How brands speak through package design

27 April 2018



When it comes to creating striking packaging, nothing comes down to chance. From shape and texture to colour and imagery, every element is an opportunity to communicate with consumers, and the combination of modern technologies and marketing intelligence are helping brands speak to a wider range of people. Ceri Jones learns about the latest developments in the field.


Packaging design is an art form. But unlike art for its own sake, the need to inform, entice and drive a sale forges strong links between creativity and social science. As the first step in a conversation, a drink’s exterior must be immediately recognisable. Or, if it’s a new product, it must tell busy shoppers what it has to offer. And the growing dependence on e-commerce means that packaging is no longer just the product’s tangible design, but also its complete identity.

“My best advice for anyone starting up is: your brand is key,” says Paul Taylor, chief creative officer at packaging design firm Brand Opus. “A successful piece of brand design is something that catches your attention, makes you look twice and then makes you think. It has that sense of intrigue and it doesn’t necessarily lay itself out, but it gives you enough clues to allow you to engage in an idea that’s over and above the product itself.

“There was once a time where just standing out on the shelf was good enough. I think it’s a mistake a lot of people still make today, to focus on the product and telling a very literal story about their product, as opposed to focusing on their brand. In the majority of cases, a brand will seek a redesign because it needs to shift the perceptions of the audience and create more engagement, in order to grow without losing the existing consumer base. The art is to identify what drives recognition of the brand while introducing a new narrative that changes the way people think and respond to the brand – but avoid the trap of being restricted by how the existing design looks.”

Back to the roots

“Take the Carling redesign as an example,” says Taylor. “We used semiotics to understand the way the [brand’s] current identity was coding to people. Through that, we identified that there had been a conscious strategy to try and shift Carling to a more premium state. And it was clear from the semiotics that the visual identity created to do that was actually coding negative perceptions with consumers.

“The conclusion was that Carling had, over time, lost its symbolism and the iconography that drove its recognition. So the decision to bring the label back as an icon, to reinvent it for a new generation, was the secret to the success of that design.”

The brand was originally named Carling Black Label, but shed this tag to add a premium feel. According to Brand Opus, restoring the black label – and not actually adding text to it as before – helped bring to mind the original name of the lager, and therefore the point of recognition for older consumers, while connecting with new audiences. And the addition of the date and location of the company’s foundation provided the provenance and heritage the brand was seeking, while also reaffirming its mainstream UK market position.

Like Carling, the IRN BRU family of soft drinks underwent a highly successful transformation ahead of the launch of its newest permanent drink variation in the summer of 2016. The multi-award-winning design of IRN BRU XTRA demonstrated the full force of beverage packaging influence. “IRN BRU Sugar Free is bought by, if anything, an older demographic, while IRN BRU XTRA is being bought by young, one to two-person household demographics,” explains Adrian Troy, head of marketing at AG Barr. “So it’s bringing a lot of new consumers to the brand. When we introduced the new design, it actually created the framework for XTRA, in terms of the consistency of the identity across the brand.”

Previously, IRN BRU and IRN BRU Sugar Free were individual brands and, therefore, inconsistent in their designs. One primary goal of the refresh was to unify the brand, making a single palette with a consistent use of images and colour.

“It’s essentially about creating a master brand identity and that was really one of the key reasons for the process – yes, it was about refreshing and modernising, but it was also about actually creating one brand identity that we could have the different variants to work within,” Troy explains. “For me, the best designs are the simplest designs, and most of this redesign was about stripping away the elements and creating a simpler, more singular identity.

“One of the things we wanted to do was effectively to create a ‘design language’, rather than a packaging identity. We were able to create a whole visual identity that doesn’t just live online at point of sale; it lives in a number of environments; for instance, in advertising.”

Even a quick glance at the new IRN BRU packaging design is enough to convey its strength. Ditching its former intricacies, the modern design employs bold, powerful colours with a single girder at the centre. “It’s all based on colour palettes,” says Troy. “The shape icon of the girder, the simplicity of the block typology of the IRN BRU word itself, then the last element, which is the strong man.”

This is the first time IRN BRU has actually used a girder on its packaging, in a reverse move to Carling’s Black Label. While everyone knows the old campaign slogan ‘made from girders’, which was used almost 40 years ago, an image of the girder has never featured before. This icon links back to the drink’s legacy while removing the need for text. Another subtle change is the removal of the parent company name – a deliberate decision that marries with Taylor’s opening advice.

“It’s simply time for IRN BRU, as a brand, to stand on its own,” says Troy. “The redesign has been a fundamental pillar of our development. The fact that it just created an identity that lives on-pack and off-pack, and is consistent across all the variants within the range, has been really key.”

