It’s About Building Your Brand
By Ted Mininni

At its best, packaging refers back to the brand and everages its chief assets. It also has the power to become the brand’s most important customer touch point. Effective packaging makes products tangible and communicates the brand promise simply, honestly and directly.
In this age of spiraling advertising costs, increasing market segmentation and a dizzying array of competitive product choices, brand marketers are beginning to realize that one of their most effective marketing tools is packaging.
However, too much of it, just as too many of the products it contains, still has little or no sense of differentiation. Hence, all too frequently, the dreaded “commodity” tag raises its ugly head as the customer perceives parity in one product category after another.
That’s where structural packaging comes in. It can be a powerful brand differentiator and can become an instantaneous icon. But many CPG companies still cling to the idea that packaging should convey features and benefits in a conventional manner. They consider it more cost effective than paying for structurally designed packaging.
But is it, really? Rather than convincing customers of the desirability of products packaged in such a fashion, such look-alike packaging causes customers’ eyes to glaze over, and they walk away overwhelmed, frustrated and unsure about which product to purchase. When this happens, a great opportunity to begin or extend a relationship between customer and brand has been irretrievably lost.
I would then argue that what appears to be cost effective packaging might, in fact, be very costly; and that structural packaging might add more value to the brand and its products. Structure can refer back to the brand in subtle and not so subtle ways. Expert package designers are not only able to develop unique, differentiated packaging systems, but they are also able to leverage the assets of the brand and strongly connect the packaging with the brand in the customer’s mind. Now, isn’t your brand worth the additional investment in structural packaging?
If we all believe that packaging should contribute to a quality experience with the brand, then we need to examine what our packaging is conveying to the customer with an objective, critical eye. Research can identify where we are failing so that remedial steps can be taken to revitalize packaging and, if necessary, the brand identity itself. Failure to do so will jeopardize the brand itself over time.
Structural packaging doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive. Structure can encompass uniquely shaped cut-outs or “windows” to view products inside of packaging; innovations on traditional clamshells; embossed or debossed logos; the incorporation of uniquely identifying elements of the brand or actual products. These kinds of tactics—while not overly expensive to produce—are strong differentiators. More importantly, they become quick, easy identifiers to the customer over time.
In a recent interview with Fast Company magazine, Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley said, “We talk a lot about creating a great purchase experience and a great usage experience. The truth of the matter is that we have to create a great experience every time you touch the brand. The design is a really big part of creating the experience and emotion. Our job is to have more women and their families vote for our brands and products every day than the year before. We stand for election every day, and design is an important part of it.”
By inference, the packaging that the customer sees and picks up off the shelf is as instrumental in that experience with the brand as the product itself. If every product is “running for election” every day, then shouldn’t package design be viewed as an important part of a well developed “campaign” strategy?
Package structure and brand identity
Structural packaging is nothing new. Coca Cola’s signature contour bottle was born in 1916, thanks to Root Glass Company’s proprietary design. There is no structural package in the world that is more widely recognized or more iconic than Coke’s original bottle.  
The Campbell soup can is another. Even before Andy Warhol raised the can, with its signature red and white label and gold seal, to pop art status, the packaging was iconic. Now, with the addition of a simple easy-open lid, the packaging structure has changed in a positive way, bowing to the contemporary demand for more convenience.
Many heritage brands have the ability to revitalize their brand packaging with a more contemporary structure. As long as they leverage their brand assets onto the revitalized packaging, there isn’t any reason they won’t continue to be successful.
Hellman’s “Bring out the best” tagline still appears on its signature packages, even as the brand’s assets have been leveraged on new stand-on-their-head squeeze bottles. Wish-Bone’s new Salad Spritzers features a unique, uncluttered packaging structure that offer consumers three low-calorie product choices and control. Packaging is made from molded, color-keyed plastic—denoting variety—with a covered spritzer top. An upscale black label emphasizes the products’ key marketing point: just one calorie per spritz.
