Pandora's Box – A guide to Packaging Design

You’re at the supermarket. You’re in a rush. You find yourself in front of three packs of something you don’t often get. They are around the same price. Which one do you choose? The groovy one? The cheap looking one? The one that looks like it will taste the best?

Packaging design is for this purpose alone: To make sure the wavering finger stops on your product.

It’s not for winning packaging awards (although there’s ample evidence to suggest that award winners are better sellers) and not for saving money – the public treats companies who ‘save money’ like people who don’t shower.

No one buys ugly

Your packaging, whether it’s for a tooth paste, a lipstick or a battery, makes a huge impact on how easy it is to sell your product. It’s the marketing foundation stone. If you don’t get the packaging right, the amount of money you have to spend on other elements of the mix is way higher.

Good packaging outsells bad packaging hugely – it’s the last thing your customers see and often the only thing that really sells them to the punter. It hangs around in their pantry, their living room or their garage, driving your business every moment of it’s often long life. Think of it like art. Art that keeps you in a job.

There’s so little to look at, really. So little to sell you on one or the other. And so many dumb things holding back other wise, great products. Why did it take 80 years and countless scenes of kids getting covered in tomato sauce by dad’s trying to knock the last couple of drops out, before they made the squeezable sauce bottle? How smart do you have to be?

Don’t mess with my brand

It’s not that people didn’t have the idea for a better sauce bottle. It’s that brand managers and marketing managers are petrified of changing packaging. They are of the belief that any change may stop some 1 or 2 percent of punters from recognising the brand and buying the product. They usually negate all the good reasons to up-date and the many more potential customers a more user-friendly or more stand-out pack may attract. They are holding their companies back.

Sure, protect the brand. Brief for the brand’s core elements to remain. Be serious about it. Then let talented people do the thing you’re employing them to do; give you great stuff. Have some guts.

How to do better Packaging

The brand is the asset

What your shareholders will be selling for a bill or two one day will be the brand. It will be worth money because it generates sales as if by magic. This is because people trust it and that means they’ve tried it, it’s worked (none of which I can have any influence over) and surprise surprise, they recognise it. That’s the important bit. It means you need to have a BLOODY BIG BRAND they can see from the other side of the super market or Shell Shop aisle.

Stand out in a supermarket

The store is a very busy place. Your eye does not know what to look at. Everything is screaming at you. Like the butcher’s spuiker at the market, you have no choice but to scream louder. Use colours. Contrasting or mixing in, bold and bright or blacks and whites. Do drop shadows behind the product name, or do clean & simple to stand out from other cluttered designs. There’s lots of tricks your designers ought to know about.

Check that it stands out

Take the roughs/mock-ups down the local supermarket, put them up against the competition, and have a good look. Take a photo so you can show the rest of the team. Watch out for the manager of the store. You could ask first, but most of the time they’ll say no.

Maximise your space

You’ve often only got a few centimetres wide and high on the shelf that you can feasibly use. Use it all if you can. The more visual space you can use, the more impact you can have on the punters. Grab more space by adjusting the angles so you can see it from the side, or keeping a colour consistent so the packs connect together. And make sure that the colour variants work together as a series, or a bigger image.

Little Things make a big difference

More modern typefaces can update a design with hardly any other changes. Just moving the barcode around so the front has a bit less clutter can also help.

Pandora’s Box

Please consider packaging that’s friendly to the environment. I know you’re groaning, but the concerns of the public are genuine and it’s your grandchildren who won’t be able to fish, breathe or procreate, so grow up and do something decent for the planet. One time bomb is pseudo estrogens; which occur in margarine tubs, drink bottles etc. and leach into the food. Banned in many countries, as I understand it. Ask your production manager what alternatives you have before someone picks it up in the media and you have to change. Or change first then steal the market share of your competitors with a nasty little leak to your mate at the TV station.

