Weaving Character Development Into An Engaging Rand 'Story'

First understand the narrative you want playing in your shopper's head at the shelf. Design and execution will become crystal clear.
By David Altschul

Generally, when you design packaging, you charge your creative team to evoke the "character" and "personality" of your brand. But what do you do when the brand has a tangible character?
Brand characters come in all shapes and sizes, from the Campbell's Soup Kids to Chef Boyardee, Uncle Ben and the Trix Rabbit. Which characters belong on the package and which don't? How do you decide, and how do you navigate all the sticky questions of execution this issue raises?
Consider a brand built around its founder, such as Orville Redenbacher popcorn. When Redenbacher was alive, his photo made sense appearing on the package.
His passion for popcorn, expressed in his idiosyncratic way, authenticated the brand. When he died, however, the brand entered a period of confusion about whether to continue using his picture, whether to stylize the image or whether to scrap the photo and capture that "personal credibility" by using his signature as a key design element.
Strategy, then tactics
The question of how to use a brand character most effectively often suffers from the discouraging tendency of many marketers to place tactics ahead of strategy. This issue is not unlike others in package design.
Ultimately, the strategic question is this: What story should play in your consumer's head as she pulls your package off the shelf that will compel her to drop it into her cart?
If you know that story—forward, backward and inside-out—then all the tactical questions of design and execution will fall into place effortlessly.
If you don't know your brand's story, the use of a character may still attract short-term attention in your product. But it also may inadvertently compromise the deeper equity in your brand.
Betty Crocker is a case in point. Like Orville Redenbacher, she brought depth, dimension and credibility to each General Mills product she represented.
Fifty years ago, her picture on everything from cookbooks to cake mixes said "homemade made easy" to a generation of American women. Even though her audience understood that Betty Crocker was a fictional character, her story was compelling enough to add traction to everything she touched.
Over the decades, however, a series of tactical decisions at General Mills—each one perfectly justifiable in the context of immediate business objectives—has so completely diluted the Betty Crocker story that she is reduced to two packaging icons—her signature and a red spoon.
They seem to be less meaningful to each successive generation of consumers.
If a character pitches for your brand, no matter for how long, the foundation for using it effectively is a deep understanding of your brand's story. Then it becomes easier to define the character's role in articulating your brand's message.
Icons vs. living characters
In evaluating brand characters, it is helpful to distinguish between icons and living characters. Each warrants different approaches in package design.
Icons tend to function only as design elements on packaging. They usually convey a single meaning.
Characters tend to convey a story in everything they do, including on packaging.
It may seem that icon status is the ultimate achievement of any brand character. I have come to believe, on the contrary, that icons are assets in decay.
Consider how valuable the Betty Crocker symbol was to General Mills in 1950, vs. the equity she provides today. Over the decades, as Betty evolved slowly from a living character into an advertising icon, the premium that her image commanded on a package inexorably eroded.
An advertising icon is a character that has been stuffed and mounted. It doesn't tell a story so much as it reminds your audience of a story they have heard.
While icons may be easier to work with as package design elements, we find the most effective use of characters is to keep them alive in a story. This can make for a challenging design brief, given the space constraints of most packages. But it can be worth the trip in terms of impact.
Mug Root Beer's story
Mug Root Beer, from Pepsi-Cola, is a good example of a brand that has used its packaging successfully as a story-telling medium. It supplements this effort with an engaging Web site for fans who want to immerse themselves deeper into the story.
In 2001, the Mug brand team redesigned the packaging graphics. Using Pepsi-Cola's art department, they engaged the talents of a number of package designers.
Five months into the project, they had developed several dozen can designs. Each had qualities to recommend it as the best choice.
Team members had also accumulated consumer focus-group research on the various designs, but they were beginning to feel stuck.
They seemed to lack a compelling reason to pick one design over another. Yet the team was experienced enough to understand that Mug's consumers could not answer that question for them.
What was missing? Consensus on the brand's underlying story.
One of the big clues came from examining previous Mug Root Beer packaging. The story it seemed to be telling was simply, "This is Pepsi's generic root beer offering."
