Brand Simple: Package Innovation Battles Complexity—And Wins
By Ken Miller and Jim Warner
A reader of this column recently sent along an e-mail with an innocent enough suggestion for this quarter’s article: a discussion on achieving simplicity in packaging. Without question, it’s an intuitively attractive goal; but a goal fraught with risk and contradiction. Is simplicity attainable in a world of relentlessly increasing complexity?
The answer is yes. But the pursuit of “brand simple”—as we have coined it—is not for the faint of heart. It is, however, for disciplined brand managers who are tuned in to the cares of consumers and are willing to challenge how their organizations think about innovation.
Keep it simple
Let us break the news: If it isn’t already, simplicity will be your new package innovation mantra. Not only is it driven by consumers’ longing for less complicated, frenetic lives, it stems from the hard economic realities of efficiently delivering products consumers actually want to buy.
Yesterday, package innovation meant layering on consumer-driven benefits to differentiate from competitors. Marketers spoke of proprietary features and defensible utility that could offer greater perceived value in a world of commodity-like products. In fact, the practice was more symptomatic of brands who hadn’t figured out what consumers really wanted, or weren’t willing to take a stand and market to their specific needs.
As a result, benefit upon benefit added up to complexity in design, engineering and assembly—and packaging got expensive. So, companies began looking at their packaging infrastructure and asking for package innovation that did more, but cost less.
Sure, some of these requests were a product of rising materials costs or increased pricing pressures, but much was due to feature proliferation. Function versus cost objectives were seemingly contradictory, largely because marketers felt comfortable adding features, but uncomfortable taking any away. How could they risk alienating loyal consumers who may balk at less “value” than the competition?
Nevertheless, companies initiated cost-reduction strategies. Engineers were asked to look at current packaging and recommend ways to strip costs. Because layers of features had presumably increased costs, the natural instinct was to eliminate them. But, which ones? The ones that are most expensive to deliver? The ones that aren’t mated to others and could be eliminated without repercussion?
Answer: None of the above (necessarily). That’s because cost reduction and simplicity are two different things. Cost reduction does not guarantee simplicity, and simplicity does not automatically deliver cost reduction.
When consumer goods marketers use simplicity as the rationale to achieve cost reduction, rather than an approach to clarify a value proposition, packaging regresses to the mean. Powerful CPG brands lose a little luster, while store brands see opportunities to reinforce the growing commoditization of many categories, changing the brand-trial and loyalty game to one driven by price. Consumers begin to believe that products are comparable and that, for instance, a “10 for $10” in-store offer is not such a bad thing.
Enhancing the brand experience
But the tide is shifting among the more sophisticated consumer products marketers. Tomorrow (or right now, if you wish), package innovation will mean enhancing the brand experience through simplicity.  
“Brand simple” reveals only the features consumers want and use most often, delivering important but less-used features in less obtrusive ways that don’t undermine the brand’s core benefits. It takes guts to reduce an increasingly complex promise by eliminating features that are no longer valued enough to justify their costs. Such features complicate the brand message and erode the in-use experience.
Reducing complexity ensures the core benefit is crisply communicated in a world of inundating messages that, in reality, are hardly attended to. Plus, over time, unit cost reduction will follow as your design and engineering teams have the opportunity to rethink the efficient delivery of only the most vital features.
Ok, we know why simplicity matters to your organization. But why does it matter to your consumer?
• Because they face an overwhelming number of choices in the marketplace and they can’t process them to anyone’s advantage. Complexity in the sheer number of product options is compounded by the increasing complexity of each.
• Because when a product or package promises to do too much, it probably does nothing particularly well. Features that can “wow” consumers in bullet points can quickly disappoint them in use.
• Because their days are too busy, stressed and cluttered. Whether they know it or not, they are looking to simplify the mechanics of their lives. Packaging that is difficult to understand or use introduces even more frustration. Consumers are focusing on the quality of the experience. Your brand can offer the momentary respite they need—and remember the next time they shop.
What to do?
So how can a brand manager who wants to capitalize on the “brand simple” ideal go about it? Consider the following approaches:
1. Identify the functional and perceptual priorities for packaging in your category. What do consumers care about most? What are they willing to pay for? What messages are they most responsive to? Which features will motivate trial, and which will ensure loyalty? The right consumer research tools can help.
