The CPG industry has been failing in the design strategy behind products and packaging, and it’s not having a good effect on customers, brands or the environment.
Every consumer good and its packaging has the potential to be meaningful and well-designed, but in a time where quantity and speed are better to most than quality, brands and consumers have got used to hyper disposability and the mediocre.
Thoughtful design and strategic brand practices will wake us up and stop us from adding to the shelves (and landfills) already bloated with subpar, unsustainable products and packaging that do little to endear brand loyalty or enrich customers’ lives.
WHERE HAVE WE GONE WRONG?
At the end of January, I visited the Chicago office of multidisciplinary design and branding firm Kaleidoscope (www.thinkkaleidoscope.com). There I spoke with CEO Gary Chiappetta and Fred Richards, CCO and managing partner, about where the CPG industry is at: The world has changed, but design and brands have not kept up.
“The designer’s role is fundamental, or rather, it should be,” says Richards. “Sadly, more often than not, the designer is not used, forgotten or, at best, used to decorate a pack form that has been in the works for months. I recently attended Pack Expo in Vegas: What was sad and stunning was how many brands and manufacturers had invested so much to create machines and templates for sustainable packaging formats with little to no consideration of design, aesthetics, the role of the brand or the end consumer.
“Design is more than a ‘decoration station’ at the end of the process of getting product to shelf. Yet many companies still fail to understand this, and far too many design agencies are still hell-bent on design aesthetics for the sake of it rather than understanding the entire food chain of product and brand development. What has changed? Very little.”
Design has to go deep — shallow approaches beget shallow brand/customer relationships. Customers, indifferent and bored, will continuously move on to the next brand and another purchase in search of satisfaction.
“Everything we do now is throwaway — not just the packaging we consume, but everything we consume,” says Richards. “We have become a society of deselection and apathy before we elect to consume. The lifespan of attention has been eroded to a timespan of interference and passing interest. Things are not expected to last; consequences are close to nothing in our greed for more without asking ‘why?’ Design solutions can help solve this only if design as an industry can grow up, get involved and have deeper conversations at the correct levels within the client hierarchy, which is easier said than done. All too often when a brand fails, the first port of call to lay blame is design. Design has a responsibility in the greater marketing mix for sure, but to lay blame solely at design’s door for a failure — considering how, why and when design is currently viewed and used — is unfair.”
However, you can’t ask the right questions and get the right answers if your brand isn’t in a good place with its strategy, and sustainable, deliberate design has to start further back than the shelf.
A BRAND THAT GETS IT
I recently listened to an episode of “The Growth Show” between Rick Ridgeway, VP of environmental initiatives at Patagonia and Meghan Keaney Anderson, the VP of marketing at HubSpot. You can download “Patagonia’s Rick Ridgeway: Eye-Opening Lessons for Working (and Living) Adventurously” at http://apple. co/1UjgZeT, and I recommend that you do.
Patagonia’s ability to focus on sustainability while turning a profit is often cited, but that doesn’t dilute the fact that the brand’s strategy of thoughtful design for products and packaging works.
Sustainability isn’t solely for those living alternatively, and it’s not meant to be a pacifier to customers who want green products and packaging. Done whole-heartedly and with honesty, it is fulfilling to both brands and customers and gives your brand the kind of purpose and fire that makes it stand out and last. The trouble, says Ridgeway, is that brands exist to make things for consumption. However, considered design can lessen products’ and packaging’s impact on the environment, and create brand evangelists at the same time.
“Our definition of sustainability is that the manufacturing of consumer goods causes harm,” says Ridgeway. “There’s no way around that. Making stuff is going to have an impact. The mission, in addition to being a tool for environmental protection, is also to make the best product we can, and to make that product with no unnecessary harm, either to society or to the environment.”
He gives the example of the water-repellant coating for Patagonia’s raincoats: The coating that best performs isn’t the coating that does the least amount of harm to the environment. The brand had to weigh its choices and came to the conclusion that frequently disposing less functional raincoats is worse than making a long- lifecycle raincoat that will keep you dry for ten years.
In a world used to companies putting out low-quality products and finding out shifty truths from brands later, that transparency and design mindset has made Patagonia a favorite brand for many people.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN
We are going to create waste in our industry, and disposability will always be with us as consumers, no doubt about it. But are you designing products that benefit the customer and packaging that solves a need? Is your brand helping people break out of their throwaway lifestyles and lack of loyalty through thoughtful design?
Richards offers up advice to guide you in the process: “Back in my early days of being baptized in the P&G world of design, there were three simple questions being asked of any initiative: Who am I? What am I? Why am I right for you? This was a revelation to me at the time, and it was easy to understand and navigate in conjunction to a deep and meaningful brief. It was a simple road map. However, I always thought to myself, what next? What about the other three questions beyond these thought starters: Where am I? When do you use me? How do you use me? Now we are getting somewhere!”
Instead of flooding the market with substandard designs or products, take time to scale back and examine your brand principles and your work as marketers and designers. Then begin looking forward and creating in a way that makes a difference in the industry and the world.