Check with Standards Australia

Make sure you meet the legal guidelines, which are very tight on the size of type, what it says etc. List the ingredients by volume etc. Do the right thing before you have to. It’s damn silly having $30,000 worth of packaging in your warehouse you can’t use, reminding the M.D. daily why you don’t deserve a pay rise.

Older customers need bigger type

The population is ageing. The designers are young, and hip. They like tiny type. Anyone over 40 (almost half of us?) can’t read it. You figure.

Long copy works

Tell them more when you can. If you’ve got a nice big canvas like a cereal box, go to town on the detail. You never know when they are going to read it and like this mag, if it’s in print they believe it.

Cross Sell

Why is it so few marketing managers have worked out that their products can help sell each other? Making an antipasto? You’ll need our green olives too….etc.

Add extra bits and pieces

You’re often in their home for a month or two. They open the pantry. They stare at the packs wondering what to make tonight. Now’s your chance. Give them a bit of a read. You can do big stickers, little flyers, inside packs or as slips over the pack.

Drop the numbers

No one wants to eat numbers. People actively don’t buy foods with lots of them on the side. Watch them in the supermarket if you don’t believe me. Spell out the ingredient if it sounds OK. If it sounds suss, change the fucking recipe. If you wouldn’t eat it, why should they?

Tell them the real ingredients

‘Spices’ is better expressed as ‘garlic, ginger, cinnamon, chilli, pepper’. ‘Meat’ is better expressed as ‘lean pork’ or ‘free range chicken’. Listed as ingredients for a recipe, they sound appetising. As ‘colours’ or ‘flavours’, they sound deadly.

Make it easier

The customer doesn’t have enough time to breathe, let alone stuff around with a can opener or to find a bloody pair of scissors. Recognise this and you’ll do us all a favour. I don’t care if the other bastards in your industry do it that way too, it’s your business and your customers I’m concerned about. Help them and they will love you. Make it hard and they’ll only buy it once.

Show them the product – see through packs

If it doesn’t look like bird shit in the pack, let them see it. If that’s what they are looking for, give it to them. It makes their life and your sales easier.

Use Black

While they may vary a touch in fashion ability, the thing about colours is that their psychological effects stay pretty similar for decades. Blue’s good for bathroom things. Green some how means ‘natural’. Black may be very popular; to an extent that you’d have to wonder if you won’t stand out, but it makes things seem better quality.

Show it ready to eat

Uncooked does nothing to sell product. If you show it on a plate, as a meal, it sells. Amazing.

Break the mould

If all the products in a market use particular colours or come in certain sizes, unless it’s dramatically impractical, you’re much better to do something different. Why is it almost all cereal packs have a bowl with strawberries on the crushed bird food and milk pouring into it? How dumb do they think we are? They have to tell us how it’s eaten? What do they think we were going to buy it for? Fertiliser?

Use full-colour

I know you’ll have trouble believing it, but there are still some packs in consumer ville’s supermarkets in one or two colours only. They look like they were designed by a dentist on his home PC. They sell as badly. Unless it’s a home brand you want to position as the cheapest on the market, use full colour.

When in doubt, make it beautiful

This is a standard practice in my business. If you haven’t had a good idea, and you’re out of time, you take something beautiful and wrap the thing in it. This will work on 80% of you clients. And often works on the public too. It’s better if the concept has something to do with the product, but I’ve seen a naked woman selling brake linings. Must be something strange about that particular target market.

Choose your ‘Designers’ on looks

Anyone who wears black, particularly a turtle-neck with blonde highlights, should be stabbed with a blunt knife in the eyes, as they obviously don’t use them. How could you stare at the mirror in the morning and say, “Gee, I’m happy going to work looking like everyone else in the office.” And then have the cheek tell a client you’re creative? Check out the staff at Cato’s or call AGDA (Australian Graphic Design Association) for your local design firm, if you want a laugh.

