Most advertisements are crafted to tell a story wherein the product emerges as the valiant hero. Consider this year’s Super Bowl spot for Cheetos Popcorn: the main character goes through his day with a Cheetos Popcorn bag tucked against his torso and his fingers covered in Cheetos’ signature orange dust—which he uses as an excuse to extricate himself from unpleasant tasks, like working through a pile of paperwork or helping to move a neighbor’s couch. While some people might argue that MC Hammer, who pops up throughout the commercial singing his 1990s hit “U Can’t Touch This,” is the star here—he’s not. The ever-present bag of Cheetos Puffs is.
Brands paid as much as $5.6 million for 30 seconds of Super Bowl air time in 2020. It’s likely that marketers paid more for a single second of exposure of their packaging—which went for $186,000—than they invested in the underlying brand design over the course of the entire year. But do their design assets still resonate with consumers in light of evolving trends and preferences? Are they communicating the right things, and making a strong stand against new design-savvy competitors?
The tendency to overlook the importance of design as a core brand asset is nothing new. Even sophisticated marketing mix analyses only attribute sales to packaging when it can’t be explained by another marketing variable. Nevertheless, all of these other activities can be rendered more or less effective by the underlying brand assets. This begs the question: when design is the only asset to permeate every aspect of the consumer experience, why do brands often think of it as static and separate from other marketing efforts? The answer is: it’s complicated.
A unified beginning
When tasked with developing new packaging, savvy agencies do begin by thinking about the design in terms of broader marketing efforts. They know that they need to consider not just the store shelf, but also the full marketing mix so that all the brand’s promotional efforts will deliver a higher return. “When a brand is being refreshed or evolved, typically the lead design firm will show how the design system could be expressed across different channels, like social media or an in-store display. The design system needs to be able to flex and look consistent in those other places,” explained Denise Siebert, who recently served as the global head of design for Kellogg’s after an 18-year tenure at Procter & Gamble. In fact, brands are increasingly factoring social media into their early-stage package design explorations. “The modern shelf set includes Instagram, and we actually presented our initial designs [for the rebranded Think! protein bars] in that context in addition to the traditional retail environment,” said Ross Patrick, executive creative director at DDW, a San Francisco-based design agency.
However, once package designs are launched, many brands adopt a “set it and forget it” attitude toward design. While brands continuously monitor their advertising, promotional, and social media efforts to assess performance and course-correct as needed, design is often left unchecked for years—or even decades. For example, Buchanan’s scotch whisky maintained the same package design for more than 20 years until the brand recognized that its dated appearance was turning away younger consumers, and embarked on a dramatic redesign in 2015 that reinvigorated the brand.
The way that many manufacturers—especially large ones—are structured contributes to this mindset. “Corporations make it very difficult to think about design as something that underlies all marketing efforts because they look at the team responsible for packaging very differently than the teams responsible for advertising, social media, and all those other touchpoints,” said Siebert. Furthermore, advertising agencies who are typically not involved in the brand development often seek full creative license when creating campaigns, which can stretch the brand too far. For example, the agency may choose to omit a core distinctive asset or employ a different look and feel.
The problem with deprioritizing design
Ultimately, this lack of design consistency can create divergent messaging and harm a brand’s mental availability when consumers are pondering which brand to buy in a retail context. “Advertising agencies often don't really like to lean on iconic, long-term assets. The popularity of How Brands Grow has helped to reinforce something that I think designers have said for a long time, which is that you need consistency. Historically, we didn’t have the data to say, ‘See? Consistency is integral to the way consumers recall your brand.’ But I think that’s changing now,” explained Siebert.
Beyond the risks associated with taking too much creative license, “launching and leaving” designs can be problematic for other reasons. While a brand’s design may stay exactly the same for years, consumer trends and perceptions are rapidly changing, new competitors are popping up, and the brand itself is likely adding complexity to the design hierarchy with new line extensions. “In general, companies wait way too long to revisit their packaging when competition heats up. They blow off what's going on with other brands, and they think that they can weather it,” said Amy Brusselback, principal at Design B&B and former design director at Procter & Gamble. One solution is to make subtle design changes more often. For example, Tide laundry detergent has made such consistent yet subtle changes over the years that many consumers don’t realize the packaging has ever changed.
Even when brands eventually do attempt to remedy the situation, the odds of success will have continued to diminish over the time they spent waiting. “If you launch your packaging and then just leave it out there for five or ten years, the bigger your redesign will need to be—and that means more risk. And a lot of those major redesigns do fail,” explained Siebert. In fact, more than 50% of package redesigns fail to improve upon the previous version across key design performance indicators, according to Designalytics’ cross-category database.
How data can improve design management
Knowing which messages to amplify in other marketing channels
Understanding how a brand’s own design and its key competitors’ designs perform more consistently—not just when a redesign is imminent—can inform broader marketing efforts. For example, when Procter & Gamble launched Always Discreet, an adult incontinence product, in 2014, the intent was to make the packaging more subtle for bashful buyers—but this required others marketing channels to message differently. “Adult incontinence is considered by many to be even more of an embarrassing category than the feminine care category. We buried those products in the Always brand to make people feel more comfortable with the purchase. Through consumer research, we learned that we needed to improve the communication across other more private channels to compensate for the subtlety in packaging,” recalled Siebert, who worked on that product launch.
Identifying when the problem is NOT the design
More frequent and thorough monitoring of design performance can also stave off unnecessary redesigns. “A huge majority of the fundamental packaging issues companies cite are actually sales issues related to the number of facings, placement on shelf, and competitive adjacencies in retail environments,” said Brusselback. Evaluating current package designs in a way that accounts for these variables can help brands understand whether the design or some other element of the marketing mix needs to change. Armed with design performance data, the brand may choose to invest more in retail displays, shelf-talkers, or additional facings rather than revamp a generally high-performing design.
Fixing ONLY what’s broken
Design is like a Rubik's Cube; there are many sides to consider, and trying to fix one side can inadvertently scramble the other sides. Data that helps brands to understand what’s working and what’s not focuses designers on the problem areas while highlighting the risk of altering specific elements that are performing well. For example, a package that performs well on communication, mental availability, and overall appeal may fail to stand out—but evolving the design significantly enough to address this weakness could easily wreak havoc on its otherwise strong performance.
More designers are embracing data
Marketers depend on metrics like clicks, conversions, followers, and GRPs to inform their messaging and marketing plans—and they reference this information on a daily or weekly basis, not just once every few years. Design should receive similar treatment and, in fact, many creatives are embracing the idea of incorporating data more consistently into the design discipline. “If you're a creative, especially within the context of a big multinational corporation, you’re kind of like the exotic gardener. People say, ‘I like you at my house, you make my flower beds look good, but don’t come and sit at my dinner table.’ So why wouldn't you lean into objective data that can earn you a seat at the table?” said Brusselback.