In other words, Mug as a brand was little more than a caretaker holding the rootbeer position in Pepsi's distribution system.
Mug's packaging—inadvertently—told that undesirable story quite clearly.
The package-design team determined it had to dig deeper and find a more compelling story for Mug. It delved into the story of root beer which, as a beverage, is anything but generic. In fact, it displays a lot of character.
Given the positions occupied by the principle competing root beer brands, Mug had an opportunity to "brand the category" by fully embodying the story of root beer itself.
Root beer is a change of pace and a little out of the ordinary. Yet it is comfortably familiar. It is powerful and a little rough around the edges, bold and distinctive, but not in a slick or sexy way. It exudes a "working class" attitude.
Root beer inspires ardent support in the consumers who drink it regularly. They can be fiercely loyal to their chosen brand.
Mug embodies all of that. The brand name is short, blunt, powerful and distinctive.
Once the design team articulated that story, the next step was choosing a character that could authentically convey those attributes. The team selected a bulldog named "Dog."
The canine's animated image distinguishes Mug's new packaging. His unswerving loyalty to his long-lost master provides the foundation for Mug's engaging Web site www.mugrootbeer.com.
Make consumers understand the story
All effective marketing and brand-building is storytelling, because story is about meaning, and consumers need to understand what any product or service means to them before they will purchase it.
Characters are the mechanism through which stories are understood. Recurring, iconic characters are particularly helpful to a brand because they provide a kind of shorthand that makes it easier for consumers to find the story and connect with it.
In fact, when a brand is very successful and carves out its own place in the cultural landscape—think of Nike or Starbucks—consumers animate the brand in their minds. They treat the brand as if it were a character.
If your brand aspires to this status, consider creating a character with a clear story that flows from the authentic identity of your brand.
It can be a powerful weapon that connects with consumers on a deep, emotional level.
The author, David Altschul, is President of Character, a Portland, Ore.-based firm that creates and revitalizes brand characters. Contact David at 503.223.3999 or David@characterweb.com
Five principles for gettingit right on packaging
  • The following underlying principles guide the process that brings characters to life on packaging.
    Understand the difference between icons and characters. You can treat an icon as a design element that orbits around a larger idea.
    A character, on the other hand, should live on packaging as the central idea. Make sure your team agrees on what type of character you're using.
  • Find the underlying story of your brand and character. Packaging works just like television, books and games; its purpose is telling a story. Each of these forms of communication has its own strengths and weaknesses.
    You want to determine how packaging can tell its own version of your brand's story.
  • Variation is good. Effective storytelling uses multiple versions and voices to communicate in different ways. If you understand the story framework, you can deliver the story with greater richness and fullness.
  • Think "inside the box" (or, at least, on the side). Audiences like to discover stories in unexpected places. Use all the surfaces of your package in telling your story. Characters don't have to shout from the front panel to be interesting.
  • Stay "in character." Present your character in a way that leverages how you tell your story in other media. M&M's does this well.
Animation helps M&M's stay "in character" as a brand across packaging, advertising promotions and collateral materials.
Inspiration at a character 'camp'

No single method delivers the best results for developing the underlying story of a brand. But here is one approach for articulating your brand's story in a way where the character and other design elements communicate clearly and cohesively.
It starts by conceptualizing a character development project. A "camp-like" setting is ideal for generating ideas, since camps are inherently all about storytelling.
Design team members spend several days offsite where they embark on a journey to the sources of conflict in their brand story. The objective is then to reassemble the pieces of the brand story with fresh insight in a way that reveals the authentic heart of the brand.
Out of this exercise comes a 40- to 50-page illustrated book that details the final recommendations for the brand and the character. It provides a roadmap for bringing the character to life on packaging and in other media forms.
This book also familiarizes new employees and suppliers with the story framework behind the brand. It provides background and insights on the character that can spark new ideas and fresh creative approaches.
Who should attend this camp? Effective results come when the participants include brand managers, creative suppliers such as your advertising agency, packaging and retail designers, and interactive, licensing and promotional agencies.