Image is important in our society. The image that brands project is critical to their success, and those images must be conveyed by packaging-the ultimate touch point for consumer product brands. If the packaging doesn’t appeal to the consumer, why would the brand or product appeal?

Consumers identify with the brands that match the perceptions of their lifestyles. The role of the package designer has expanded from being a researcher, marketer and communicator to that of an image maker. This may sound simple but it has actually added to the complexity surrounding the development of successful packaging.

Why should more emphasis be placed on the image packaging conveys today? Stand at the end of an aisle in the supermarket or large retail store. Can you, while scanning hundreds of items, pick out a few that are instantly recognizable from that vantage point? Now, ask yourself what it is about specific products that make them quickly identifiable from the myriad other products in the retail environment. There has to be something unique about the packaging of those products that makes them stand out. Color? Brand logo? Packaging shape? Photographic imagery or graphics?

So why are many of the products in the same aisle unremarkable, even from a short distance? Could it be that many packages in specific categories are too similar in color, shape and graphic design? According to research conducted by Perception Research Services International, shoppers ignore more than one third of store brands due to shelf clutter and lack of recognition. If this is so, then how can a unique brand image be solidified in consumers’ minds?

Packaging: The Ultimate Touch Point and Image Builder

Packaging makes products and brands tangible to consumers. Shoppers can actually pick a product from the shelf, hold it, read the front or back panel, shake it, sniff it and make a purchase decision. Since packaging is the ultimate touch point after the product itself, shouldn’t it project the brand image in a meaningful way?

Remember the old adage: “You only get one chance to make a good first impression.” If customers pass over the product due to lackluster packaging, brand owners can forget the idea of creating meaningful consumer experiences. Meaningful experiences begin when consumers are motivated to pick the product up, purchase and use it, confirming in their minds that it lives up to its brand promise and then seek it out again. That’s a tall order that begins with packaging.

Engaging the consumer at retail is no small challenge. In order to be effective as a brand builder, the packaging must first leverage the brand’s unique attributes, including its signature color and brand identity, to position the product in a differentiated manner. An ownable package structure is very desirable as it refers to that brand, and only that brand, creating immediate recognition and intimate brand associations in the mind of consumers over time. Structural packaging need not be complicated or overly expensive in many cases. However, structure is increasingly important as a unique differentiator on over-SKU’d retail shelves.

If packaging can also be employed as a delivery system for providing a better, more satisfying or more enjoyable user experience, then it reinforces the brand as the one of choice over its category competitors. That in-turn enhances the brand’s image and value in the mind of the consumer.

The graphic imagery and photography employed on packaging is another important factor. The right kind of imagery enforces the brand’s key attributes. Does the brand play to a health-conscious audience? A young, hip demographic? A mature customer base? A lifestyle proposition? A luxury customer or a wannabe? The graphics and photography should support the brand in conveying the appropriate message to the appropriate target audience or demographic segments. Imagery is vitally important and should always be presented in context. This is not an area to scrimp on. Poorly executed graphics and photography will likely lead to poor quality and value in consumers’ perceptions. That, in turn, will lead to poor sales.

Marketers must create value in the minds of increasingly sophisticated consumers for their brands, and the packaging must add to, not detract from, the value perception of the overall product and brand. Today’s consumers are value- and premium-oriented, so brand packaging that does not fit this perception will lose immediately.

Image-Conscious Stars

 Arguably the market most crowded with new product entries is the energy drink category. That said, Bawls has found a way to give its guarana drinks packaging punch. What better than a cobalt hob-nailed bottle for its basic brew and a white hob-nailed version for its sugar-free cousin? Sleek, stylish, contemporary. Does this convey a definite image? Absolutely. Proof too, that new products can break into crowded categories, enjoy success and avoid the dreaded “commodity” tag.

Speaking of new beverages, Coca Cola’s Coke Zero has been a smash. This single product is responsible for raising the company’s stock price in a significant way for the first time in seven years. The sleek black can with highly recognizable brand mark hits the mark with consumers. “Real Coke taste” and “Zero calories” appeal to consumers’ modern lifestyles. Furthermore, product and packaging appeals to young males, a demographic that does not respond to the “diet” concept in food and beverage products.

Bird’s Eye’s new packaging depicting farm-fresh vegetables that are quickly frozen for the ultimate freshness is a clear winner. Crisp imagery conveys the message. There’s nothing like taking a product that has been around for decades, and developing packaging that elevates both brand and product to new heights. Bird’s Eye’s innovative, highly functional packaging now uses new venting technology in a flexible structure. This gives consumers what they’re looking for: the time-saving convenience of cooking frozen vegetables in a more nutritious manner, steamed and perfectly in the microwave. Premium product, premium packaging.

Procter & Gamble has worked some magic with its new line of Gain Joyful Expressions liquid detergents. Smaller bottles are eco-friendly. The consumer is told that these are twice as concentrated, hence the smaller bottle. In other words: there is less product since the consumer can use less. This detergent is more effective than its predecessors. A unique curved structure and bright colors delineate happily blended fragrances that are designed to linger on freshly laundered clothes. Result? Gain has now become P&G’s latest billion-dollar brand.

P&G’s revitalized packaging for its Herbal Essences line is also remarkable. Unique structural packaging in bright colors denote luscious aromatherapy fragrance blends. Each has been dubbed with its own funky name: Body Envy, Drama Clean, Color Me Happy, among others. You get the idea. This time, a mass-market line has been packaged with the look of a sleek spa product with a young demographic in mind. Result? Herbal Essences is now the No. 3 volume hair care line in the country.

Remember that today’s savvy consumer wants to be associated with a certain lifestyle and wants to be associated with the products that fit that profile. Consumers will be motivated to purchase products that project the right image for them. Packaging will have to do increasingly more work to sell both brand and product, creating image and consumer perception in the process, as retail environments become more crowded with offerings. When products meet with consumer expectations, time after time, consumers will not only become loyal customers, they will generally spread the word about how wonderful these products are to their circle of family and friends. What is word of mouth marketing worth to any brand, given today’s consumer blogs and message boards?

Projecting the right brand image is more crucial than ever. This is now a primary consideration, whether designing packaging for new products or revitalizing existing ones. What does your packaging say about your brand and your products? Is it projecting the proper image, or is it lost in the retail shuffle? Should your packaging be redesigned to fully leverage its brand’s assets? Does it have to be repositioned to reach the desired consumer? It’s time to assess your packaging.

Ted Mininni is president of Design Force, Inc., a New York-based consultancy that specializes in brand identity and package design for the food & beverage and toy & entertainment industries. Design Force can be reached at