The anatomy of packaging design

Packaging essentially has two simple functions:

1) To protect a product when it’s being transported and being sold, and

2) to entice customers to purchase the product

Sounds simple doesn’t it? However there are a number of factors to bear in mind when designing packaging.

There are countless books that have been written about packaging design, consumer spending habits and shopper marketing. This is not an exhaustive list, but here a number of key points that I’ve learnt from over twenty years in design.

Understand your customer
If you don’t know who your customer is or how they are going to buy the product then the product is doomed to fail. What is the target demographic (their age, gender, aspirations or profession etc)? What are their shopping habits? Which stores do they shop at? Put yourself in the shoes of the customer. Think how you would shop. What would make you buy the product? What would catch your eye on the shelf? If you can get inside the head of your buyer then you can think about what they want and not what you expect. Do your research before you sit down and start designing.

Know your market
Launching a product into an overcrowded market is difficult. How is this product different to everything else that’s already out there? What is unique about it? Why would a buyer purchase this product instead of something else? How do you entice loyal customers away from their usual purchases? Look at all the other brands and products and see if there is a graphical link. There may be a common thread or a formula to the size, shape, look and feel which customers have come to expect within a certain market area. Unpick the market leader and see if you understand how they arrived at their final design. One good example is Cream cleaners. They tend to be coloured yellow for example to emulate Cif, the brand leader, and also to reflect the lemon variant.
Cream cleaner design

Identify your competitors
In every market there are designs which follow a similar design formula and there are some that break the rules. Aldi always design their packaging to emulate the market leaders. This recognition connects with customers and allows them to identify the product quickly and easily. However, designing for discount stores or own brand retailers is different. In FMCG filled supermarkets there are far more products and brands competing with each other. The design of the packaging has more work to do.

When you’ve established which brands your product has to compete with, who your customer is and what they expect, then you can start to look at design. Do you want the design to follow the market or should you do something completely different?

Brand experience
Apple store interior
How does the brand make you feel? Packaging is part of the whole user/brand experience. A brand has to connect as well as sell, and that connection has to leave a lasting impression. Take Apple for example. Their packaging, their website, their tone of voice, their stores – everything says quality, minimalalism and sophistication. It all adds up to create a premium experience. That excitement that you feel when you lift the lid off a new iPhone box is deliberately drawn out due to the tightness of the lid. It’s an emotional experience to what is a functional piece of technology. It’s not just about the product though, it’s about how owning that product makes you feel and how others perceive you when you have that product. It’s about status and helps with your perception of placement within society. You become part of that brand.

Design hierarchy
What is the most important thing on the packaging? Is it the brand logo? Is it the product name? Perhaps it’s the product itself? A customer may need to see the product in order to make a more informed purchase. Photography may be the best way to show this, or perhaps a window or clear area would be better. An illustration can capture the essence of the product whilst adding extra feeling, emotion and colour.
Thorntons packaging
For many leading brands the most eye-catching and obvious feature on the pack is the logo. A great example of this is Thorntons chocolates. Their logo is the leading element on the pack. Consumers buy primarily because of the brand name. Supermarket own brands tend to lead with the product title as these are bought based on price and function, not on brand reputation.

Limited Editions
By default, anything with a shelf life is limited. Products are redesigned and updated all the time, each time getting a new updated look or a refreshed brand. Is there really a need for special editions and limited edition versions of products? Yes. People tend to get blasé when shopping. We become ‘blind’ as things become routine. Humans are creatures of habit too. As a rule we go directly to the same aisles and more often than not buy the same products and brands from the same manufacturers. It’s safe. It’s easy. However, in contrast, we are also inquisitive creatures. We are attracted by things that are new and different. By redesigning and updating the packaging you are attracting the eye of the consumer once more and creating interest. We are encouraging customers to ‘see’ the product again and re-engage. You are adding something different, something exciting, something new.
Heinz Limited Edition
Special/Limited Editions appeal to both sides of us. It’s safe (if it’s from a brand that we already know) and it’s also a little adventurous. There is a certain kudos in owning something rare, something collectable, something that few other people own. It adds to our spirit of individuality. The time constraints of a Limited Edition product also invites us to buy something before it’s too late. We have to make a quick and impulsive decision as to whether we purchase or not.

If you think about these six simple points, you can provide yourself with a great framework with which to create great packaging design, regardless of the market sector or product. Before you start sketching up visuals or jumping onto a Mac, always do some research first.

Images and brands are copyright of the respective companies where used.

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