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Packaging development

Why read this? : We explore the role of packaging development and its impact on customers. Learn how design and writing principles apply to packaging. Plus, how packaging protects products as they move through your supply chain. Read this for ideas on how to perfect your packaging development. 

Packaging development

How this guide raises your game :-

  1. Learn how design principles apply to packaging development. 
  2. Learn how writing principles apply to packaging development.
  3. Understand the practical and physical factors associated with packaging and the supply chain.

The primary purpose of packaging development is to get your product safely into the customer’s hands. But academic evidence also shows it has a big influence on the customer’s buying decision.

Its role within marketing is to support your :-

  • brand identity – It’s a tangible brand asset customers associate with your brand. It helps them identify who you are, and find you when they’re looking to buy.
  • product offer – It’s an extension of the product part of your marketing mix. Up to the point of purchase, it’s often the main way customers interact with the product.
  • communications – It’s a way to interact with customers as part of their overall customer experience. You can use it to build awareness and land key messages to drive consideration and trial at the point of purchase.

This guide focuses on this last area. We look at how :-

  • applying design principles makes your packaging more visually appealing.
  • using writing principles helps you more clearly communicate key messages on the pack.
  • packaging helps products move through your supply chain. From the production line to the hands of customers.
Overhead shot of a load of red coloured snacks including Doritos and Skittles

Ready to test your knowledge?

What’s your starting level of knowledge about packaging development?

Take the 2 minute, 5 question Three-Brains packaging development quiz and see how much you know about packaging development already.

Design principles and packaging

There are many different design principles, but 4 of the most common used in packaging development are :- 

  • Contrast.
  • Repetition.
  • Alignment.
  • Proximity. 

These come from the excellent Design for Non-Designers* by Robin Williams, which outlines these CRAP principles. Let’s look at some examples of each in action. 

Contrast 

Contrast is when you create distinct differences between design elements, so they stand out more. 

It makes it easier to distinguish different visual elements from each other. It also helps show the viewer where they should look first

Contrast supports packaging development in 2 key areas. On the product itself. And when the product sits on a shelf with other products. 

On the product’s packaging, you use contrast to highlight specific areas of the design you want to stand out. Our eyes are drawn to what looks different

Close up of wine bottle label - reads Reserve Casillero del Diablo Carmenere 2013 Chile

Use contrast to draw attention to more important areas of the design. It also makes the overall design more visually appealing. Designs with good contrast are easier on the eye. 

Look at this example from a Casillero del Diablo wine label. There are 3 different examples of contrast here :-

Contrast example 1

First, contrast the light cream background with the dark gold, red and black font colours. The text is important. It needs to stand out. The use of contrast here makes it more legible. It’s easy to distinguish the dark words from the light background. 

Contrast example 2

Next, note the contrast in font styles between the brand name and the rest of the text. The brand name is important. It’s the first thing customers look at before the type of wine, year and country of origin. 

It contrasts with the rest of the text by using an elaborate, thick and closely spaced script style. Contrast is also added more subtly with details like the drop shadow. Look also at the square dot above the letter “i” and the straight corners around the letters “s” and “a”, for example. All areas of contrast. 

Compare those with the simplicity, thinness and spacing of the rest of the text. There’s a definite contrast with the brand name style. The other text uses a light serif font. Plus, the spacing (leading) between the text makes it contrast with the much more tightly packed main brand name. The contrasting font styles help you tell the different elements apart.

Contrast example 3

Finally, note how the “C” and the “D” have been changed to a dark red colour. This contrast helps break up the black text within the brand name. But it also has 2 further uses.

First,  the red colour creates an association with the colour of the wine itself. That’s hard to get from the dark green bottle. And second, the colour red also has associations with what “Diablo” (the devil, in Spanish) means. 

Contrast on shelf

Let’s look at another category to see how contrast helps packaging stand out on shelf. It can be an important way for customers to find you in-store. If they can’t find you, they can’t buy you. 

Look at Shapes in this example. It uses different colours to identify the different flavours it offers. The colour differences are an example of contrast.

These colours contrast against each other. They help the shopper distinguish Chicken Crimpy (Orange box) from Barbecue (Green box), for example. 