Beverage companies have also adopted proprietary structural packaging to help brand and differentiate their products. Think of V8’s V Fusion blended fruit/vegetable juices in textured, columnar bottles with brightly colored shrink-wrapped labels. Even a 46-ounce package of this juice can be comfortably held and poured with one hand. Think of Gatorade’s archetypal bottles with debossed/embossed logo. This packaging is easily gripped with one hand during any sports activity. Think of Pittsburgh Brewery’s Iron City Beer in sleek aluminum bottles that keep the product cold much longer than typical glass bottles or aluminum cans.
Personal care products are also strong proponents of structure, most often with sleek spa-like packaging that is very tactile. Meant to be displayed, such packaging becomes part of the décor in the bath, and speaks of our need to escape to our personal sanctuaries for a bit of self-indulgent pampering. P&G’s Herbal Essences Body Envy offers sophisticated spa-like packaging in a mass marketed line. Packaging communications focus on the “fusion” of great aromatherapy fragrances, inviting the customer to open the bottle and take a whiff.
So, in fact, structural packaging engages the senses. A strong visual presence on the shelf prompts the customer to pick up the product. Once in hand, the tactile sensations entice the customer to at least skim key communications on the package. And that’s just one step from purchase.
Rethinking category packaging
Just because every brand in a specific category has similar packaging doesn’t mean you shouldn’t redesign structural packaging, in ways subtle and not so subtle, to differentiate your brand’s product in profound ways.
Paint presents us with a good example of major packaging innovation. Gallon-sized steel paint cans have been mainstay packaging for residential paints for a century, but Sherwin-Williams and its Dutch Boy branded paints broke with that tradition dramatically. An all-plastic, square container features a handle, easy twist-off lid and pour spout. Gone are the problems associated with prying off metal lids that are hard to replace tightly enough to prevent paints from drying out. Gone is the potential for nasty spills since the easy-pour spout controls paint flow much more efficiently.
This packaging innovation was targeted to female consumers, who account for more than 65 percent of paint purchases (and influence substantially more). Yet, men surely appreciate these conveniences, as well. For paint retailers, this new packaging is space saving, allowing them to merchandise 14 gallons of product rather than the customary 13 in the same amount of space.
When it comes to subtle, successful, category packaging changes, there is Reynolds Plastic Wrap, which now has what the company refers to as an EZ Slide Cutter on the box. Safer than the old serrated edge on the box, the new EZ Slide Cutter has a specially designed cutting track the cleanly cuts the exact amount of wrap desired without bunching, without waste and without cutting fingers. This simple innovation adds great value to a utilitarian household product, winning loyalists to the brand in an otherwise commodity category.
The strategy part comes first
Having said all of this, I’m not advocating structural packaging for its own sake. Read: a strong brand identity has to be in place, with a solid marketing strategy. Otherwise, structural packaging is a moot point—a fruitless exercise. If a brand is floundering, then it should be revitalized and repositioned before any new packaging initiatives are undertaken.
But a strong brand can benefit from proprietary structural packaging. Well-strategized, well-developed structural packaging can enjoy a distinct edge over competitors and immediate brand identifiers; thus, a real point of differentiation. More importantly, packaging can and should connect brands with customers like nothing else can. Nothing says brand like the package.
The author, Ted Mininni, is president of Design Force, Inc., a metro New York consultancy that specializes in brand identity, package design and consumer promotion design. Reach him at 856.810.2277, or visit
Packaging checklist
Not only does structural packaging differentiate, it can offer the consumer additional perceived value by:
• Offering more user-friendly features than competing brands.
• Focusing on simple, meaningful brand communications.
• Offering more convenience or functionality; making the package easy to grasp, taking less storage space, and making the product less messy to use.
• Offering more product protection; preventing product deterioration, spillage or breakage.
• Creating an upscale image for premium products. Example: Godiva ice cream in pint-sized cartons with gold foil-edged lid caps that mimic the brand’s gold ballotin-boxed, Belgian chocolates.