The Impact of Crisis on Package Design

A Moment of Reflection

It is often said that in a time of crisis that private labels increase their share of the market, and whilst this is indeed true, in fact, as we look back over the last 40 years, we see that private labels have continued to capture a growing market share, year after year,

crisis or no crisis!

So in the world of brands and packaging, the real effect of a crisis lays not in the encroachment of Private Labels, but in changing attitudes of the consumers themselves. When uncertainty occurs, consumers call into question the value they receive from brands and question the cost they have to pay.

Consumer values change in a time of crisis, when ‘staying-in’ becomes the new ‘going out’, when ‘mend and make-do’ replaces the excesses of consumerism. This creates a new definition of value, which polarises attitudes, driving consumers to trade up in emotional meaningful categories and trade down in essentials or less meaningful categories.

If brands are to rise above this purely rational consumer attitude, they will need to offer real differentiation combined with meaning and relevance to their consumers’ lifestyle needs. This means paying close attention to rituals and desires and creating a brand experience that eclipses rational decision-making and instead builds on a brand’s equities and enhances consumer’s trust. It also means having great respect for the relationship that exists between the consumer and a brand; this is no time to start throwing away the visual equities that offer reassurance and foster trust.

Brands that ignore their consumers and do not pay attention to this consumer relationship will pay dearly for their ineptitude, as we have seen recently with Tropicana and now Gap, who abandoned their equities and product promise in their packaging and with it, all notions of differentiation, resulting in the seeming loss of consumer trust and a branding disaster.

Sustainable and Honest

The reasoning behind the movement towards dressing-down or almost un-branding seems clear, this movement looks to the days of the Great Depression, when it seemed un-fitting to have design that was too complex or extravagant and complicated when austerity reigned so cruelly. Clearly, the lure of those great iconic designs like Raymond Lowy’s Lucky Strike with its ‘stripped back to the basics’ direct simplicity are hard to resist.

What the movement forgets, is that this is no longer the 1930’s, today consumer’s are much more marketing savvy, consumers are used to the three tier offers of the retailer (premium – mainstream – discount), and by adopting this, ’stripped back’ style, which is now the visual language of the discount brand, they are throwing away equity and ignoring a relationship that has taken years to establish. Such simplistic visual cues are not the territory of the brand.  Brands today need to justify their price premium by offering, quality, differentiation and added value both perceived and real.

Whilst consumers are looking for reassurance and added value in their brands, they are equally looking for honesty. This is why it’s becoming increasingly important to offer packaging that is environmentally sound, physical packaging that is itself, ‘stripped back to the basics’ and is re-usable and/or recyclable. Consumers see the environmental problem as vast, and feel impotent and unable to act, whilst many consumers will fall into the SWET (shopper with ethics) category, the majority feel they don’t have enough information about brands and packaging to make a decision. So by building in environmental and sustainable elements into packaging and communicating these to consumers, brands will enable consumers to ‘take part’ and contribute. Consumers will choose and support such brands who are making an effort to be more sustainable.

Co- Creation

Getting consumers to ‘take part’ has been around in product design for some time now, today we give this method a new name, ‘Co-Creation’, or consumer inspired design. There is no doubt that working with the consumer to develop a different perspective for a brand can bring forward new and innovative ideas, for example; Lego Factory, where you can download digital designer software and design your own models. (http://designbyme.lego.com).

The idea of listening to consumers seems obvious and simple, but whilst new ideas can be developed in this way, we must remain aware that ‘the consumer doesn’t know what the consumer doesn’t know’. The real benefits of co-creation are that it offers an opportunity to have a view into consumer’s thoughts and desires and to discover the needs that they don’t even know they have yet. Most of all, it develops a brand’s relationship with their consumers by making them feel like they are part of the process and part of the solution and therefore connected to the brand.

The real impact of the crisis on package design is that it offers opportunities for brands to stand back and assess who they are, to create a dialogue with their consumers and to hone their offer to meet the needs of the new market that will emerge as the recession subsides. This is no time to simply sit back and wait to see what will happen.

Rowland Heming -Design Board – 2010©

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