We’ve devised a research format that disaggregates package attributes into separate stations for consumer exposure. Consumers spend 10 minutes at each station where they evaluate and score both functional and perceptual variables: consumer promise, aesthetics/form, handling and ergonomics, opening and resealing, dispensing, storage, etc.
At the end of the exercise, consumers are given a specific number of “gold” coins and are asked to allocate the coins to the features they prefer. In conjunction with their feature rankings, we can get a strong indication of which features are pulling away from the pack; which are nice to have; and which provide little or no incremental value. The relative performance of these features (as well as the sketches that come out of interaction with our designers) allows us to set clear priorities for further refinement and development.
2. Avoid thinking about “brand simple” as just a way to reduce cost. Think of it as a way to sharpen product positioning and enhance the brand experience. Once you know what your package needs to do, investing in the infrastructure that will deliver it is more defendable within your organization. No longer are you making an argument for layering on incremental features. Now, you are rationalizing the entire offering with the goal of providing consumers exactly what they need. In the same breath, you are setting the stage for streamlining operations and reducing unit costs as layers of incremental functionality and the effort to support them are stripped away.
Of course, the work required to achieve this does not get done in a long weekend. It will require a mobilization across organization in a requirements process that involves brand strategy, consumer needs definition and infrastructure assessment.
3. Consider, as a more modest and manageable start, reducing SKUs and the unique packaging variations that support them. This will present the opportunity not only to reduce cost associated with packaging, but to rationalize the line extensions and formulation variations that have grown up over time. Which ones are no longer relevant to target segments? Is a specific package structure supporting an SKU that is no longer pulling its weight in the portfolio? The consumer will thank you for simplifying their decision process and recognizing that your category aisle is one of many they must visit before picking up the kids in 20 minutes.
4. Redesign your package and confirm that the highest priority features are the most prominent and that they meet consumer expectations in use. An In-Home Use Test (IHUT) is a great way to make sure the package delivers as promised. IHUTs put functional prototypes in the hands of consumers in their own environments; the prototypes don’t have to be store-ready, but they do have to work as you have envisioned. There’s no replacement for getting in-use feedback from consumers who will, ideally, be integrating your package into their daily lives.
If you are more ambitious, think about putting two configurations in place for testing. Maybe they differ in the feature set they provide, or the way they deliver a core set of features. Alternating use over a few weeks is a great way for consumers to assess different package structures. In no time, they will look forward to using the configuration that works best for them, and avoid the one that doesn’t. Ask them to keep a diary of their findings, and better yet, send some ethnographers in to witness what’s going on first hand.
5. A final word: Let industrial and graphic designers take their rightful place alongside engineering, marketing and research staff. As experts in user interface issues, designers are in the best position to identify the optimal approach to delivering a feature, integrating it with brand-relevant aesthetics and maximizing its effectiveness. While engineers are great at bringing a chosen design to life, their depth of expertise may result in unrealistic demands on consumers in understanding and operating the chosen design.
The “brand simple” approach looks at package innovation in an entirely new way. No longer is package innovation just a license to lavish on new functionality or change form. It is an opportunity to deliver just the right functionality with the right aesthetics more efficiently and with stronger business impact.
While it takes some patience, discipline and investment to re-think the offering and how it is supported, the benefits are numerous: clearer communications; more conspicuous and intuitive benefits; lower unit costs.
The result is packaging that motivates trial and elevates the brand experience by delivering on what really matters to consumers. Brand simple. It’s really not that complicated after all. BP
This topic of this column was chosen by one of our readers. Why not submit your own packaging challenge, or a request for discussion on an emerging trend you’d like to know more about? E-mail senior editor Pauline Tingas at Thanks for your feedback!
Jim Warner and Ken Miller are Managing Partners at One80 Design, a product and package innovation firm in New York City. Jim lends creative concept development and implementation for client programs. Ken focuses on research methodology and marketing strategy to provide focused design direction for the creative teams. Contact Jim and Ken at 212.268.1801 or visit