Compare this contrast with the own brand examples (BBQ and Pizza). These only have the name of the product to provide contrast. The packaging colours look similar. It would be harder for customers to tell these products apart because they lack the contrast Shapes has.

Supermarket shelves showing different varieties of Arnott's Shapes snacks

Repetition

However, note that not everything on the Shapes packs is different and contrasting. They use the same brand name, font and general layout to show they’re all part of the same overall brand. 

This is an example of the design principle of repetition. Repetition is when you consistently use design elements in a certain way to make them familiar and more recognisable to the audience.

Repetition helps customers identify the overall brand family. It’s very commonly used where a “parent brand” has many variants. For example, Coca-Cola is always written in the same font and style, whether it appears on Diet Coke, Coke Zero or any other Coke product. 

Some brands use repetition of colours to achieve an effect called “brand blocking” in stores. When you have many packs together which use a repeated, consistent colour, it creates a block of colour which stands out more in store. The customer can see this block of colour from further away.

In this example, look at how repeating the use of colour of these different formula brands creates a more impactful and eye-catching presence in store.

In some categories, it’s used to signify the entry point to the aisle. (See our design psychology guide for more on entry points). You’ll find a familiar block of white and red from Colgate at the entry to the toothpaste aisle, for example. 

Supermarket large display of multiple types of infant formula

Studies suggest brand blocking helps drive sales by reducing the amount of thinking a customer has to do. People mostly shop by habit. Familiar colours drive sales by making it easier to pick up products you know.

Alignment

The next design principle is alignment. It’s how different elements line up against each other.

As per our design principles guide, well-aligned designs create a sense of balance and harmony. When design elements are aligned correctly on a label, they feel like they ‘fit’ together. They look ‘right’.

Take the classic Heinz baked beans label, for example.

In this case, alignment is slightly harder because the tin is curved. But look closer, and there’s still lots of alignment.

First, all the text is centre aligned so it looks balanced on the label. In fact, if you look at the centre of the “i” in Heinz, the “h” in English, the “K” in Baked and the “A” in Beans you can draw a straight line through the middle of these words. (Although in this picture, the “A” is slightly off because of the angle of the photo).

Plus, as you can see from the lines we’ve drawn here, you can align the key words Heinz and Baked and Beans to the left and right. This alignment gives these words balance and makes the design seem more harmonious.

Close up of Heinz Baked Bean can with three vertical lines to show alignment of different text on the label

Proximity

The design principle of proximity is where different design elements are placed next to each other so they feel like they “belong” together.

This makes it easier for the customer to understand the design. What sits together belongs together. It makes it easier for them to process and interpret the design. 

Look at this Bombay Sapphire label, for example. Notice how the brand name “Bombay Sapphire” encloses the main logo / design of Queen Victoria.

But then the secondary information – the variant name and its description sit separately from these. There’s a clear gap between them.

Then, there’s another gap down to the secondary logo and the word “imported”.

So when customers pick this bottle up, their eye easily scans the 3 different groups of design elements, even though there are actually 9 design elements in total. 

It’s a good example of chunking which uses proximity in design. chunking groups objects together which belong together. This makes them easier to process and remember. (See our design psychology article for more on chunking).

Bombay Sapphire bottle and label

Packaging development - other design principles

The CRAP design principles are a good place to start when looking at packaging development. But there’s a few other areas of design which are also worth looking at :-

  • Colours.
  • Showing the product. 
  • Functionality. 
  • Link to brand positioning.
  • Special editions. 

Colours and packaging

You can use colours’ psychological associations in your packaging development to create useful ‘shortcuts’ for customers. For example, green is associated with nature and freshness. That’s why you see lots of organic foods, and health and beauty brands using green packaging. 

Red is associated with strength and power. It grabs people’s attention. You often see it on impulse products. Soft drinks and snacks, for example.

As per our colours in marketing guide, you also have to define your packaging colours in your brand identity as either CMYK or Pantone colours. 

These colour systems refer to colours which are printed on materials (rather than shown on a screen).

Your designer and your printer will likely ask you to “proof” colours on the print run before any packaging goes to print. This is to validate that colours you’ve seen on screen, are replicated when printed on your actual packaging.

Colour psychology - an applied use of colour in marketing

Showing the product

You should consider showing someone using the product, or even the product itself as part of the packaging design. 

