Have you ever found yourself telling an elaborate story at a dinner party, all eyes on you, when you realize … you have no idea where the story is going? That’s precisely what it’s like when your brand doesn’t have a good story to tell: It falls flat with its audience. And if your brand doesn’t have a good story, chances are your packaging doesn’t, either.     

Most brands and many of our clients have been working on focusing their stories and delivering them on pack. Even if they don’t have a riveting backstory, they strive to forge an emotional connection with consumers through narrative. In fact, “narrative” and “storytelling” are two of the biggest buzzwords in the branding world right now.

Luxury brands know that in order to get people to shell out the big bucks, they have to create a world that makes people aspire to live a certain lifestyle. A recent Louis Vuitton ad showcased Angelina Jolie on a boat in Cambodia, and Tiffany ads have always evoked a romantic, fairytale mood, long before the store was immortalized by Audrey Hepburn. But it’s interesting to see masstige brands now using storytelling on pack to attract and keep consumers. Mars’ American Heritage Chocolate, Walgreens’ Ology, Harney Teas and The Art of Shaving brands all use unique narratives to elevate their brands and connect with audiences.


There have always been premium chocolate brands. Godiva set the original gold standard, and with the advent of the artisanal, small-batch food movement, a whole new generation of chocolate brands, such as Vosges, Mast Brothers and MarieBelle, have taken these confections to a new prestige level. These products feature well-crafted stories and beautiful packaging that elevate the chocolates to art. It seems that masstige brands are following suit. The recently redesigned American Heritage Chocolate — a gifting chocolate from Mars, for which my company did the redesign — puts its heritage story front-and-center. Only colors, typefaces and imagery found during the 1800s were used for the new design, yet they seem totally modern. “From the historic division of Mars” is prominently highlighted on pack. Actual writing — in a cursive reminiscent of the Declaration of Independence — appears behind a brightly colored illustration that speaks to the era and pops against an otherwise neutral palette. This historic, yet modern, look is a differentiator in the category and a more upscale direction for the brand.  


A few years ago, people would have laughed if you told them that in 2013, a private-label brand would be considered upscale, let alone have a strong narrative to its brand. And yet, Walgreens’ Ology line of products has completely elevated the categories of baby, personal care and household cleaners to new levels, with a narrative that communicates the importance of a healthier, happier world through great design. Ology products are all about “well. being.” and as such, the messaging on pack plays into the origin of the product (e.g., toilet paper made from sugarcane husk and bamboo), what’s not inside (“100% Tree Free”) and just why it is good for environment (“Traditional paper is made from trees that take up to 35 years to replace.”). The packaging is meant to appear handmade, and the design CBX crafted has a hand-drawn feel that is playful, approachable and above all, really conveys the brand’s story.


Harney & Sons Fine Teas recently entered the bottled iced tea and juice market with organic tea and juice flavors. The company, which previously just sold tea bags and loose tea, went for a more premium direction for its bottled beverages by giving the product labels the look of a Far East tea company, a direct reference to the tea’s Indian origins. This plays into the company’s brand mission to “educate the world of tea history and taste.” Clear bottles are distinctly upscale, as is Harney’s softer color palette and minimal text that lets the product speak for itself. In truth, Harney & Sons is a family-owned and operated company based in upstate New York, but it is telling a different, larger scale story — about the exotic world of teas in general — with these products.


How’s this for a story? “A loving wife with a background in the spa industry makes her husband, with sensitive skin, a special oil to use before shaving. Husband realizes this oil is something special; the couple sells their car to fund the business, and they open a boutique that becomes a New York sensation. Eventually, company gets bought by P&G, and the couple lives happily ever after.” Sound like a fairytale? Well, it’s the true story of The Art of Shaving. Fortunately, the packaging’s clean, classic, barbershop feel has not been lost in the translation from boutique to mass brand. Neither has the “Art” in The Art of Shaving’s name, which refers to the brand’s heritage, and the line has a small-batch feel that references its origin in the owners’ kitchen. Through the premium cosmetic story it tells on the packaging, The Art of Shaving has been able to break out of a commodity category and position itself as an essential part of men’s everyday routines. 

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not claiming that the design of these brands is on par with those of Gucci and Prada. But there is something to their packaging that feels undoubtedly premium, draws me in and makes me want to know more about their stories. These days, it’s all about the world you craft, the story you tell and how you use your packaging to tell it. It may not be Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” but chances are, if you have a good narrative, consumers will keep coming back for more. 


 Nancy Brown, managing partner, is a founding partner of CBX and responsible for the overall direction and management of creative, account, production and business development teams. She provides big-picture insight to client projects and ensures that the team is meeting and exceeding project objectives. Brown has spent over 20 years working in consumer branding with clients including Best Buy, McCormick, Hanesbrands, ConAgra and General Mills. Before starting CBX, Nancy was managing director at FutureBrand and The Coleman Group, providing creative oversight to a variety of clients. Prior to her arrival in the agency world, Nancy spent over 10 years in design management on the corporate side.