Many of the products we are dropping into our shopping carts during the weekly grocery run have companioned us since our earliest childhood. Often, they go so far back that even our parents — sometimes grandparents — have trusted these brands and employed them as household staples: Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, A.1. Steak Sauce, Domino Sugar, Campbell Soup, Reese’s, Sabrett Hot Dogs, Cheerios, Snickers, Heinz Ketchup, Cheez-it crackers, and many more, of course. What many of them have in common is that their visual brand experience (most prominently reflected in their packaging design) has hardly changed since it first originated, often several decades ago. There seems to be a convincing reason for that: These brands represent lasting values; they convey to us the timeless qualities and benefits our parents and grandparents already valued about them. Many of them perform exceptionally well and continue to be leaders in their market. A major move away from those established formats and packaging designs that we have become so familiar with could permanently damage the trusted relationship. But, at the same time, individual brands and sometimes whole categories that were once beloved by a specific consumer segment become irrelevant as consumer behaviors evolve and demands change.


It’s a fine line, one that has to be constantly monitored and, more importantly, actively managed by the brand owners. Why? Because approaching the consumer with a brand image and message they perceive as being “yesterday” will imminently lead to a loss of interest, trust and love. Brands have to evolve from their legacy to ensure the long-lived attributes that differentiate them from competitors are complemented by current, critical purchase drivers.

Now, don’t get me wrong here, this is not about whether a current packaging design lives up to the latest design trends or aesthetic standards, or if it will win a celebrated design award within the design community. This is about bottom-line business realities. Great design is always driven by the desire to create solutions that are appropriate to a defined brand target audience, not by how aesthetically pleasing they are! Surprisingly, this becomes an even more pressing challenge the more mass appeal a product needs. Of course, most mass market products should look affordable and accessible rather than overly elaborate and exclusive. However, because reaching the broadest spectrum of customers is their goal, many mass consumer brands are mainly concerned about ensuring they don’t alienate anyone with their design and brand appeal. The result: They look generic, unrefined, unexciting and ultimately, unappealing. Instead, they should take a clear stance for something to ensure their core audiences love them passionately.

Kevin George, VP of deodorant and haircare at Unilever, summed this point up perfectly: “Either you stand for something, or you stand for nothing. A brand for everyone is a brand for no one.”

Iconic, classic brands are very much relying on the trust they have built over decades with generations of consumers. Changing or evolving their brand image may be seen as a dangerous move toward putting that trust at stake. Keeping things as they always have been appears to be the safer and more comfortable direction. But, in this day and age, brands are also facing drastically changing consumer behaviors. Millennials are no longer listening to their moms’ advice when it comes to deciding which products to purchase for the home and kitchen table. Through social media, reality TV and other nontraditional channels, they learn about latest trends and are much more open to connect with up-and-coming, local, small-batch brands that have a more unique brand vision and stand for something these audiences like to be associated with. For example, Diageo, the vast consumer goods company with world-famous drink brands such as Smirnoff and Captain Morgan, is feeling the pain across its broad portfolio now being crowded by small-batch liquors from all sides. Consumer loyalty is down and so are its sales.

A critical juncture will be knowing when the time is right to move from the emotions of austerity to new confidence, and when to stop looking back and start looking forward with curiosity, developing the evolved and new.

successfully evolving an iconic brand

When brand design and innovation firm Quantum Leap Creative redesigned the packaging of M&M’S (already a one billion dollar brand at the time), the biggest challenge was to maintain the familiar and beloved elements of the brand image while evolving the overall look to be bolder, fresher and more contemporary. The iconic look of the M&M’S logo stands for the legacy of the brand that has started to heavily expand into new product flavors, formats and brand extensions.

What emerged right away from the briefing discussion was the importance of the history of the brand, its longstanding pervasiveness. The challenge was how to maintain that essence and translate the brand story into a contemporary and engaging packaging design, looking towards the future.

The new packaging information architecture and art established a striking look for the brand, achieving a refreshed design by combining the successful and popular elements it already had in a new and more exciting way — nothing excessive, nothing out of-the-blue new. A big change that seems small in scope is sometimes the best approach for revitalizing a brand image, and M&M’S mastered that move. The fact that, for the most part, consumers didn’t acknowledge the significant change actually speaks for the strategic objective of the initiative: launching a revitalized packaging design that every consumer immediately would feel comfortable and familiar with. At the same time, the new brand look and feel built the foundation for exciting product initiatives that led to double-digit revenue growth shortly after its introduction.


Brands cannot afford to rest on past laurels and must strive to keep up with changing market dynamics and evolving consumer demands. In today’s world, where consumers can access an excessive amount of information anywhere at any time, brands won’t stay top of mind unless they are delivering a top-notch product and relevant brand experience. It is critical to keep a close eye on the competitive brandscape, particularly on startups that gain instant popularity following positive reviews on social media. With the percentage of brand-loyal consumers falling, the one thing brands cannot do is take their customers for granted.

  • Understanding the consumer is key. Decision-making and shopping behaviors have drastically changed over recent years. Understanding how that is affecting your brand is critical.
  • Clearly define what your brand stands for and what it believes in. Consumers are looking for brands they identify and share values with.
  • Introducing retro, vintage or throwback versions can be a powerful tool to ensure no one forgets about the longstanding history of your brand (i.e., General Mills offered cereals dressed in retro packaging, available exclusively at Target).
  • Keep your brand fresh and relevant by introducing special-edition packaging design related to current events, seasons, trends, etc. M&M’S and Coke are doing a great job here.
  • Introduce innovative, new packaging formats (supporting new usage occasions, for example) that become workhorses for driving revenue growth, and let the classic versions of the product continue to be a driver for the brand’s perception (i.e., while most restaurants continue to use the glass bottles, Heinz removed them from grocery stores decades ago in favor of squeezable plastic packaging).
  • Be aware that significantly changing long-established designs may compromise your ability to legally protect the intellectual brand properties that have earned consumer trust over decades.
  • Select your brand-building agencies based on how well they act on creating solutions that are appropriate, not just pretty!