A changing world economy impacts how worldwide packaging strategies evolve.

Even in these times of economic turmoil and political conflict, the march toward globalization has never been stronger. Companies around the world are looking toward both established and emerging markets as fair game, aiming to build strong brands on shelves from Latin America to the European Union to China and Southeast Asia.
As these companies increasingly think globally, their instinct is often to go to market with a boldly consistent brand around the world. Ideally, that means a universal approach to packaging worldwide. And in the minds of many executives, that translates to a brand packaging strategy that enables great efficiencies in cost and marketing efforts and delivers the same meaning, message and emotion to consumers around the globe.
Most brand owners, however, realize pretty quickly that a blanket approach to packaging may very well be unrealistic.
“Everyone would love to have a global brand,” says Scott Lucas, executive director of packaging at Interbrand. “But what is the definition of that? It’s so unique for every brand and every opportunity. Clients come to us and say: ‘We desire a global brand.’ And we say, you can have it, but you must have a local solution.”
The traditional thinking behind this global/local balance, dubbed “glocalization,” has always suggested brands remain as consistent as possible internationally with some unique local elements built in to their brand. Interbrand even assigned a ratio to the approach, calling it the “70/30 principle.” But in a complex global landscape with many trends emerging in categories and consumer segments, companies are choosing to go in different directions when it comes to approaching global branding and packaging.
"‘Glocal’ was the old, pithy answer to [explain the] extent a brand benefits from having a universal approach,” says Michael Coleman, managing director of strategic design and brand imaging firm Anthem. “It’s fine as shorthand, but often it becomes an empty phrase. The real question is: what’s a company to do?”
The answer is different for every company and every brand. Lucas says a number of factors come into play when deciding what elements of a brand can transcend borders in packaging design.
“You have to understand the category in context and ask, what is that reality?” he says. Generally, brands must look at the “4Cs”: category, consumer, culture and competition. “We look at everything about the brand, from design elements to the claims the brands make, overlay them against the 4Cs, and see where the opportunities are,” Lucas says.
These days, the final outcome of that exploration may be different from the originally expected one.
Companies that set out to build a universal approach to brand packaging may find themselves designing packaging for a local market that is different in nearly every way from its packaging in other markets.
Culture drives the design
Brand owner thinking about international packaging is being impacted heavily by markets in areas of the world that haven’t played as large of a role in the past-regions such as China, India, Southeast Asia and Latin America. Even if those regions don’t play a huge role in a company’s business today, Lucas says, the packaging frameworks a company is building now must be highly flexible and scalable in order to accommodate those markets’ needs in the future.
For some companies, however, these emerging markets are having an impact right now. Richard Westendorf, executive creative director of Landor, cites one example of a client who made a conscious decision to move away from the dominant brand elements of its global packaging in order to address the Chinese market.
“Many companies are responding to a big trend involving traditional Chinese medicine,” he says. “You have a culture that’s very faithful to whole-body health, everything being in balance and traditional products. In this case, the company went beyond just emphasizing these characteristics: it became the whole focus. The company decided to walk away from the traditional brand color and go with a look of antiquity, using visual cues that the consumer would respond to.”
Companies must understand a consumer’s entire experience with a product and how it differs in each area of the world, Westendorf emphasizes.
“The Western view is that the product is shelved and then you buy it,” he says. “[But] in some regions, you buy it from a kiosk where you have to tell the shopkeeper, ‘I want that,’ and choose a product by picture or color.”
And the product itself might also mean something very different to a consumer in one area of the world than another.
“In the U.S., we go to Costco and buy a 50-gallon drum of shampoo,” Westendorf says. “But in some markets, buying a sachet of soap is an indulgence. It has to be delivered in that way.”
As an example, Westendorf tells of another client, a hair care brand that is taking its product global. When approaching the Japanese market, the brand had to take a very different approach in order to stand out to discriminating consumers with firmly held beliefs about quality.
“They have a completely different look in Japan-the structure is slender and reserved, the level of benefit communication on the pack is higher, the typography is cosmetic-to elevate the product to the level of ‘this is high beauty care,’” he says.
Universal, with flexibility
By contrast, the world’s number one shampoo brand, Head & Shoulders, recently chose a more globally consistent approach with its new packaging system, featuring a consistent new structure and graphics for all its packaging around the world.
The launch is the largest restage in the nearly 50-year history of Head & Shoulders, which is owned by Procter & Gamble.
“The new equity-enhancing packaging was launched in more than 140 countries in just nine months, making it one of P&G’s most globally consistent brands,” says Richard Gamble, global design manager for Head & Shoulders. “The structure, graphics and typeface are constant throughout the globe, with each region having localization control of text.”
Though some text is different based on regulatory requirements and communications based on consumers’ understanding of the product, the Head & Shoulders’ unique new curved packaging has become a signature part of the brand, being used in all consumer communications.
“This consistent graphic look has helped build equity in the Head & Shoulders brand at every consumer touchpoint globally,” Gamble says.
Another global brand just redefined its worldwide packaging strategy with the October rollout of a brand new packaging system. HP has redesigned the packaging for two of its major consumer-facing business units, the Imaging and Printing Group (IPG) and the Personal Systems Group (PSG), to create a more consistent look and feel for HP on shelves around the world.
“We’ve evolved together and are now closely aligned, so that we come together as one company on shelf,” says Melinda Creswik, the company’s worldwide IPG packaging and photography manager. “We had elements that held the packaging together before, but they were very different-as different as they were in black and we were in white - and the design architecture was quite different.”
With the new packaging, HP will deliver a core packaging design that’s largely the same worldwide, but with space for “appropriate localization,” Creswick says.
