The silent salesman

As the importance of packaging design becomes ever more apparent, companies are going back to basics to stand out from the crowd. By Victoria Furness

Package design is as much a sign of the times as it is functional. It may seem to be little more than a protective container, but as the external manifestation of a brand, its role is much more pivotal.

According to Geoffrey Hollows, a consultant at Heawood Research, there are two aspects to packaging: “First, there is the physical function. Second, there is the psychological function and that is the one you have got to get right.”

It is at this unconscious level that consumers engage with a brand. Brand owners have long realised that they can sell a product by imbuing the brand with qualities that the consumer both recognises and aspires to. Powerful brands are those that have successfully been able to reflect and influence a consumer’s ideas, values and attitudes.

It’s what’s on the outside…

As the face of the brand, packaging design needs to reflect the emotional bond that connects the consumer to the product. But, while the concept behind packaging has not changed – to sell a product and create an emotional tie with a brand – the ways in which design has been used to express the concept has evolved to reflect the different cultures and trends through the years.

“The past five decades of consumerism have seen brands and packaging evolve from post-war existence on a mass scale to one of affiliation and personal definition,” says Jonathan Ford, creative partner at brand consultancy Pearlfisher. During the power-hungry Eighties, brands took on a more prominent role to express the identities of consumers. “It was more ostentatiously about design,” says Stephen Bell, creative director at Coley Porter Bell (CPB). “Everything had broad shoulders, even the packaging.”

By the Nineties, society was showing signs of change. This was the era of the New Man, a caring and sensitive age in direct opposition to the masculinity of the Thatcherite Eighties. Packaging picked up on the trend and began to use imagery portraying men as loving family members.

It was also the decade of purposeful and ethical brands, such as the Body Shop, which conveyed its right-minded credentials on its environmentally friendly packaging. As the millennium approached, brands such as Lush cosmetics and the Philosophy skin and make-up range continued the statement with their retro and toned-down packaging.

Post-millennium, Pearlfisher’s Ford argues that society has moved full-circle: “We have arrived at the point where trust is the key once again. In the Western world, we are so much more sophisticated, we understand marketing and hype. As a result, people are looking to cut through the jargon and clutter that surrounds a lot of brands and packaging.”

But does this mean that packaging design has in turn become more sophisticated in how it is used to promote products? Ford certainly thinks the environment is tougher for marketers. “We expect brands to connect to us on an individual level compared with a mass offering. That is a huge challenge for brands and packaging, which has to communicate the brand’s message,” he says.

To reflect today’s complex society, Ford identifies two trends emerging in package design: disruption and simplicity. “Disruption is design that bursts the category for several reasons, mainly to create awareness, say ‘hello, I’m here’, or ‘look I’ve reinvented myself,'” he says. One example is Hovis, which redefined the bread category by using food imagery that reflected what consumers could put on or between their bread, rather than the typical pictures of wheat fields.

Shouting on behalf of the innocent

“In packaging, everyone wants to shout loud, but people are now looking for brands to shout differently,” says CPB’s planning director, Beth Barry. One of the brands it has recently designed packaging for is Innocent Drinks, a brand that stands out in the juice category by using a quirky design in a market characterised by homogeneous bottles showing pictures of fruit.

At the same time, some brands have managed to successfully communicate with customers through simplicity. Examples of such brands include Selfridges’ own-label food range, which uses black packaging for all its food products, and Space NK, which uses simple colour-coded packaging for its products.

“Simplicity is not just about modernity, but also about authenticity,” says Ford. He cites the example of Jack Daniel’s whiskey, which conjures up nostalgic images through its packaging.

Personality also plays a key role in persuading consumers about authenticity, especially in a society where consumers are much more knowledgeable about how marketing works. An example of this is Elmwood Design, which recently created the packaging for a sausage brand produced by a small farming family. The brand, called Debbie & Andrew’s, has gone on to be listed in every major multiple and the company has seen sales increase substantially. “Everything is so faceless and mass produced that it almost gets turned on its head,” says Elmwood’s head of business development Simon Preece. “In today’s GM world, people want to know what is in their food.”