This is especially true for marketing innovation. How will customers know what’s inside the packaging, if you don’t show them what it is.

(See an example of a product failure which did this in our marketing mistakes article).

Look at how Doritos, Kit Kat and Skittles show the product in these snack packaging examples. You know what those products are, but they still show the product inside to make the pack more appealing. 

Overhead shot of a load of red coloured snacks including Doritos and Skittles

Another option is to make some or all of the packaging transparent so customers can see what’s inside. That helps build trust. Customers can see what they’re getting.

Functionality

Packaging design also has to cover the functionality of the packaging. Often, the packaging has to do something for or with the product. 

That might mean protecting it before it reaches the customer. (More on this later). Keeping it fresh if it’s perishable, for example. Keeping it damage-free if it’s fragile. Making sure exposure to different temperatures or weather conditions doesn’t affect the product inside. 

If there’s mandatory information you need to include such as expiry dates or handling instructions, these should be placed in highly visible areas. Those help products move safely through your supply chain.

Hand holding a small wrapper package marked fragile

You should also consider the shape of the packaging. Square or rectangular packaging is easier to stack and pack, for example. It’s also a more efficient use of space on the shelf, as no space is wasted. Odd-shaped packaging e.g. circular or triangular is more awkward to pack and leaves gaps on the shelf.

Finally, you should also consider what happens to the packaging as and after the product is used. Is it easy to get into the packaging, for example? Is it easy to dispose of the packaging once it’s no longer needed?

These are all part of the design thinking which should go into packaging development.

Link to brand positioning

You should also consider how the packaging design helps reinforce your brand positioning.

For example, if your brand benefit is ease and convenience, its packaging has to be easy and convenient too. That’s just common sense.

Similarly, if you’re a premium brand, your packaging should help you reinforce that competitive strategy.

Look at how Krug Champagne do this with their packaging, for example. They reinforce their premium position. The box is robust and solid. But you open it out to reveal the bottle. This helps the buyer feel they’ve bought something ‘more’ than just a bottle of champagne.

The colours and design of the box complement the bottle design and make the experience feel more special. Like a more premium experience than just the bottle alone offers. 

Remember also packaging exists in 3 dimensions. It has a shape. So, you need to think about what goes on the front of the pack. That will be the first thing the customer sees. Then think about what else needs to go on the back, sides and even top or bottom of the pack. 

Bottle and display box of Krug champagne to show packaging

Special editions

We mentioned earlier that repetition is a good thing in packaging development and design. However, there are exceptions and one of these is when you create special editions.

These are usually products you offer for a limited time, or in a limited quantity. As per our advanced e-Commerce selling techniques article, they use the principle of scarcity to drive customer demand. 

But, from a packaging development point of view, you need to consider how they “fit” with your other products. What common items do you keep (to drive consistency), and what new or different items do you use (to drive contrast)? 

So, with these Bundaberg rum examples, the bottle shape is consistent, but the labels make the products stand out and look different. You have to work out this tricky design balance when you launch special editions.

Bundaberg rum website page showing their exclusive range of products

Writing principles and packaging

After the design of the packaging, you next consider the words to go on the packaging. What you write communicates directly to the customer, and it has 2 main roles in packaging. 

First, it brings your brand identity to life. What you write is an extension of your brand’s personality. So, it must fit your brand’s tone of voice.

It’s also got a selling job to do, so it needs to read as good sales copy to help persuade the customer to buy. 

This may be a challenge because often you have limited space to write. Your writing needs to be very readable

Close up on person writing (typing) on a MacBook

Short words. Short sentences. Use the active, not the passive voice. You want to convey the maximum amount of brand personality with the minimum amount of words.

That’s often because of the second requirement of writing on packaging, which is to convey mandatory information. Facts about the product you must include on the packaging. 

For example, there may be legal requirements on telling customers what’s in the product or how to use it. These can cover a lot of information. Typically, this includes  :-

  • Ingredient or materials labelling.
  • Expiry and use by dates.
  • Warnings about people for whom the product might be harmful (e.g. allergies or only for people over a certain age).
  • Instructions on how to store the product. 
  • Size and weight. 
  • Barcodes. 
  • Recycling information. 
  • Contact details. 
Small metal statue of lady of justice holding scales

The contact information reassures the customer you have customer service processes in place in case something goes wrong with the product.

