Proud to be in packaging

How many of us involved in packaging design felt like the poor relation to advertising, once again, at last month’s D&AD Awards when our category didn’t scrape so much as a nomination? How many of us in 1999 consciously distance ourselves from the term “packaging” per se, preferring to talk of “all visual manifestations of the brand”, “total communications”, or whatever else we can come up with to escape that derogatory term? But, I have to admit, I’m as guilty as the rest.

It seems, though, there is a dichotomy. On one hand, it makes commercial sense to evangelise the brand-building potential of packaging with clients (because it’s their speak), yet there is a growing dissent towards the term within the industry. As one well-known creative director recently put it: “If you’re in packaging, you’re basically one up from a hot dog salesman.” Can we really hope to deliver great things if we don’t feel proud about what we do?

But is a desire to make the term packaging obsolete simply avoiding the real issue? Should we actually be directing greater effort to move things in a different direction as new pressures are put on the humble pack? I pose the question because I sense we could be on the threshold of an era which will be very good for packaging.

As Jeremy Myerson said recently: “The role of design in the next decade will be to simplify, to be life editors…” Absolutely. Clever packaging, therefore, needs to respond to brand proliferation by saying less (as opposed to more) if it’s to create clear cut-through. For me, the recent trend of agencies looking to iconic packs like Rizla, Swan Vestas and Bacardi for inspiration, shows the tremendous status of packaging when we keep it simple.

For several years, there has been a need to compensate for dwindling or non-existent advertising budgets in fragmented sectors. The consequence has been that packaging has come to be about detailed or multi-layered messages harnessed to a product representation or demonstration – essentially, trying to do in three seconds what you would previously have done in 20 or 30. But it’s becoming painfully clear that this kitchen-sink approach only transmits a message that lacks focus – neither striking a cord with fatigued consumers, nor those charged with upholding the principles of effective communication.

Although we expect too much from packaging on one hand, we expect too little on the other. It seems packaging designers are either discouraged or loathe to aspire to an “idea”, and many continue to subscribe to the fallacy that this is “too much to ask of a piece of packaging”. A step into advertising territory for goodness sake! Should we actually refer to the progression of advertising from its own product demonstration roots, through to the recent trend of challenging or involving the consumer in some way? Packaging should also be about entertainment, engagement and emotion. We should learn from the success of retailer brands (usually the only ones to get into the D&AD Annual) which have gained success by prioritising an idea over a logo and a product claim.

But perhaps the biggest thing we have yet to get our heads round is the effect of new types of shopping. In the future, with more shopping direct and more shopping on the Internet, will we see a shift in emphasis? Will package design have to work as hard at point of receipt or point of use as it does at point of sale at the moment? Will packaging enjoy a dramatic rise in stature as it needs to compensate for the absence of the theatre and involvement of conventional shopping? Could “wrapping” become the next new media as the delivery or arrival of a brand becomes a key consumer interface? We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that packaging is the only medium which can touch all the senses.

Marketing magazine recently debated whether marketing needed a new handle because of its confused meaning. The conclusion was that, rather than a change of name, it needed to change its role within businesses. I concur – perhaps it’s time for those engaged in packaging to embark on a similar mission. When all is said and done, clients are going to continue to come to you with a perceived packaging need, regardless of the fact your sales pitch says you sell something subtly different. Let’s not lose sight of the fact we make our own beds. The challenge, therefore, has to be to deliver a product which redefines expectations and, in doing so, reinstates the sense of self worth which is currently sorely lacking.

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