While some companies have kept their packaging local, others have taken their brands global. But instead of creating different packaging to suit each market, the trend has been to bring to everyone in the world into what Naomi Klein calls in her book, No Logo, a “market masala”. Marcello Minale, managing director of design agency Minale, Tattersfield & Partners, which his father co-founded, elaborates: “In a global economy where brands need to compete on a global scale, you have to communicate in a more universal language.”

Great white hope

When Minale’s agency worked on the design for energy drink Shark, it had to ensure that the packaging could be recognised in every country around the world by a generation of clubbers. It solved the problem by creating a logo that spelt the word “shark” in the shape of the fish. Minale claims Shark has become one of the top two energy drink brands in each country it is sold.

With expanding globalisation comes a greater willingness on the part of consumers to experiment with more diverse ethnic foods. Indian cuisine, for example, has become such a staple part of the British diet now, that chicken tikka masala was recently voted the UK’s favourite dish.

To keep pace with changing tastes and perceptions, packaging has had to move with the times. “Packaging for ethnic foods used to border on being racist. For example, it would use pictures of elephants or temples to depict Indian food,” says Elmwood’s Preece. As the food ranges have become a more accepted part of our diet, package design has shifted from portraying the food’s cultural origins to the spices and flavours used.

Brand consultancy Butcher & Gundersen (B&G) completed a redesign of Safeway’s Indian food range this year. “It was looking tired; Safeway had used the same design for some years,” says B&G’s creative director Jacqui Sinnatt. The agency worked with Safeway product developer Manisha Kotercha to introduce greater authenticity to the brand. They chose to focus on the spices used in each dish to encourage customers to try new varieties.

As well as ethnicity, package design has become more sophisticated in other areas, such as gender, where social stereotypes have almost been turned on their head. Nestlé Rowntree’s Yorkie, for example, has taken a tongue-in-cheek attitude in its “Yorkie – It’s Not For Girls” campaign. Since repositioning the brand last year, the confectionery company claims sales of Yorkie have increased 29 per cent year on year.

“Female confidence has grown so much that now we are prepared to laugh at ourselves,” believes CPB’s Barry. CPB recently addressed women’s perceptions of themselves when it tackled the redesign for Kotex, a personal hygiene product range for women.

“We stopped talking about periods and instead looked at how women felt to be women,” says Barry. CPB’s final design moved away from conventional packaging in the “SanPro” category and instead used the previously taboo colour red to depict images of feminine articles, such as high heels and lipstick.

Tackling taboos

“Package design and communications can have a big effect on normalising problems,” believes Barry. Another “taboo” product CPB helped redesign the packaging for was clothing for children who wet the bed. The previous packaging was dark blue and featured an image of two children in what looked like a hospital bed. CPB updated the image by showing a picture of children jumping up and down on a bed and renamed the product “pyjama pants”. “Package design can cause changes and it can make things acceptable,” says Barry.

The same could be said of advertising. But where advertising can shock or inspire in an immediate way, the effects of package design are subtler. “Packaging has to have a longer shelf life than advertising,” says Minale. “To build awareness of a product on the shelf you have to keep it as consistent as possible.”

At the same time, package design must make the same emotional connection as advertising. “Packaging will always be a point of reference and, as the face of the brand, it is longer lasting than advertising,” believes Pearlfisher’s Ford. And in the current environment, when advertising spending is falling, the role of packaging as the “silent salesman” is likely to take on greater prominence.

Latest from Marketing Week


Access Marketing Week’s wealth of insight, analysis and opinion that will help you do your job better.

Register and receive the best content from the only UK title 100% dedicated to serving marketers' needs.

We’ll ask you just a few questions about what you do and where you work. The more we know about our visitors, the better and more relevant content we can provide for them. And, yes, knowing our audience better helps us find commercial partners too. Don't worry, we won't share your information with other parties, unless you give us permission to do so.

Register now


Our award winning editorial team (PPA Digital Brand of the Year) ask the big questions about the biggest issues on everything from strategy through to execution to help you navigate the fast moving modern marketing landscape.


From the opportunities and challenges of emerging technology to the need for greater effectiveness, from the challenge of measurement to building a marketing team fit for the future, we are your guide.


Information, inspiration and advice from the marketing world and beyond that will help you develop as a marketer and as a leader.

Having problems?

Contact us on +44 (0)20 7292 3703 or email

If you are looking for our Jobs site, please click here