difficult when you are usually using 90 per cent of the box to show biscuits.” Lewis Moberly played with biscuits to create a “family” of biscuit characters. The Bahlsen Family was born, launched in 1994 and is doing very well.

Another Lewis Moberly example is the consultancy’s work for the sweetener brand Hermesetas. A hummingbird seeks sweetness on the pack, communicating the essence of the brand.

Graphics, of course, are just one of the possible elements marketers and designers can look to for the elusive edge. The physical packaging, its shape and materials, is the other component.

Adrian Collins is a director at design consultancy Ziggurat and a firm believer in the power of 3D equities. He says: “Investment by the brands in unique 3D forms will add more differentiation in the long-term.

“If the brands can innovate in product terms to reinforce their advantage, the own label option will become second best in standard packaging. The brands owe it to themselves. They have to keep innovating and developing.”

Ziggurat tackled the 3D question for Elida Gibbs’ brand Impulse. Collins says: “Impulse shared the same type of configuration at the top of the container – a small plastic cap lifts off to reveal a plastic nozzle – as you might find on an air freshener. We developed an actuator, collar and cap which is much more personal because we used a brand icon, a butterfly, which is embossed. That can’t be copied by the own-labels. Elida Gibbs invested £1m-plus and a supermarket won’t.”

Andy Gilgrist is news editor of Design Week.

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