Managed from a worldwide vantage point by HP’s global packaging design group, the system often involves a template that’s roughly 80 to 90 percent the same everywhere, with room built in for playing up particularly meaningful communication points in one region, for example. From a photography perspective, HP likes to use locally appropriate talent and take into account fashion, environment and any cultural sensitivities in the images they incorporate.
Creswick points out that even though HP is moving toward a universally aligned packaging system, the company has learned more about regional effectiveness in recent years and changed its strategies accordingly.
“For example, in EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa), one of the trends is that we have reduced copy and have begun to communicate things more iconically, so that language translations are less necessary from region to region,” creating more efficiencies across the system, she says.
But where consumers are used to graphical communication of concepts in a part of the world where so many countries and cultures intermingle and do business freely across borders, other parts of the world still require words.
“In North America, you need to say more,” she says.
The efficiencies and challenges of consistency
Recently recognized, once again, as number one on Interbrand’s list of top global brands, and known worldwide for its unwavering loyalty to its brand identity, Coca-Cola is thought to be an example of a company that uses a truly universal packaging design. But the company in fact demonstrates respect for and sensitivity to local and cultural needs across the Coke packaging system, as well as in other beverage brands it owns.
At its core, Coke’s packaging strategy is based on creating differentiation, increasing market share, building brand equity and driving innovation through new packaging features and technologies, says David Butler, vice president of design for The Coca-Cola Company.
“Seventy percent of the decision to buy a Coke is determined on the shelf,” he says. “In today’s complex marketplace, we leverage design to create simplicity, clarity and ease-of-use at the moment of truth.”
Butler says Coca-Cola relies on global standards around the key equities in Coke’s packaging design: the red color, the brand’s Spencerian script, the materials used, the contour shape of the bottles, the packaging closures and other elements.
“By maintaining design consistency with our contour bottle, we’ve created a lot of emotional durability-a timeless design and cultural icon,” he says. “We’ve saved an enormous amount of energy, materials, agency fees and human resources over the last 90 years through this approach.”
But despite its reputation for absolute consistency, Coke indeed thinks globally and acts locally with its approach to packaging. Butler acknowledges that once the corporate design team creates global standards, they’re handed off to group-level design teams, which customize the standards for regional and local needs.
“Maintaining consistency is always a cross-functional effort involving our brand, technical, legal and design teams,” he says.
The approach that Coca-Cola uses globally for its core brand packaging was exemplified in the company’s 2008 sponsorship of the Olympics in Beijing. Sponsorship of the Olympics has been part of the company’s history since 1928, and more recently Coca-Cola has made a strategic, highly coordinated effort to celebrate the Games through all of its consumer touchpoints, including a worldwide rollout of Olympics packaging, says Michael Coleman, whose firm Anthem executed on the packaging system.
The final system, which ran for several weeks before and after the ceremonies, included a number of design options available to Coca-Cola’s regional marketing arms around the world.
“The new design was more or less on all bottles and cans,” Coleman says. “They allow the regions some level of autonomy. They provide designs that are sanctioned and approved to the regions, and then the regions can choose from among them. They’re allowed some degree of latitude within those.”
The way consumers experienced the Coca-Cola Olympics packaging in North America might have been somewhat different from another region, where the local marketers engaged with a local design firm to modify a different design option, he says. As long as the regions work with the same “visual toolbox” within the system, they’re allowed to make the best decisions for local markets. Coleman says Anthem conducted global training for all marketing communications firms working with Coca-Cola on packaging around the world.
Global packaging, global partners
As more companies grapple with the global question, design agencies say that they are called upon to take a more global approach to their packaging work.
“At Anthem, we are choosing to approach big projects from a global network perspective,” says Michael Coleman. “When we did the initial creative (for Coke’s Olympics packaging), we took creative submissions from our offices all over the world and were able to amass a much more robust and comprehensive exploration for the client, matching the right talent for the task.”
The packaging industry is also seeing the necessity of a global approach on the manufacturing side.
“In the old days, packaging [was] always a local business,” says Dr. Carl Olsmats, general secretary of the World Packaging Organization in Stockholm, Sweden. “Now that supplies are becoming more consolidated, we’re moving toward manufacturers themselves taking a more global approach.”
The widespread M&A activity involving consolidation of packaging manufacturers worldwide throughout the late 1990s and 2000s has been, in large part, due to this need to act globally. However, as companies balance the desire to perpetuate a strong global brand through packaging and to explore the micro-trends emerging in markets around the world, Olsmats points out that there is one major factor in play that will directly compete with any company hoping to take a universal approach to packaging.
"Sustainability may contradict companies’ push toward universal packaging,” Olsmats says. “To address local communities, global brands shouldn’t use more packaging than necessary. And each market will demand a different technical system.”
The recycling and redistribution systems in place and natural resource concerns will all play into how packaging is manufactured and distributed in local markets, Olsmats says. He cites the example of Spain, where a water shortage puts great demands on local manufacturing, compared to a region such as Scandinavia where water resources are not as much of a concern. Additionally, as companies strive for a smaller ecological footprint through minimizing the amount of packaging, they must be aware of structural differences depending on markets.
“If you’re using the same packaging for products being shipped from Stockholm to Copenhagen as you are for products being distributed to rural Africa or Asia, then you’re probably overpackaging,” he says. “There are benefits and gain to [a universal approach], but at the same time, you have to strike some kind of optimum balance.”
Corporate responsibility is an important part of any brand-and like all other factors in packaging design, from the icons and photography to the colors and words, a company must take into account local standards when defining its global packaging strategy.
“A totally universal packaging system would come across as out of the touch with the market,” says Richard Westendorf. “It sends the message that ‘our interests are more important than your regional desires.’ Companies are sensitive to that.” BP