Establishing an icon

While reining in a range of products is complex, developing an effective initial design is an equally sizeable challenge. As Troy and Taylor assert, it’s time for brands to take centre stage, but this can be more of a journey than a destination when dealing with a new drinks category. This was the case for JF Rabbit’s vegetable water – a novel soft drink offering a healthy alternative to plain or fruit waters.

After its successful launch, JF Rabbit contracted Brand Opus for a redesign. “It was a conscious decision, initially, to focus on the product proposition rather than focus on the brand,” Taylor explains. “The redesign shifts the strategy from a category-defining design to a brand-defining design.

“While the original design was trying to introduce the product into the category, what the new design is trying to carve out is the presence of the brand JF Rabbit. The shift has been to put more focus on the brand and to bring that to life.”

JF Rabbit’s vegetable water packaging is unrecognisable in its new incarnation. Now, the PET bottles have a plastic shrink-wrap cover giving the company name prominence, pastel colours that denote flavour, and the clever use of two stylised exclamation marks that suggest a rabbit’s face.

“Sometimes, if a design is too literal, it doesn’t make you think and engage,” Taylor says. “What we love about this new identity is that, while it is clearly a rabbit, there is other symbolism there that is open to interpretation. We wanted a colour to become a beacon for the brand, and the pastel tones chosen are distinctive and unique to JF Rabbit. So they act as a powerful part of the brand toolkit. The tones also help to evoke the healthy proposition and lightness of the product.”

Going further, it’s clear that structure, texture and finishes are useful tools for a visual point of difference, especially in the luxury category. Brand Opus recently designed the packaging for Belvedere’s new collection of single-estate rye Polish vodkas. Unlike the existing range, these specialist variants are set apart by smoked, coloured glass bottles with a square-base glass structure that morphs into a rounded top.

“It was challenging to design and produce,” says Taylor, “But it creates something unique that feels very much from the Belvedere family and establishes it as something new. The shorter neck implies that this is a pouring drink. It’s not a vodka that you mix to create cocktails: it’s designed to be sipped and experienced for the flavour of the vodka, signalling a point of difference with the core Belvedere range.

“You want people to get a sense that this is a different proposition from Belvedere. You need to move it to a space where it doesn’t just feel like a flavoured version of the standard vodka. The challenge for a brand like Belvedere, competing in that super-premium luxury space, is how they can continue to engage and develop new propositions and experiences.”

Also distinctive is the use of tasting notes on the front of the bottles, in the manner of a fine whisky.

“Sometimes, borrowing other codes from other categories can be a really helpful tool when you’re trying to reflect the way people perceive those products,” Taylor says. “People will recognise the brand, but there’s enough that’s ‘different’ there to get them to understand that this is a new proposition, and the codes that were introduced hopefully open up that world in a way that allows people to engage.”

Break the mould

On the opposite end of the scale, low-cost products produced by large companies can afford to be bold and innovative. Another essential ingredient for design is connection: offering a product with a brand culture that matches consumers’ interests helps turn ‘I want’ into ‘I need’.

A beverage standing out in this field is LIFEWTR by PepsiCo. Functional waters are one of the fastest-growing sectors in the soft drinks category, and LIFEWTR is premium bottled water that PepsiCo says is purified, pH balanced, and has added electrolytes for taste and rapid hydration. But this good thing comes in a very pretty package.

LIFEWTR bottles act as canvases displaying the work of emerging artists. Nondescript bottles put the dynamic art at centre stage, in a series of three designs that change every few months. The clear, pressure-sensitive BOPP labels ensure crisp, high-quality graphics, and a beautiful range of colour and textures.

“We believe the biggest equity of this brand is the label,” says Seth Kaufman, chief marketing officer at PepsiCo North America Beverages. “We think it’ll connect with consumers in a more inspirational way.”

LIFEWTR’s whole ethos centres on image, promoting the work of artists in fashion, photography and public art, as well as more traditional disciplines. It’s not about the plain water and the brand name is barely noticeable, putting the focus very much on the immediately engaging visuals.

Millennials are strongly driven by social media sharing and LIFEWTR is built on providing opportunities for this. The package is made to inspire and enables consumers to use the Shazam app to learn about the creators behind their favourite designs.

While Taylor believes that, today, a brand itself is the differentiator, encouraging consumers to commit to purchase, LIFEWTR turns this on its head with packaging designs that capture the whole ethos and spirit of the millennial culture, in a way that far outstrips the brand. As Brad Jakeman, president of PepsiCo’s Global Beverage Group, says, “Our LIFEWTR artists turn the traditional bottle label into a unique masterpiece that speaks to the creativity – and source of creation – and is linked to the brand’s core.”

Reviving its black label was part of a wider move to restore Carling’s visual identity.
IRN BRU’s redesign employs bold, powerful colours and incorporates an image of a girder.


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