Is pack design the climax of your brand story?

When a shopper is weighing up what to buy, it’s packaging that prompts the pivotal ‘moment of truth’. Ed Woodcock, strategy director of Aesop, explains

Sponsored by Aesop


In the summer of 2006, New York Times Magazine columnist Rob Walker pondered what made one object more valuable than another, even though to all intents and purposes the two objects were the same. What makes a pair of kitten heels from Jimmy Choo more expensive than a pair from Topshop? Or a glass of Evian more valuable than a glass of tap water?

The reflex answer for every reader of Marketing Week is ‘brand’. But Walker, being a journalist, thought ‘story’. He hypothesised that it’s not just products in themselves that we value, but also the story that goes with them.

So he decided to conduct an experiment. With the help of his friend Joshua Glenn, he bought 100 worthless objects from flea markets and thrift shops: an old wooden mallet, a cracked porcelain shoe, a plastic banana. All of them unlovely and unloved. They spent an average of $1.28 per object.

Next they asked 100 talented, unknown writers to write a short story that featured the object and give it a new meaning. Then, they put the objects for sale on eBay, with the story as the descriptor. 

The results were astounding. The average rise in value was 2,700 per cent. A 33c mallet sold for $71. A 25c plastic banana fetched $76.

By attributing significance to formerly insignificant objects, Walker and Glenn made them significantly more valuable. For more details, see

The experiment is a reminder that branding is much like storytelling. Brands attribute meaning to objects and charge otherwise functional products with emotion, much like the stories in the experiment. Marketing is a form of storytelling.

It’s a nice anecdote, but what’s this got to do with design?

The obvious answer is that packaging should tell a story, much like the eBay product description in the experiment. Which begs the question: can it? Is there enough space? Enough time? In brief, is packaging a storytelling medium?

Ask any designer if packaging can tell a story, and the unequivocal answer will be: “Yes, of course!” By means of colour, visual metaphor, symbol, texture and materials, you can create a mood and a feeling. And with pack copy, copywriters can add an engaging tone of voice. 

Some brands have such compelling copy, they’ve built a reputation on the back of it. Beauty brand Soap & Glory springs to mind. So, yes, packaging can tell a story. But it has a lot of other responsibilities too; not least shelf impact, product delivery and brand recognition.

Bristows Bonbons’ packaging focuses on the sweets’ sucky, chewy qualities

Perhaps the better question is this: if story is such an important driver of value, then what role does packaging design play in telling it? Or what role should it play? Especially as there isn’t much real estate on pack to tell the whole story.

Here it’s useful to note another parallel between stories and marketing. The archetypal story, known as ‘the hero’s journey’, is both a physical and an emotional journey. And so are ‘shopper missions’. A trip to the shops, a dive into a newsagents, a visit to an online store: they’re all physical and emotional journeys, even if somewhat less epic. If you translate the shopping mission into story terms, packaging should be seen as a plot point. A point of inflection. Decision time.

To understand this a little more, consider a famous scene in the film The Matrix. Morpheus presents Neo with two pills, a red pill and a blue pill. Neo must choose. If he takes the blue pill, he will live in ignorant bliss within the Matrix as a slave. Take the red pill (pictured), and he will suffer the ugly truth, but he will be free. 

Neo’s choice determines his fate and the course of the story. It’s a revealing ‘moment of truth’ for the character.

One of the primary functions of packaging is to help consumers make a choice at the shelf. It prompts a ‘moment of truth’. Many of the choices we make at the supermarket shelf are habitual: we like what we know – the blue pill. But charge a brand with enough meaning and emotion, and consumers can be persuaded to make a change, take a risk – the red pill. Either way, from a commercial point of view, packaging is the climax of the story. Will consumers choose your brand, or another?

Indeed, the climax of a story is the definitive plot point. It separates tragedy from comedy. Doing or dying. Sale or no sale. All touchpoints leading
to the shelf should be regarded as the prelude, and all touchpoints after, confirmation of the choice. Some recent examples of good pack-centric marketing include ‘Share a Coke with Friends’ bottles, or the homage to Andy Warhol’s paintings of soup cans by Campbell’s.

So, it’s a wonder that so much packaging design is undertaken in isolation, without consideration of the touchpoints that precede it, or those that come after. It’s often treated as an afterthought, using ‘special’ ad hoc budgets that are a fraction of those for, say, advertising. All this, when packaging is often a brand’s most important medium. 

In fact, all other channels should, in behavioural economic terms, be ‘priming’ the consumer to choose your brand at the shelf by echoing the look and feel of the product or featuring the packaging prominently.

We were fortunate enough to put theory into practice for Bristows Bonbons recently. The sucky, chewy qualities of the product became the hero of a story told emphatically through the packaging, which then informed point-of-sale, print and out-of-home advertising.

So, to summarise the key points:

  • Packaging is often your brand’s most important medium.
  • It’s a storytelling medium, but with special responsibilities.
  • Your pack can’t tell the whole story, so what is its role?
  • How does it connect to the whole story and to other channels?
  • Finally, make your packaging the climax of the story.

In short, packaging design should take the lead, in order to ensure that consumers choose your brand at the moment of truth. Your brand depends on it.

Ed Woodcock
Strategy director

8-10 Lower James Street
London W1F 9EL

T: 020 7440 5550

Twitter: @AesopAgency  



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