Global package design can be simple and elegant in theory, but quite difficult in practice. A look at the challenges, with tips on getting it right.

by Scott Young

In an increasingly connected and competitive world, it’s easy to see the logic and appeal of global packaging. There are potential economies of scale in manufacturing, along with obvious marketing efficiencies associated with featuring “one look” from New York to New Delhi. But while the idea of global design can be simple and elegant in theory, it can be quite difficult in practice.

Packaging, like so many global marketing decisions, is ultimately a balancing act between global continuity, local customization and, in some cases, between long-term brand strategy and day-to-day execution.

Marketers and designers that respect this balance-and acknowledge the many local challenges facing global packaging-are far more likely to arrive at effective solutions.

Small, cluttered and dimly lit, high-frequency stores make for a challenging shopping experience, placing a premium on strong branding and clear differentiation.  Photo by Abhisek Sarda, available under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

Diversity in Formats

Consider, for instance, that packaging needs to work in a wide range of global retail contexts, like the high frequency store, the locally-owned bodegas, kiosks and stalls that serve more than five billion customers globally (80 percent of the world’s population). These kiosks are a primary shopping venue in many of the world’s largest and fastest-growing economies, including India, China and Latin America, but are often small and dimly lit, with multitudes of products shelved very tightly-making for an extremely cluttered and challenging shopping experience.

These retail formats place a heavy premium on very simple and clear packaging. Strong branding and clear variant communication are particularly important, because of the format’s “point and retrieve” mode of shopping-shoppers are often across the counter from the products they are buying, with the shopkeeper assisting in the purchase.

What’s more, typical high-frequency-store shoppers visit their stores nearly every day, due to irregular income and the need to make small purchases. As such, price considerations are top-of-mind, which means there’s an overriding need for packaging to convey or reinforce value. 

Of course, packaging structures in high-frequency stores are also quite different from those most common in North America and Europe. Typically, they are much smaller to allow for lower, more accessible price points.

For instance, there’s the sachet, which is commonly used for shampoo and laundry products. This smaller pack leaves far less “real estate” than the large bottles or boxes found in our local Walmart or Tesco stores, which, along with lower literacy rates in the developing world, means that copy is less likely to be effective (or legible).

As a result, color and primary visuals need to work harder to delineate varieties and/or illustrate product benefits. And while it’s true that incomes and modern trade are growing in places such as China, these varying packaging structures are unlikely to change. That’s because these differences are driven by more than economics and retail channels. They are also impacted by regulations, sourcing options and functional needs often tied to storage and usage realities.

The net is that any global design system must be tailored to work across a wide range of retail formats. Mandating a “template” (without appropriate adaptation) is very likely to result in packaging that doesn’t work on shelf or, for that matter, in the home. 

Unlike those in the West, the Chinese favor busier packaging and tend to associate simple, understated packages with lower-end, generic products. These differences in regional design aesthetics are important considerations.

Local Tastes

Just as packaging structures must vary to meet local needs, graphic elements must also adapt. A single “look” or visual image is rarely compelling on a global level. 

In part, it’s because perceptions of beauty, health and appetite appeal differ widely by country. Certainly, walking down the chips (or “crisps”) aisle in the UK, where you find shrimp-flavored potato chips, confirms the fact that flavor preferences vary culturally. 

On a deeper and more challenging level, there are also regional differences in design aesthetics. While there’s always a risk in over-generalizing, it’s fair to say that Northern Europeans tend to be more receptive to simple, minimalist designs, which are often interpreted as sleek and sophisticated. The Chinese are used to busier packaging and tend to associate simple, understated packages with lower-end, generic products. And Latinos tend to react more positively to bold packaging, with strong visuals and/or use of color. 

In addition, basic information needs may also vary by market. In developed markets, shoppers are often quite familiar with core products and brands, which may offer marketers more “permission” to have fun with design and, perhaps, to use humor to differentiate. But in developing markets, brand familiarity (and disposable income) is often more limited, creating a greater need for packaging to be more literal in illustrating key product information. In a recent study, for instance, abstract “people” visuals were far more effective in Europe than in Thailand.

There have also been varying reactions to the use of English and/or Western branding on global packaging. Predictably, in some countries or regions, foreign branding is a positive. But in others, that’s certainly not the case, and the English copy serves only to clutter the packaging.

Given these differences, it’s easy to see why designs don’t always travel well across borders, and marketers and designers often emerge from research frustrated that they have different “winning options” in different markets.  

Global design typically involves adapting a common identity to different packaging structures. In Mexico, the Ariel brand comes in a pouch. In the UK, it’s in a carton. And in India, it comes in a tiny sachet.

Market Challenges

When companies seek to globalize packaging, they are typically starting from different market realities in different countries. This isn’t just a question of varying “looks”. It’s often a larger question of different branding and packaging challenges.

For example, we recently worked with a client seeking to unify a home care brand, (which had a leading position in the United States), with varying brand names, appearances and market shares across India, China, Indonesia and Brazil.

In the United States, where the brand was dominant, the emphasis was on maintaining equity and facilitating shopping among the brand’s many products on shelf. In Brazil, where the brand was smaller, the primary need was for packaging to “break through shelf clutter,” to drive awareness and consideration and differentiate from a larger competitor.

It’s crucial to recognize the business context and the implications for packaging to be able to develop effective solutions. These situations and priorities vary by country, and if they are ignored in the pursuit of a global “look”, marketers run the risk of designing to the lowest-common denominator and ending up with global mediocrity. 

Overcoming Obstacles

Given these challenges-and the inevitable political battles within organizations about global versus local decision making-the obvious question is “What can companies do to increase the odds of successful global packaging?”

To begin, start by realistically defining “global packaging”. The idea of global uniformity is neither attainable nor desirable. If it is put forth as the incoming objective, the end result is likely to be frustration, internal conflict and a half-baked solution. However, if a global design effort is defined more realistically-respecting key core global equity elements (a brand logo or identity, for instance)-the likelihood of success is far higher.

Second, use packaging research to guide and evaluate initiatives. This starts with a solid upfront understanding of local markets. In particular, it’s vital to understand the “retail realities” (store context, shelving, merchandising, competitive set, etc.) that impact the shopping process and the “in-home realities” that impact packaging storage and usage.  By doing this homework upfront (via store visits and consumer ethnographies), brands can avoid major blunders.

Of course, consumer research should also play a role in the decision-making process to help brands get past local marketers’ agendas or opinions. At the evaluation stage, it’s important to marry global research methods and metrics with a local interpretation of findings. In terms of methodology, it’s nearly always important to start at the shelf, because shelf-based metrics of visibility and shoppability are the most predictive of in-market success.

As for interpretation, setting appropriate action standards is challenging but critical. Generally speaking, the primary benchmark should be the brand’s current packaging (i.e. “Are we improving?”) and a realistic goal is to drive improvements in some markets, while maintaining parity with current packaging in others. Nearly all global design systems involve some form of compromise-it’s nearly impossible to drive wins in all countries.

But that’s where flexibility and local customization come in. The most successful global packaging systems are those that build in flexibility. They mandate a few core global “constants” and then give the regions the freedom to use their superior local knowledge to customize appropriately.

In some cases, it’s simply a case of modifying claims or customizing a visual to speak more directly to local priorities or sensitivities. In others, it may mean changing the packaging structure or communication hierarchy to work more effectively in store. In either case, it’s a matter of making sure that global packaging works effectively within each local market, where the battles and shoppers are won and lost. 

Scott Young is the president of Perception Research Services (, a company that conducts more than 800 consumer research studies annually to help marketers win at retail. Scott can be reached at or 201.346.1600.