Check government and trade association websites to see what’s legally required in your category. Mistakes on the packaging can lead to fines and product recalls. Clearly, you don’t want that. Better to get it right in the first place. 

Supply chain and packaging

Your packaging also has to support the movement of your product through different stages of your supply chain. That normally covers 2 areas. First, there’s the amount of packaging needed to turn your product into a “finished good” ready to be shipped. Then, there’s the packaging to protect the product once it’s shipped. 

For example, on the Krug example from earlier, the “product” itself is the liquid in the bottle. But it needs a bottle, label, cork and so on to make it a finished product. But, the bottle on its own couldn’t be shipped like that. It’s too fragile, So the box is added as a secondary packaging element to protect the bottle when it’s shipped. 

Retailers will often set requirements to make sure products safely and efficiently move through their supply chain systems. Your packaging development has to meet those specifications. 

For example, how many units to include in a shipper unit. What the shelf space dimensions are, and how many products need to fit on the shelf. These secondary packaging elements usually have to include specific information like the name of the brand, the size and weight, the barcode, the use-by date and so on.

Packaging development – in transit

Protecting the product as it’s in transit is the final job to be done in packaging development. 

From where the product is made to where the customer uses it, each product goes on a physical journey. There are many waypoints along that journey.

Warehouses, trucks, shop storerooms, car boots and into households themselves. Packaging needs to protect the product in all sorts of different environments. The product has to arrive in the same state it left the factory.

That means packaging that’s robust and secure. Checking that it won’t break as it moves from place to place.

Pallets of boxes wrapped in cling wrap in a warehouse

If it’s an online delivery, it has to survive the weather conditions it’ll be exposed to if left on the the customer’s doorstep. (See more on this in our last mile delivery article). 

You should also consider the weight of the packaging. In general, the lighter the packaging, the easier and cheaper it is to transport. But it can also reduce the durability of the packaging if you go too light.

Transit tests

A good plan is to list each step the product has to go through to move from being made to being delivered. Then work out what job the packaging has to do. Then test and check each step. 

Many businesses conduct transit tests. 

They ship sample products and check the status and quality of the product on arrival. That helps them look for weak spots in the packaging. 

For example, these tests often flag if environmental conditions are likely to be an issue.

Inside a courier delivery van, many different types of packages in cardboard boxes stacked up for delivery

Temperature, for example. Products which need to be refrigerated going off. Storage conditions. Products being susceptible to invasion by insects or animals. Handling conditions. Products which break if accidentally dropped by a driver.

Good packaging development helps create packaging which prevents these issues.

Environmental impact after use

And finally, you should also consider what happens to the packaging AFTER it’s used.

Many people criticise the packaging industry for its lack of speed in reducing its environmental impact. The disposal of packaging after purchase creates a lot of waste.

Brands that reduce the environmental impact of their packaging can gain a competitive advantage in the market. Plus, they make the world a better place.

For example, using more recyclable materials. Cutting down on the total amount of materials used. These are all part of your considerations in packaging development.

Conclusion - Build your packaging development expertise

Packaging isn’t really an area you can do on your own. You usually pull together a team of experts. Graphic designers, copywriters and printing specialists. 

Often, you use a specialist type of agency to handle the process. You write them a brief which covers the key communication job to be done, plus the technical specifications like the size and weight, mandatory information requirements and details of what packaging materials are required.

The experts in these areas can be a good source to build your own expertise. Make sure you ask questions. Build your knowledge on how to make your packaging more impactful, consistent and sustainable.

Remember too, that most packaging development has a long lead time. 6-9 months from the initial brief isn’t unusual on bigger projects. Successful packaging development projects are planned well in advance. 

That planning gives you time to build accurate forecasts. It gives you time to feedback on designs, and manage them through your approval process. And it gives you time to make sure the packaging’s done in a way that makes it fit for purpose and appealing to your customers. That’s clearly the end package you want from packaging development.

Three-Brains and marketing communications

We’ve led many marketing communications projects including packaging development. We know how to fit packaging into the rest of your marketing plan and use it to drive sales. 

Get in touch to find out how we can support you in using packaging development to grow your business via our coaching and consulting services.

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