Ditto for their work, which if it copies other packs they have seen lately (ie. small san serif type, lots of white, no details – cause they can’t write etc.) they are committing the worst sin possible for packaging. The public hates copy cats. Designers, who follow fashion the way you’d follow money blowing in the wind, call this ‘derivative’ meaning ‘derived from someone else’s’ – they can’t even say the word copying.

Don’t try to be funny

It’s very rare that successful high volume packaging is funny, even though funny ads in TV, Print or whatever are almost always more successful. I think it’s because the first time you read something it’s funny, but by the time you’ve read it a few times it isn’t anymore. Try reading this article 5 or 6 times.

How to buy packaging

Get on with your life

As mentioned above, there’s this hopeless fear of loss of market share that surrounds the decision to move on with packaging.  A change in packaging, and ‘wastefully’ biffing the last 30,000 packs, is better than keeping/using the old stock. The old stock doesn’t do its job right. Get rid of it.

Take it a step at a time

If you are a bit chicken, like most of the big corporates,  you can make two or three ‘generational’ changes over a year or so. The market research says you ought to be here, but it’s a big leap from where you are. You ask your designers to make up two or three versions, that slowly move your product over, so you’ve got far less chance of loosing any loyalists along the way.

Fit your positioning

Choose the expensive look, when your product is. Choose the cheapest only if it fits the brand personality. Confirm the brand promise, please. Fit the dream. If they want to loose weight eating this, make the pack tall and slim. If you want them to think it’s ‘Asian’ give them a pack that looks like it came from a noodle shop.

Buy ideas, not finished art

I’d rather see a concept scribbled on the back of an envelope than a really nicely worked up, dumb idea, presented as a fait accompli. I hope you’re more interested in content than polish too. I’ve often seen people buy a finished look because they felt guilty the designers went to all the trouble of printing the thing out and sticking it onto the box. Big deal. It won’t sell better than a good idea presented badly, that you know will improve with a bit of work. Don’t be conned by presentation. It’s a law in my business that if you think the client has no brains, you present finished work. If you think they are fairly in-tune with things, you give them a few decent ideas; it’s a piece of piss to make them look nice. But it’s hard to have that good idea in the first place. (Especially if you’re a designer who still thinks black is in.)

Brief 2-4 designers

Don’t assume you have to be loyal at this end of the spectrum. Ask them to show roughs only and choose them on concepts alone. Show them the cheapest price you were quoted and ask them to get as close as they can.

Get them to make a mock-up

All the printers will knock up a pack for you, if you promise them there’s a job in it. It’s standard procedure. So it’s not hard for the designers to do it. And please test it in store.

Show the boss

Take the ideas as roughs to Coles or Woolies or Auto Barn or whomever is your main customer. Get their input. Recognise they have loyalties to whoever is the biggest player, so don’t promise you’ll do everything they suggest. Use an excuse like “Our Chair person has the last say.”

Market Research it ‘in-situ’

Having spent the odd decade or two in market research, let me be frank. Most of my fellow researchers will sell you a very ‘safe’ series of focus groups and you’ll come out with the copy-cat cereal pack problem I mentioned above. That’s because respondents think it sounds sensible to show the milk pouring onto the bowlful of crispy flakes when they are sitting around a board room table. It’s only when they are confronted by thousands of products in the supermarket do they click, then say, “Well you ought to do it differently.” Never do focus groups on packaging in a nice warm room. Do it at the cold noisy supermarket and you’ll get useful information. It’s a touch harder for the researcher, but at $10-20,000 for the exercise, they can bloody well earn it.

Print Off-shore

Go into an Asian food shop and look at the packaging of chips, drinks etc. It’s gravure. It’s gorgeous. It sells wonderfully. It’s also much cheaper per unit. Yes, you might need to order a few more, to reach their minimums, but heck, why muck around with poorer quality that doesn’t sell so well, just because you can’t get the slack producers in Australia to do a better job?

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