Five years ago, we had packaging designers. Today, we have brand identity consultants. Is this simply a matter of designers’ inflated sense of self-importance, or is there a genuine and fundamental difference in the way designers now approach packaging design?
Certainly, today’s strategic approach to branding offers the designer more opportunities to contribute intellectually to the branding process, and to define the way in which brand portfolios are structured, rationalised, harmonised and extended. Designers’ input throughout the entire branding cycle is being sought as never before.
It was not always thus. Two decades ago, the roles of creative and marketing departments were rigidly delineated, and it was common for marketing consultants to attend client meetings and simply hand over the brief to the creatives back at home base. Today’s more progressive design consultancies emulate the partnership model of the advertising giants, where business momentum and immensely productive client relationships are built on symbiotic in-house relationships between those who sell and those who design; for yesterday’s Saatchi & Saatchi, read today’s Newell & Sorrell or Lewis Moberly.
A further development is the blurring of roles within agencies such as Landor, where designers and marketers are fully equipped to articulate the thinking behind each others’ work. A wider recognition of the instrumental role visual language plays in communicating the brand message has led to designers being encouraged to use left- and right-brain skills in equal measure. This trend will always be one-directional: while design directors are often put into pitching and selling situations, marketers are seldom called upon to actually design.
When did the designer’s brief begin to broaden? Perhaps we are experiencing the fall-out of the growth of truly mass-media marketing throughout the Fifties and Sixties, where specific product attributes lost ground to brand values as the primary selling differentiator. When Walter Landor said: “Products are made in the factory; brands are created in the mind,” he was making a distinction which, to the packaging designer of the early Sixties, represented a considerable shift in thinking. Product packaging does not exist in a vacuum, and is not simply about aesthetics. Every brand is comprised of a mosaic of values, and it is the role of the brand consultant to establish which ones of these represent the core of the brand and which are peripheral. Today’s designer has more chance to participate in that definitive process, and has a greater measure of responsibility in visually articulating the brand promise.
Most consumers respond to a brand as they would to a person. Beyond its functional use – the building of a sense of familiarity and association – a brand provides an emotional bond. Great care must be exercised when evolving it, as consumers generally notice when a brand acts out of character.
In view of this, it’s not surprising that the designer’s responsibility to impart brand personality through visual expression has grown. It’s the logical streamlining of the traditionally two-step process of client to consultant to designer. Where a brand is targeted at a specific social group defined by age, interest or social attitude, it is not unusual for designers of a similar background to the brand’s target audience to create an effective design solution almost instinctively. It’s simply a visual version of the band Oasis tapping into the zeitgeist, designing for the converted.
Packaging design, however, is just one manifestation of the brand. Visionary designers today take into account all aspects of brand communication to make them work more harmoniously together. Extrapolating the brand throughout different media and into three dimensions (as in arresting promotional displays or themed stores) adds power to its delivery. With the designer’s additional responsibility for a brand’s articulation have come new and commensurate levels of power.
The traditional packaging process was, by comparison with today’s theories of holistic branding, (well articulated by Paul Southgate in Total Branding by Design), quite one-dimensional. Within the modern branding concept, the brand symbol, or logo, should convey the core values of the brand, and embody its spirit in visual shorthand. The logo for Terry’s Chocolate Orange, for instance, incorporates an orange peel-style treatment wholly in keeping with the brand’s core proposition. Tango established a strong brand personality of taste explosion with its original orange product, and it was entirely in keeping and credible to add apple and blackcurrant variants to its range. Such a move would not have been credible for Fanta, whose origins are firmly rooted in its original orange-flavoured product; here, a less rigid set of values would enhance the brand’s ability to evolve.
Other pack elements – colours, graphics, typography and structure – should remain true to a brand’s values and help to build an emotional relationship with the consumer.
How far beyond the pack can the designer help the brand? Recent work on “branded environments” proves that enhancing the brand experience at every stage of a consumer’s retail journey can affect its success. Designers can re-inforce a brand’s identity at various conscious and subconscious levels within the retail environment, and help prepare the consumer for the purchasing experience.
At the same time, closer collaboration between design and PR, point-of-sale promotions, merchandising, internal communications and ad campaigns can create a formidable total brand proposition. The messages in each medium can be slightly different as long as they remain consistent with the brand’s essence. Marketers should be working towards harmonisation, though not necessarily integration. Wolff Olins’ visual concept for Orange is a well-documented case of design and advertising working hand-in-hand to deliver a strong, consistent brand identity. A different approach is marketing by “segmentation”; Piz Buin, a brand which stands for both science and sex, is a good example, where the Lewis Moberly-designed pack communicates the technical performance of the product, while the advertising oozes sex-appeal. By the time Pepsi Blue was launched – with packs by Landor at an event designed by architects Apicella Associates and Mark Fisher and structural engineering by Atelier One – every member of Pepsi’s staff had received a copy of the “Blue Book”, designed by Landor to express the brand spirit.
In all these cases, designers played an influential role in expressing core brand values and communicating them to specific audiences. Whether the design’s delivery is to be the whole brand story or a small part of it should be the aim of a well-defined design brief. Realistically, it often isn’t: sophisticated though today’s clients may be, they are still waking up to the almost infinite possibilities of delivering messages through design. Perhaps the biggest opportunities open to the designer lie in identifying opportunities for a client to get better value for money out of design, by defining more specifically what the design should aim to do.
Brands increasingly operate across national borders. Designers are now being called upon to develop European strategies which optimise economies of scale for brand-owners to manage the three dimensions of the brand – namely logo, pack and selling environment – yet take into account local market issues. To help manage this process, new tools such as CD-ROMs and interactive packages are being created to ensure a consistent implementation.
In this context, the principle hasn’t really changed at all: to get the right answer, you’ve got to ask the right question. And the most successful designers can do both, with ease.